How the Anti-Woke Campaign Against the U.S. Military Damages National Security
According to critics of the U.S. military, its civilian and military leaders are overly fixated on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the expense of the military’s warfighting mission and organizational well-being. These commentators and politicians accuse the military of everything from making servicemembers uncomfortable in the ranks by requiring their participation in diversity training to wasting time and money and damaging recruitment through those efforts. As Sen. Ted Cruz puts it, “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea” — a message he once tweeted alongside an image comparing a U.S. recruiting ad featuring a female soldier raised by two mothers with one lauding supposedly more masculine Russian soldiers doing push-ups and firing their weapons.
Anti-woke criticism of this kind has become a rallying cry of the American right, especially among those who use nationalism and appeals to a version of American nostalgia to unite a fervent base to “renew America.” The military has become a political football in this campaign. The term woke is now grounds for a grab-bag of complaints against it, including the Department of Defense’s climate initiatives and efforts to develop zero-emissions non-tactical vehicles, as well as the purported decline of masculinity and revamping of fitness standards in the ranks.
Critics frame these attacks with some truly remarkable rhetoric. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson has famously mocked the Air Force for providing maternity flight suits for pregnant personnel who seek to stay on the job. Sen. J.D. Vance has in turn complained that the military is ignoring important challenges like its adversaries’ development of hypersonic missiles because military leaders only care about diversity training. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has claimed that the Navy’s supposed obsession with pronouns means that “China is laughing at us.” A glossy brochure sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Chip Roy even singles out individual civilian and military officials by name as agents of some alleged woke indoctrination initiative within the military.
These attacks are doing serious damage to the U.S. military and, by extension, U.S. national security. They undermine the military’s internal cohesion, politicize oversight, and distract Congress and the American people from serious national security problems — all while addressing a problem that is poorly defined and mostly unsubstantiated. Those who have long seen these attacks for what they are — more performative partisanship than substantive critiques of real problems — should do more to counter them effectively.
In correcting the record, military leaders have a role to play in providing facts to the public and to their congressional overseers about the organization’s personnel policies. They should not shy away from providing that information while avoiding being baited into joining the partisan gamesmanship.
Even more vital, though, is the role of the military’s civilian leaders in countering the anti-woke camp. They are best positioned to explain to the American people the role of diversity initiatives and related policies, and to counter the flawed arguments and false claims circulating in right-wing rhetoric about personnel issues today. The public itself also needs to do more to scrutinize anti-woke claims about the military.
The Anti-Woke Critique
Anti-woke critics are quick to complain about the military, but the specifics of their critique are as murky as the actual definition of “woke.” Some highlight a handful of anonymous and unverified submissions to their websites or conversations with servicemembers reporting that racial or gender issues were discussed in their units in a manner they found offensive, such as someone commenting positively on the Black Lives Matter movement, or they point to the topics covered during the extremism stand-down that followed the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
At other times, self-described anti-woke activists allude to a misplaced organizational focus on diversity trainings or related initiatives, often claiming without much evidence that they are taking over the military. A recent Heritage Foundation publication, for example, contends that “[The Department of Defense] is promoting philosophies that are divisive, far out of the mainstream of American beliefs, and part of postmodernist theories’ school of thought.” The report’s authors claim that a survey of 301 active-duty military personnel shows that an “overemphasis” on diversity, equity, and inclusion is a dominant “area of concern for active military members.” Meanwhile, a former naval officer, who from 2007–2010 taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, claims that anti-bias and cultural awareness training has displaced other essential coursework at the academy, leaving midshipmen incapable of critical thinking and unprepared for their future jobs.
Even if anti-woke claims are taken at face value, the evidence does not support that there are widespread morale issues in the ranks. There is also scant evidence that supports the claim that intellectual blinders are resulting from diversity training, or that this training is crowding out other priorities. As the sergeant major of the U.S. Army, Michael Grinston, stated in recent congressional testimony: “When I looked at it, there is one hour of equal opportunity training in basic training, and 92 hours of rifle marksmanship training.” He then added, “And if you go to [One Station Unit Training], there is 165 hours of rifle marksmanship training and still only one hour of equal opportunity training.”
As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger noted last December with respect to servicemembers’ concerns about wokeism in the enlisted ranks, “I don’t see it. I don’t hear it. They’re not talking about it. It’s not a factor for them at all.” Other servicemembers have since echoed that sentiment. It also seems unlikely that the Marine Corps would have exceeded its retention goals this year if this were a concern, as the commandant recently noted. That the Army too surpassed its retention goals belies an argument that diversity training is somehow deterring people from serving.
Nor does the now pervasive claim that diversity and inclusion efforts are a major cause of the services’ recruiting challenges match the evidence. As Maj. Gen. Jonny Davis, the commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, recently put it, “While there are many things that prevent young Americans from enlisting in the military, including a lack of awareness about military life in general, ‘wokeism’ is not one of them.” Army surveys of young Americans’ attitudes back that up. The surveys reveal broad misconceptions within Generation Z about the military, such as that most jobs in the Army involve combat, and a lack of knowledge about the benefits of military service. There are at the same time obvious alternative explanations for today’s recruitment shortfalls, not least an economy with low unemployment and a shrinking pool of Americans fit to serve.
As a recent analysis notes, “By the raw numbers, there have been over four times more articles, op-eds, cable news interviews, think tank reports, and angry web posts on the issue of wokeness deterring service (87,000 at last count) than the actual number of recruits in the gap.”
To the extent some small number of potential recruits are nonetheless deterred from serving, this may be more due to false perceptions created by anti-woke rhetoric about the climate in the military, as due to any actual widespread problem to that effect. The anti-woke campaign may be generating its own self-fulfilling recruiting challenge.
Beyond recruitment, the anti-woke cause could damage the military in other ways, potentially by undermining the military’s cohesion.
Maintaining a cohesive military is a building block of an effective armed force. When militaries are riddled with mistrust and perceptions of social disparities, research shows that they perform poorly on the battlefield. Sociologists have demonstrated that on the tactical level, small-unit bonds are a key ingredient of an effective military. More recent research supports that cohesive teams in the military are better capable of unity of effort and maximizing individual performance. More broadly, where divisions arise between military leaders and the personnel who they command, the capacity of that military to execute on the battlefield suffers. In the worst cases, it can yield acts of insubordination, as we have seen most recently in the Russian military.
Armed forces in democratic countries often have the advantage of being able to build cohesive militaries. Unlike autocracies, leaders in democratic militaries do not need to worry about military conspiracies from below and therefore face fewer risks in ceding initiative to junior officers and to fostering small-unit bonds. In the U.S. military, for example, doctrinal concepts such as mission command rely on a foundation of trust and resilience in the chain of command.
Yet, while democracies have advantages, they are not immune to divisiveness in the ranks. This is currently playing out in the Israeli military. It is also a lesson that the U.S. military learned as well in the Vietnam War when political divisions over that conflict at home, combined with racial strife and other problems in the ranks, undermined cohesion.
Today, the anti-woke agenda has the potential to undercut the military’s unity. Rather than merely arguing with other politicians, anti-woke actors are injecting partisanship into the military. To be sure, politicization of the military by civilians is nothing new. Over the last few decades there have been numerous instances in which politicians have used the military either to shield themselves from blame or as a prop to promote their priorities or leadership. But whereas once politicians tried to play off the military’s status to enhance their positions or public stature, anti-woke politicians today are criticizing or undermining it to achieve the same goal.
The problem is also worsened by the tendency of anti-woke politicians to single out for criticism the senior military leadership. Before he lost his bid for a Senate seat in Arizona, for example, Blake Masters called for firing all the country’s generals and replacing them with “conservative colonels.” Vance has also singled out generals as complicit in a woke agenda against the military. Carlson has stooped to calling the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley “a pig” and “stupid.” Former President Donald Trump has reportedly called the country’s generals “a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The suggestion that military leaders are agents of some conspiracy to indoctrinate the troops, and do not care about readiness or training, is similarly corrosive to trust and confidence in the chain of command. The anti-woke agenda thereby risks undermining the cohesive teams that are a hallmark of the U.S. military.
Anti-woke champions also do not give much credit to the troops they say they are defending. They often decry diversity training in part because they equate it with efforts to make white people feel guilty or dislike the United States, or because it at times may allude to past and present racial and gender disparities in society. In so doing they often misconstrue the content and intent of the initiatives, rather than seeing them as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it in June 2020, as growing from a commitment to meritocracy and out of a recognition that “as a military, we succeed by working together, hand in hand, side by side.”
Critics counter that diversity training instead undermines cohesion by unnecessarily drawing attention to differences among servicemembers — but that argument ignores that those differences often exist regardless and that actively trying to bridge any divides that individuals carry with them from civilian society promotes, rather than detracts from, shared bonds within a unit.
Seen in this light, the anti-woke campaign actually poses a two-sided threat to unity within the ranks. On the one hand, critics’ divisive rhetoric can split officers from enlisted personnel and polarize the enlisted ranks internally. On the other, if critics succeed in purging the military of diversity and related training, it might be harder for units comprised of servicemembers with varied backgrounds to work together.
The anti-woke campaign also erodes the fundamental, if more mundane, foundations of civil-military relations in the United States. In particular, it undermines civilian control and especially the essential oversight role played by members of Congress and the public at large. To start, it absorbs time and resources that might be better devoted to problems that are demonstrably of concern to Congress, including the challenges of peer competition in the international arena.
Take, for example, the recent creation of a new subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that focuses on “quality of life” concerns in the military. This might seem unremarkable, except, as recently noted by an analyst of military personnel policy, there already exists a Military Personnel subcommittee that is responsible for quality of life and related issues. The latter’s committee head, Rep. Jim Banks, though, is a self-described leader of the “anti-woke caucus.” He aims to focus his efforts in Congress on rooting out the government’s supposed role in “inducing self-hatred through indoctrination, stripping away [the oppressor’s] rights by not enforcing the laws on their behalf, public humiliation, hatred, expropriation, and ultimately violence.” This approach underscores why there is a need for a new subcommittee to deal with substantive personnel issues under Congress’ purview.
This politicization erodes norms of congressional oversight. It encourages members to scrutinize military activity when there is some partisan angle to be had and to pay less attention when there are few political benefits from doing so. At the same time, the anti-woke campaign potentially makes it harder for politicians to ask good faith questions critical of personnel policy or the U.S. military. This undermines Congress’ essential oversight function. While the bulk of oversight continues with little fanfare, these dynamics are not helpful to the job that members of Congress do.
The anti-woke campaign also distracts the military and absorbs precious time and resources from other priorities. When senior military officers or enlisted are called upon to testify in Congress they must be ready to answer many questions, ranging from the alleged effects of wokeism on force readiness to cultural dynamics within the military. Their staffs must also field calls and deal with any number of inquiries from Congress and negative press about the military’s allegedly woke policies, which distract from serious issues that senior leaders have to grapple with on a day-to-day basis.
Finally, all of this circles back around to the public’s relationship to the military, which many observers agree could be healthier. Research shows that the public seems to have little understanding of the conventions of civilian control of the military, or of its nonpartisan status. Perhaps this is unsurprising as civil-military relations is not a common topic in high school civics education, or in higher education. But that lack of awareness of foundational principles means that what the public knows about the military is primarily what they see in curated news commentary or in short snippets in social media feeds. Given the inflammatory rhetoric of the anti-wokeness critics and their widespread coverage, especially in sympathetic news and opinion outlets, the public may come to believe that that the Department of Defense’s leadership is compromising the organizational health of the military, despite the dearth of evidence to support that claim.
What Is to Be Done?
As with most questions of civil-military relations, the military, civilian leadership, and the public can all play a role in ensuring a healthier discussion about the U.S. armed forces and its personnel policies.
For the military, dealing with anti-woke politicians might at first glance seem like a classic no-win situation. If they say nothing when critics attack the institution for its alleged fixation with diversity in the ranks, it enables those claims to fester. At the same time, speaking out also risks feeding the beast. Nevertheless, as we have seen in recent testimony by senior enlisted members or in public commentary by military leaders, it is appropriate for senior leaders to provide the facts and to be as forthcoming as possible when answering questions. At the same time, coming across as overly solicitous of politicians belaboring the anti-woke critique is to be avoided. One should not confuse responding judiciously and forthrightly to critics with seeking to mollify or appease them.
Civilian political leaders and policymakers are much better positioned to fend off unsubstantiated claims that the Department of Defense is so absorbed in diversity and inclusion initiatives that it is neglecting other priorities. That includes marshaling facts that make the case for such initiatives. After all, while critics claim that diversity efforts are alienating people from joining the military, one might ask: Who exactly are they alienating? According to Pew polling from 2017, nearly 43 percent of servicemembers identify with one or another minority group in society.
Despite this diversity though, the presence of minority groups in the military’s senior levels remains limited. While black Americans are overrepresented in the Army’s enlisted ranks, they comprise only 6.5 percent of the service’s general officers and most serve at the one- and two-star level. And while there are some outstanding female leaders in the military’s senior ranks, women overall remain underrepresented at the top. Beyond that, according to Department of Defense figures, across all the services in 2021, women made up just 17.3 percent of the active-duty force.
One thing civilian policymakers therefore should not do is signal a willingness to abandon proven and effective cultural awareness training and other diversity initiatives merely to appease critics. In particular, they should not abandon them out of some misguided notion that it will improve recruitment: There are numerous other options that would better serve that purpose. Indeed, eliminating tools that enable leaders to manage diverse teams could cause significant damage to morale and cohesion.
Finally, the public’s role in countering the false claims of anti-woke actors is straightforward, if more easily recognized than achieved: Rather than get caught up in hyperbole, Americans should listen for the facts. Public scrutiny and skepticism are arguably the best antidote to the anti-woke campaign against the U.S. military.
Risa Brooks is Allis Chalmers Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.
Image: Wikimedia Commons