The military’s top officer on Wednesday pushed back against GOP lawmakers who said the Pentagon’s efforts to combat racism and promote diversity have made the armed forces too “woke.”
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley gave a fiery defense of open-mindedness in the ranks during a House Armed Services hearing, saying he’s offended at the accusation that those efforts have undercut the military’s mission and cohesiveness.
Milley, who was testifying alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a hearing on the defense budget, was responding to a pair of Republican lawmakers arguing the Pentagon had embraced critical race theory, such as its inclusion in some courses at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military … of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Milley said.
The four-star general told lawmakers that service members should be “open-minded and be widely read” because service members “come from the American people” and said he wanted to better understand racism as well as the climate that led to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“I want to understand white rage — and I’m white,” Milley told lawmakers “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?
“I’ve read Mao Tse Tung. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,” Milley continued. “So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
Milley’s comments are some of the most pointed in defense of the military, which has come under heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers and right-wing personalities for what they argue is leadership being “woke” and aiming political bias against conservatives at the expense of defending the U.S.
Milley’s riff followed several testy exchanges on the Pentagon’s diversity and anti-extremism efforts.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Army Green Beret, raised the incorporation of critical race theory at West Point, including a course that includes the theory in its syllabus.
“This isn’t something that we’re raising,” Waltz said during the hearing. “This came to me from cadets, from families, from soldiers with their alarm and their concern at how divisive this type of teaching is that is rooted in Marxism, that classifies people along class lines, an entire race of people as oppressor and oppressed.”
Earlier in the hearing, Austin tangled with another Florida Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz, who objected to Austin’s order for a military-wide stand down, where units took a day out of their normal duties to discuss extremism in the military.
Gaetz claimed opposition to the stand down is “the No. 1 issue” raised in his conversations with troops.
“Thanks for your anecdotal input,” Austin shot back. “But I would say that I have gotten 10 times that amount of input, 50 times that amount of input, on the other side that has said, ‘Hey, we’re glad to have had the ability to have a conversation with ourselves and with our leadership.'”
Gaetz suggested that Austin’s inner circle may be telling the Pentagon chief what he wants to hear rather than giving an honest assessment of military morale.
“It may be that you’re receiving that input in the ratios you describe because it was your directive,” Gaetz said. “It may be that people are concerned about criticizing your decision.”
Gaetz also accused Austin’s senior adviser on diversity issues, Bishop Garrison, of being a “critical race theorist” and cited past tweets. The defense secretary responded that Gaetz’s questioning was the first time he’d heard Garrison described as a subscriber to critical race theory.
“We do not teach critical race theory. We don’t embrace critical race theory, and I think that’s a spurious conversation” Austin told Gaetz. “We are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology, not people’s thoughts, not people’s political orientation.”