What Critics of the 'Woke' Army Don't Understand

Recently, the Army was attacked by congressional Republicans for being too woke.Fox News and Capitol Hill critics have asked: What should our combat soldiers and women be thinking about? They will cease to consider each other equals when they are taught about racial differences.AdvertisementThese are important facts to remember. Since shortly after World War II, West Point has maintained a social science department. This was because senior Army officers realized that to be able to lead in a democratic America, military leaders needed to have a better understanding of politics, history, and society. The fact that cadets were required to take social sciences courses and even created a Sosh major did not affect their military drills or training.AdvertisementAdvertisementSecond, in 1999, West Point created and integrated a course on race, gender and class. This was long before critical race theory or woke became fad words. It was created by Maj. Isaiah Wilson (a professor of foreign policies at the time), who was appointed by Gen. David Petraeus as his chief of plans during his war in Iraq. He is also now president of Joint Special Operations University. He is not a softie. Rachel Yon, a civilian, is the professor who is now teaching the course. She took the course over from Wilson in 2012. This predates the controversy over CRT and wakefulness. (Yon was a West Point student in the 1990s. In other words, she is not a trendy hire.AdvertisementThird, Wilson believed it important to teach this class at West Point. The Army, unlike many American institutions has never been a majorstay of racial and gender equality. As more Blacks rose through the ranks, prejudice became a problem. Therefore, rank and file should be aware of it. Wilson is himself an African American.AdvertisementThe issue has not disappeared in the past 22 years. Recent revelations that white-supremacist militia members were (or are still) in the armed forces has prompted alarm among senior officers. Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense, created a commission to investigate how to eradicate extremism. It was part of the campaign that saw a day-long shutdown to address the issue, which critics also voiced concern about.AdvertisementThe protests against George Floyd's police killing resulted in a pivotal shift in the recognition of the problem and even within West Point. These protests were accompanied by a growing movement to change 10 Army bases in the south that had been named after Confederate slave-holding generals.Petraeus stated that he was often stationed at these bases during his active-duty years. This was almost exactly one year ago.I didn't think much about the Civil War service of these men. I also didn't think about the messages that these names sent to many African Americans who served on these installationsmessages which should have been noticed by everyone.AdvertisementAdvertisementPetraeus did not question the admiration shown to Confederate General Robert E. Lee when he was a West Point cadet. He wrote that we were not encouraged not to think about Lee's cause.Petraeus said that it was only when he had retired from the Army in 2011 that he began to think about how odd it was that leaders of the Union fought were more honored with their names on federal roads, roads, barracks gates, housing areas, and so forth than those who fought for it. Ulysses S. Grant was the Union Army commander, and later, two-term president who was not honored at West Point or at Army base. Petraeus stated that he had thought for some time about the Army publicly addressing this dishonor. He said that the events of the past weeks, which he referred to as the Floyd murder and subsequent protests, were the catalyst for his Atlantic essay.AdvertisementAdvertisementThis brings us to Secretary Austin, and Gen. Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), who were both attacked by congressional Republicans last week at a House Armed Services Committee meeting. The Florida Reps. Matt Gaetz (a former Army Green Beret) and Michael Waltz (a former Army Green Beret) led the charge. They cited cadets and parents who were upset by the refusal to discuss extremism or the divisiveness in classes on race.Austin thanked you for your anecdotal insight. Austin replied, "I have received 10 times as much input, 50x that amount of feedback from the other side, that said Hey, we are glad to have been able to have a discussion with ourselves and our leaders."AdvertisementMilley went deeper. He said, "I want to understand white angerand I'm white." Is there something that prompted thousands of people to attack this building in an attempt to overthrow the Constitution of the United States of America? I've read Mao Zedong. I've also read Karl Marx. I have read Lenin. This doesn't make me a communist. What is wrong with having an understanding and a situational understanding of the country we are fighting for?AdvertisementAdvertisementSeveral other things are also worth noting.First, neither Austin nor Milley want to deal with such issues. Both have commanded troops during battle. (Austin is a former four-star Army General. Milley is a Princeton graduate and holds an M.A. Milley graduated from Princeton and holds an M.A. in international relations. However, a former officer who knew him said that he prefers to present himself as someone who was a hockey player who got to Princeton and went on to become a part of the elite.AdvertisementSecond, many of their critics have never heard of critical racial theory and can't even define it now. They are using the debate to score points against Democratsand in some cases to push race (including suppression of Black voters in elections) off the table as an issue.Third, however, critics have a point. The debate has distorted CRT in various institutions. Both sides have failed to recognize that race is a determinative issue. This has exacerbated social tensions. I was told by a retired Army officer who requested not to be identified because he didn't want to get involved in this debate.AdvertisementGenerally speaking, I'm concerned about the fact that the military has spent too much time/attention on social issues over the years and other topics unrelated to operations. These issues can be distracting if they are not handled properly.AdvertisementIt would be great to have a substantive discussion on this topic, but it has become difficult, if not impossible now that it has devolved into an instrument of partisan warfare.Milley and officers like him were trained to avoid partisan fighting for as long as their uniforms are on. They are not the only ones engaging in politics. They are well-versed in history. Many people criticized racial integration of troops in the 1940s as a social experiment that harmed national security. Similar objections have been raised in recent years against the inclusion of openly gay and female military personnel. All these cases have ended with no fuss; inclusion of once-excluded people has become routine. The nation is still safe (or at least, it isn't if our lapses aren't related to the presence of Black servicemen or women).AdvertisementAdvertisementMilley is a victim of political exploitation. He followed Donald Trump from the White House down to Lafayette Square last July, unaware that he was being used as a photo-op in order to justify the tear gassing of protesters. He quickly apologized and began to move away from Trump's orbit. He also took his independent military adviser duties more seriously. He has not forgotten the incident and it has influenced his behavior ever since. It also led him to be more assertive in responding to politically motivated attacks by congressmen.The congressional Republicans need to remember another aspect of history. Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist crusade ended when he took it too far, accusing several Army war heroes with Red treason. The defense lawyer for one accused soldier said, in 1954, from the witness stand: Senator, may you not drop this? Do you have no sense of decency sir? McCarthy was soon censured by his Senate colleagues.The congress of today has lost a lot of decency on many issues. Military officers are not treated with the same respect they used to, perhaps because there are fewer Americans who have served in Congress. After mocking John McCain's record of being a war hero, Donald Trump won the election and did not suffer any political damage. There are limits to the extent that Republicans can yell at decorated generals or use the military as a weapon in their attacks against Democrats. These limits are likely to not have been reached yet; there will be more shouting.