When top Pentagon leaders face lawmakers this week to defend their budget proposal, they expect a small but vocal minority of Republicans to hammer them with accusations that military leadership is weakening the armed forces by imposing “woke” policies on troops.
Since President Joe Biden took office, conservative lawmakers have teed up tense exchanges with Pentagon leaders in moments tailor-made for YouTube. But this year, Republicans control the House, meaning those mid-hearing dustups will take center stage, and in some cases will be led by a committee chair.
So DoD leaders plan to show up armed with what they believe will be a winning strategy: facts.
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley “is an information guy, so he has binders and binders full of information about how the military trains and prepares for combat,” said his spokesperson, Col. David Butler. “Wokeness doesn’t fit into that equation. Working together as a fighting unit regardless of your race, color or gender does.”
“Woke” is a catchall term that in this instance refers to DoD personnel policies deemed by some conservatives as pushing a liberal agenda at the expense of readiness, such as diversity training, racial justice education, and a concern for climate change’s role in damage to military infrastructure and fomenting extremism throughout the world.
Specifically, GOP lawmakers have pointed to the Army’s recruiting campaigns highlighting diversity in the force, as well as a 2021 Pentagon directive for leaders to discuss extremism in the ranks. But the Pentagon has argued that the services’ continuing recruiting woes are due primarily to the strong civilian job market and widening societal divides, and that diversity and extremism training takes up a tiny amount of troops’ time.
While several hearings are planned, the main event happens Thursday when Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testify before the House Defense Appropriations panel, their first appearance on Capitol Hill this year to make the case for the administration’s Pentagon budget.
Milley, in particular, has been a lightning rod for these attacks. The general, who is slated to retire Oct. 1, made headlines in 2021 for his fiery defense of open-mindedness in the ranks during a House Armed Services hearing, saying he found the accusations “offensive.”
And the chair expects more to come this year. According to Butler, Milley preps for budget season by sitting around a table answering practice questions from his spokesperson, his legislative affairs team and occasionally a Joint Staff director. The sessions focus on questions they expect lawmakers to have about the budget proposal, but occasionally the team will throw him a “wokeness” question. Milley relies heavily on a set of red binders, several inches thick, containing a vast amount of information about DoD readiness, training and programs.
“He doesn’t plan to take any grief from anybody,” said one former senior Defense Department official close to the process, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal discussions.
Austin, meanwhile, also had some harsh words for the “wokeness” squad during last year’s budget season. During an exchange in which Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) berated the former four-star general for allowing the Pentagon to “embrace socialism” and “do mandatory pronoun training,” Austin shot back: “I’m sorry you are embarrassed by your country.”
Leaders of the military branches are also preparing to use data to combat congressional criticism on the issue. In detailed talking points for a recent media event, obtained by POLITICO, “wokeness” was the first bullet — and a lengthy section — under a list of the Army secretary’s priority topics.
“The Army’s mission remains to fight and win the nation’s wars. At the end of the day, to accomplish our mission we must build cohesive teams founded on respect and acceptance,” the talking points state. “Nothing in the Army’s personnel policies … are implemented to detract from that mission. Data does not support such claims.”
Research conducted on behalf of the Army by an unnamed advertising agency found that “wokeness” is not a significant detractor for potential recruits to join the service, according to the talking points. The study found that “wokeness” is cited by only 5 percent of prospective recruits as a reason to not join the military. Instead, the research shows that top barriers to joining the Army are concerns about putting life “on hold,” death, injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional stressors.
The talking points cite other factors as contributing to recruiting challenges, including the strong economy, trust and culture gaps, as well as pandemic-related disruptions to recruiting efforts and declines in academic and physical fitness among young people.
“Our recruiting challenges are not new and are not a result of a ‘woke’ agenda,” the talking points state.
Similarly, the Navy is turning to data to objectively determine potential barriers to entry and agrees that appealing to members of all communities increases the Navy’s chances of bringing in America’s best, according to Navy spokesperson Lt. Alyson Hands.
Meanwhile, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown said airmen need to feel they are members of a service that cares about them.
“What I will tell you is when people join our military, they want to look around and see somebody who looks like them. They want to be part of a team [and] feel like they’re included,” Brown said in an interview with Defense One. “They don’t want to join something that they feel like you’re put as an outcast.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said if there were concerns about progressive policies, Marines would leave the service.
“Retention last year exceeded our goals this year, way in front of last year, so just the opposite has happened. People want to stay in the Marine Corps, so I don’t see any evidence of that,” Berger told Defense One.
In addition to the usual budget hearings, a House Armed Services Personnel subcommittee hearing on Thursday is specifically dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion policies and training. During the event, lawmakers will square off with Pentagon personnel chief Gil Cisneros and personnel officials from the services.
Now under Republican leadership, the panel will use its oversight power to probe a variety of Pentagon personnel policies conservatives contend are distracting from the military’s main mission and contributing to a recruiting crisis. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who chairs the subcommittee and is a candidate for Indiana’s open Senate seat, said he took the post in part to focus on “wokeism” in the military.
“The big picture is the military should be focused on preparing and training us for war with our enemies and preparing our troops,” Banks said. “Our military should be projecting strength, not weakness, and the military shouldn’t be a social or ideological experiment brought about by policies from the Biden administration.”
Republicans are also likely to force the issue at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, where the No. 2 civilian leaders in each of the services will testify on recruiting challenges each military branch faces.
Beyond Thursday, conservatives will almost certainly grill Austin and Milley when they appear at the Armed Services Committee in the coming weeks, setting up a repeat of their past confrontations with lawmakers.
“The full committee is going to dive into it too, inevitably when the secretary and chairman come before the committee,” Banks said. “I guarantee this will be a sharp focus from Republican members as concerns about wokeism in the military continue to grow.”
Senior enlisted military leaders have also started pushing back more forcefully against the claims — once again, with the facts. In one exchange, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) during a March 9 hearing that his comments were politicizing the military. In a separate exchange with Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), Grinston also pointed out that only a fraction of the hours the military spends on training are devoted to equal opportunity training.
“When I looked at it, there is one hour of equal opportunity training in basic training, and 92 hours of rifle marksmanship training,” Grinston said. “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.”
At another point, Mills pressed leaders on “pronoun training” in the services and said what he called “woke ideology” was negatively impacting recruitment. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant JoAnne Bass responded that the Air Force “does not have pronoun training.”
“Where we could use your help is by sharing that message that your services are not focused on any of those such training more than we are on warfighting,” Bass said. “That is a fact,” she added, “I can assure you of that.”
The top Democrat on the Armed Services Personnel panel, Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, meanwhile, called the push a distraction from a variety of pressing issues for troops.
“Of all the issues that we hear from service members from mental health and suicide and challenges with their family, the fact that the first two topical hearings are about the Covid-19 vaccine mandate that no longer is in existence and then DEI, it just sends the wrong signals,” said Kim, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion. “This is a committee that could absolutely be the exemplar of bipartisanship and getting things done in a divided government.”
“I hope that we can still move in that direction,” he said. “But just kind of immediately coming out of the gate on these issues that are very well known to be divisive, it just sends the wrong tone.”