The Army has recently come under attack by congressional Republicans for committing the crime of being too “woke.” The prosecution’s exhibit A, waved at a House hearing last week, is a course taught at West Point—the Army’s military academy—called “The Politics of Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality.” Also noted, in ominous tones, was a recent daylong stand-down of all Army personnel to discuss white supremacy and extremism within the ranks.
Is this, critics on Capitol Hill and Fox News have asked, what our fighting men and women should be thinking about? If they’re taught about racial disparities, won’t they cease to regard one another as equals on the battlefield?
Here are some important facts to keep in mind. First, West Point has had a social science department since just after World War II, when senior Army officers realized that military leaders would have to know more about politics, society, and history to function in an expansive, democratic America. Requiring cadets to take some social sciences courses, and even creating a “Sosh” major, did not detract from their military drills and training.
Second, the course at West Point on race, gender, class, and sexuality was created and incorporated into the curriculum in 1999—long before “woke” or “critical race theory” became buzzwords. It was proposed and designed by a professor of foreign policy at the time, Maj. Isaiah Wilson, who went on to rank first in his class at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, was hired by Gen. David Petraeus to be his chief of plans during the Iraq war, and is now president of the Joint Special Operations University. In other words, he’s no softie. The professor teaching the course now, a civilian named Rachel Yon, took it over from Wilson in 2012—again, predating the kerfuffle over wokeness and CRT. (Yon was one of Wilson’s professors at West Point when he was a student in the ’90s; in other words, she’s not a fashionable hire.)
Third, Wilson thought it was important to teach such a class at West Point because, like many American institutions, the Army has never been a mainstay of racial or gender equality—and, as more Blacks and women rose through the ranks, the presence of prejudice was emerging as an issue, so the rank and file should at least be aware of it. (Wilson himself is African American.)
Nor has the issue vanished in the last 22 years. Senior officers have recently expressed alarm over the finding that many members of white-supremacist militias were once (or still are) in the armed forces. In response, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appointed a commission to explore how to root out extremism. The daylong shutdown to discuss the problem—which critics have also complained about—was part of the campaign.
A pivotal shift in the open acknowledgment of the problem—and even of a systematic racial bias within the Army and within West Point—came just last year, during the protests over the police murder of George Floyd. These protests coincided with a bourgeoning movement to change the names of 10 Army bases, all in southern states, that bore the names of slaveholding Confederate generals.
In an article in the Atlantic almost exactly a year ago, Petraeus wrote that, in his years as an active-duty officer, often stationed at those bases,
I never thought much about these men—about the nature of their service during the Civil War. Nor did I think about the message those names sent to the many African Americans serving on these installations—messages that should have been noted by all of us.
Nor, when he was a cadet and later a professor at West Point, did Petraeus question the veneration on display toward Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was a great commander but also—like all the other Confederate officers—guilty of treason. “We were not encouraged to think about the cause for which” Lee had fought, he wrote, “at least not in our military history classes.”
Petraeus told me that it was only after he retired from the Army, in 2011, that he “started thinking about how strange it was that the leaders of the fight against the Union were more widely honored—with their names on federal forts, roads, barracks, gates, housing areas, etc.—than were those who fought for the country.” These thoughts deepened as he read several biographies of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army commander and later two-term president, who was honored hardly at all either at West Point or at Army bases. Petraeus said that he had “been mulling for some time” that the Army should publicly address this dishonor. “The events of recent weeks,” he said, referring to the Floyd murder and the subsequent protests, “were the catalyst” to writing his Atlantic essay.
That brings us to Secretary Austin and to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were both slammed by congressional Republicans at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week. Florida Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz, the latter a former Army Green Beret, led the charge, citing cadets and their parents who were disturbed by the stand-down to discuss extremism and the divisiveness of classes on race.
“Thanks for your anecdotal input,” Austin replied. “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.’”
Milley dug in deeper. “I want to understand white rage—and I’m white,” he said. “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 Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country which we are here to defend?”
A few things are worth noting here, as well.
First, nether Austin nor Milley would like to be dealing with these sorts of issues. Both have commanded troops in battle. (Austin is a retired four-star Army general.) Milley graduated from Princeton and holds an M.A. in international relations from Columbia, but, a retired officer who knows him told me, “he likes to portray himself as a guy who got to Princeton by being a hockey player and proceeded to be part of the bottom half of the class that helped the top half achieve what they did.” Still, they see that race and gender are not merely social issues but national-security issues and that dealing with these thorny problems is part of their jobs.
Second, their critics, most of whom had never heard of critical race theory a year ago and couldn’t define it now, are simply using the debate as a way to score points against Democrats—and, in some cases, to shove race, including suppression of Black voters in elections, off the table as a valid issue.
However, third, the critics do have a point. In various institutions, CRT has been distorted beyond all recognition by both sides of the debate; race as a determinative issue has been overstated and has sharpened social tensions. One retired senior Army officer, who asked not to be identified, not wanting to become a part of this debate, told me,
As a general proposition, I am concerned that, over the years, the military has devoted an inordinate amount of time/attention to social issues of the day and a variety of topics not related to preparation for operations. That said, if we screw up these issues—as we have from time to time—then the aftermath can distract enormously as well… So, it’s tough to get the right balance.
It would be good to have a substantive debate on this issue, but that’s become hard, if not impossible, now that it’s devolved into a tool of partisan warfare.
Milley and other officers like him have been trained to avoid partisan fights for as long as they’re in uniform (and even beyond). But they’re not the ones who are indulging in politics. They know the history. In the late 1940s, racial integration of the troops was denounced by many as turning the military into a social experiment, to the detriment of national security. In more recent years, similar objections have been filed against letting women and openly declared gays join the military. In all these cases, the flaps have passed; the inclusion of the once-excluded has become normal—and the nation is still secure (or, to the extent it isn’t, our lapses have nothing to do with the presence of Black or gay servicemen and servicewomen).
Milley has his own experience in political exploitation. Last July, he followed President Trump from the White House to Lafayette Square, not knowing that he was being used in a photo-op to legitimize the tear-gassing of protesters just minutes earlier. He soon apologized for his presence and gradually began moving away from Trump’s orbit, taking his duties as an independent military adviser more properly. The whole incident has no doubt shaped his actions since—and led him to shed any shyness in firing back at politically motivated attacks from congressmen.
There is another bit of history that the congressional Republicans should keep in mind. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade collapsed when he went a bridge too far and accused several Army war heroes of Red treason. In 1954, the defense lawyer for one of the accused soldiers, finally said from the witness stand, “Senator, may we not drop this?… Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Not long after, McCarthy was censured by his once-cowed Senate colleagues.
Today’s congress has long abandoned a great deal of decency on many grounds. Nor do military officers enjoy the same presumptive respect that they once did, in part perhaps because fewer members of Congress—fewer Americans generally—have ever served. (Donald Trump not only suffered no political damage, but still won the election, after deriding John McCain’s record as a war hero.) Still, there probably are limits to how far Republicans can go in yelling at decorated generals, or using the military as a prop in their attacks on Democrats. Those limits probably haven’t yet been reached; there’s more shouting to come.