Top General Defends Studying Critical Race Theory In The Military
June 23, 2021
"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 for which we are here to defend?" Milley said.
He continued brusquely: "And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, 'woke' or something else, because we're studying some theories that are out there."
C-SPAN captured Gaetz shaking his head while the Joint Chiefs chairman spoke.
The exchange came at a House Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the 2022 Defense Department budget.
Until recently, critical race theory was anything but a household phrase. Rather, it was used to describe an approach to studying institutional racism, as NPR's Barbara Sprunt has reported. But it has become a culture war issue, and the phrase has been stretched well beyond its initial meaning, as conservatives in particular have used the phrase to raise concerns about race in venues including state legislatures and local school boards.
Gaetz originally posed his questions on the theory to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation's first Black defense secretary. Gaetz cited unnamed military members criticizing the military's recent "stand down" to deal with extremism and then asked about how the Defense Department should "think about critical race theory."
Austin was less terse than Milley but also dismissed Gaetz's concerns.
"We do not teach critical race theory. We don't embrace critical race theory, and I think that's a spurious conversation," he said. "We are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology — not people's thoughts, not people's political orientation. Behaviors is what we're focused on."
Austin also pushed back on the basis of Gaetz's concerns: "Thanks for your anecdotal input, 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 have said, 'Hey, we're glad to have had the ability to have a conversation with ourselves and with our leadership.' "
Gaetz wasn't the only member who asked about the military's approach to addressing race.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., cited a letter he received from West Point's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, which states that one course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point teaches about critical race theory (Waltz's office provided a copy of this letter to NPR). Waltz also referenced a seminar at West Point where an instructor reportedly taught about "understanding whiteness and white rage."
In his response to Gaetz, Milley referenced Waltz's concerns as well, saying that such education could be useful in understanding the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
"I want to understand white rage, and I'm white, and I want to understand it," he said. "So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out."
During the hearing, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., challenged Austin about, among other things, the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in the U.S. military. A relatively amorphous term often referring to the academic study of race and anti-racist movements, CRT has become a catch-all cause celebre for culture war conservatives. Later in the hearing, another Florida Republican, Rep. Michael Waltz, a military veteran, noted that CRT appeared in an elective at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and “white rage” was the focus of a seminar voluntarily attended by 100 cadets.
Milley made it clear that the U.S. military does not “teach” critical race theory and dismissed as offensive the characterization of officers and noncommissioned officers as ”woke.” But the general also reminded the committee that West Point is a college and that it is crucially important for those in uniform “to be open-minded and widely read.”
And as for learning more about white rage? “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? What is wrong with having some situational understanding about the country we are here to defend?”
There are a few things to unpack here. First of all, it seems clear that the congressmen had little real interest in anything that the military leaders had to say. Their goal was to score political points for news coverage and Twitter.
This exchange does, however, raise important questions about civil-military relations, as well as how the next generation of military leaders should be educated. Civil-military relations is a bedrock of our democratic process and fundamental to the execution of American national security. It’s vital that the military remain apolitical, while still retaining autonomy over key aspects of the profession. Obviously, this dynamic is imprecise and results in jurisdictional tensions between the military and its civilian masters as each seeks to exercise its responsibilities in the formulation of national security policy.
The recent exchange between the congressmen and America’s two most senior military leaders is illustrative of this ongoing friction and raises the question of whether the boundaries of professional responsibility, particularly with respect to officer development, are changing.
Gaetz and Waltz are hardly isolated examples. Recently numerous conservative lawmakers have seized on CRT as a blanket description for a broader education effort within the military. Several Republican congressmen have voiced concerns about a book on racism that is one of over 50 titles listed on the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program and demanded its removal. Even former President Donald Trump raised the issue during a recent rally in Ohio.
But Milley’s frustration most likely has a more philosophical source, as well. During my 30-year military career, I had the good fortune to teach at both West Point and Annapolis, serve on a leadership development advisory board for the Air Force Academy, and serve as the dean of academics at the Army War College. All these institutions focus on education, not indoctrination. As Milley suggested, each seek to encourage their students to think critically and develop the ability to analyze complex issues.
Milley told the representatives that he had read Mao, Marx and Lenin. So have I, and went on to use them in courses I later taught. As a cadet in the late 1960s, I also read Black writers such as Malcom X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. I was the cadet host for a lecture and visit to West Point by the radical political organizer Saul Alinsky. Exposure to these ideas didn’t turn me or my classmates (that I know if) into Communists, militants or even socialists. But they did provide us invaluable perspectives when commissioned as officers in the turbulent early 1970s.
The professional military consider one of their special responsibilities to be the development of the next generation of officers, and Milley stressed the importance of building “leaders, now and in the future.” Currently, roughly 40 percent of the American military is made up of people of color, and this will most likely increase. Demographers suggest that by 2050 the white population of the United States will comprise 47 percent of the population. The cadets and midshipmen who graduated from our service academies this May will be generals and admirals by that time, and Milley underscored this point during remarks to the graduating ROTC cadets at Howard University. “It is your generation that can and will bring the joint force to be truly inclusive of all peoples,” he noted.
Gen. Daryl Williams, West Point’s superintendent, had a similar comment when asked about CRT by Waltz. In his reply, Williams placed the course in the broader context of a cadet’s professional development. “Although some controversial topics and guest lecturers are a part of the West Point educational experience, these opportunities are specific in nature and not a systemic part of the 47-month experience for every cadet,” he said.
Ultimately, Congress shouldn’t be trying to influence reading lists prepared by the chiefs of service in the first place. Nor should lawmakers have approval power over the content of specific lessons in electives taught at service academies and senior service colleges. Are two lessons in an elective for a handful of cadets whose goal is to “consider how the contemporary issues that relate to race, gender, and sexuality apply to the Army and how they impact the Army officer” a worthy area of research and debate for a congressional committee?
I’d argue no. When it comes to developing future military leaders, Congress needs to be following Milley and Austin’s lead — not the other way around. Gaetz was presumably too busy making accusations to listen to the questions posed by Milley. But that’s what lawmakers should be talking about — beyond the obviously important questions about budget and funding. What caused thousands of people to assault our Capitol and seek to overturn our Constitution? What is wrong with military officers having “some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” Our national security may depend on it.
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin responded to questions from Rep. Matt Gaetz about Critical Race Theory in a congressional testimony on June 23, 2021.
Read the transcript of their response and testimony starting here -
Mr. Secretary, why was Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Lohmeyer released of his command?
It was a decision made by his chain of command. And typically those decisions are made based upon either having confidence or a lack of confidence. This issue is under investigation by the IG. And so, I won’t comment any further on that.
In my previous discussions with service members, and particularly officers, I would hear about complaints over parts, not arriving on time, long deployments. And in my more recent discussions with those officers, the number one issue that they raised to me with concern often unable to speak publicly for fear of the type of retribution that Lieutenant Colonel Lohmeyer faced, they say that your stand down regarding extremism did not help our military. It hurt the military. And I want to share with you that perspective that it caused service members to otherize one another. It impaired group cohesion. And interesting to me is that I’ve heard those sentiments most frequently from units that are majority minority, that this was not particularly helpful. So I wanted to give you the opportunity to maybe share with us more specificity regarding the definitions that seem to be a challenge when Ms. Hartzler was asking questions. How should the Department of Defense think about critical race theory?
Could I make a comment, Secretary? I’m sorry.
I’m very limited on my time, General.
I just want to make comment that-
I’ve asked the question to the Secretary Austin.
I don’t know what the issue of critical race theory is and what the relevance here in the department. We do not teach critical race theory. We don’t embrace critical race theory. And I think that’s a spurious conversation. And so we are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology, not people’s thoughts, not people’s political orientation. Behaviors is what we’re focused on. But in one final point, and thanks for your anecdotal input. 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 have said, hey, we’re glad to have had the ability to have a conversation with ourselves and with our leadership, and that’s what we need-
Reclaiming my time, Mr. Secretary. It may be that you’re receiving that input in the ratios you describe because it was your directive. It may be that people are concerned about criticizing your decision because Lieutenant Colonel Lomeyer was not relieved of his command for his actions. He was not relieved of his command because of poor performance regarding his duties. He was relieved of his command precisely because of his thoughts and because of his critique of critical race theory.
It is particularly helpful that you have said that the Department of Defense does not embrace critical race theory, and that you think the discussion is not appropriate. I would suggest that it is the ideology that is not appropriate. And it is particularly concerning to me that you have hired a critical race theorist to give you advice on personnel matters. And that person is Bishop Garrison. And I would particularly observe that on July 27th, 2019, Bishop Garrison tweeted regarding former President Trump, “He’s dragging a lot of bad actors out into the sunlight, normalizing their actions.” And here’s the relevant part. “If you support the president, you support that. There is no room for nuance in this. There is no more, but I’m not like that talk.” And then he replies to his own tweet with what seems to be a very ethno nationalist hashtag, #black44. Could you enlighten us as to what advice Mr. Garrison has given you? And are you concerned that while you testify publicly to our committee, that the department doesn’t embrace critical race theory, you have hired someone who is precisely a critical race theorist?
This is the first I’ve ever heard Mr. Garrison be described as a critical race theorist. So this is new and I’m sure-
Did you review his tweets before you hired him personally? Did you review his tweets before you hired him?
I did not personally review his tweets.
I would just ask that maybe that’d be helpful. Is there anything you can share in just these final seconds regarding any advice he’s given you?
Let me just share one other thing that you brought up, congressmen about the input that comes to me. You know, I trust my leadership from top to bottom that they will give me fair and balanced and unvarnished input. And for you to say that people are telling me what I want to hear, I get it, but I’m smart enough that-
That does happen.
Yeah. You know, maybe they’re telling you what you want to hear.
Well, I don’t know that they even know what I want to hear.
The gentleman’s time has expired. Mr. Brown is recognized for five minutes.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman-
… Mr. Chair, and thank you gentlemen, for joining us today. I know my time is very precious, but I would like to yield some of my time to General Milley, because I know that he had some comments that he wanted to make when Representative Gaetz was talking, as well as Mr. Waltz, about a similar subject of the stand down and race theory. Would you like a minute or so to comment on that? Do you remember what your line of questioning, your thought was there?
Sure. First of all, on the issue of critical race theory, et cetera, I’ll obviously have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is, but I do think it’s important actually for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. And the United States Military Academy is university and it is important that we train and we understand. And I want to understand white rage and I’m white, and I want to understand it. So what is it that cause thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here, and I do want to analyze it. It’s important that we understand that because our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and guardians, they come from the American people. So it is important that the leaders now and in the future do understand it.
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 for which we are here to defend? And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, non-commissioned office rs of being quote woke or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there. That was started at Harvard Law School years ago. And it proposed that there were laws in the United States, antebellum laws prior to the Civil War that led to a power differential with African-Americans that were three quarters of a human being when this country was formed. And then we had a Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation to change it. And we brought it up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took another a hundred years to change that.
So look, I do want to know, and I respect your service. And you and I are both Green Berets, but I want to know, and it matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military. And I thank you for the opportunity to make a comment on that.
Thank you, general.