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Profile in cowardice: Army reprimands general who takes on Tucker Carlson

The military is essentially broadcasting that it may kowtow to disingenuous partisan attacks rather than defend its own troops and their leaders.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson
Fox News host Tucker Carlson speaks at the National Review Institute's "Ideas Summit" in Washington, D.C. on Mar. 29, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

After Fox News host Tucker Carlson took to the airwaves to ridicule female service members, an Army general defended the tens of thousands of women in the ranks in a social media post. But instead of receiving praise for standing up for those in uniform, the general has had his retirement delayed and now reportedly faces the possibility of censure and other punishment. 

Though the military’s inspector general’s report into Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe and his social media posts hasn’t been made public, Haley Britzky of the defense news outlet Task and Purpose and defense analyst Max Boot, writing for The Washington Post, recently got access to the document. They both said that Donahoe did not respond to their requests for comment.

Based on their reporting, the document rebukes Donahoe for statements in behalf of female soldiers — as well as others defending long-standing military vaccination policies — that have brought “negative publicity” to the military. It also assesses that he “failed to display Army values and core leader competencies.”

This fear of stirring up controversy is, ironically, generating infinitely worse publicity than the general’s public support of subordinates. More troubling is that the investigation apparently cited a complaint from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who accused Donahoe and other senior officers of “systematic, public attacks against television host Tucker Carlson that in substance, tone, and political resonance are inexplicably inappropriate.” He also claimed, “This spectacle risks politicizing the military.”

The Army is essentially broadcasting that it may kowtow to disingenuous partisan attacks rather than defend its own troops and their leaders. Moreover, the response indicates the Defense Department has a massive blind spot when it comes to its evolving role in the policy and strategy debates in Washington and beyond; it apparently believes the proper response to outrageous attacks on its personnel is to yield the terrain.

Last year, Carlson lashed out at accommodations for female service members, saying this “more feminine” force made a “mockery” of the U.S. military. In response, Donahoe tweeted that “Carlson couldn’t be more wrong” and posted a video of a re-enlistment ceremony he presided over involving female soldiers. 

A few months later, Donahoe responded twice to conservative commentator Josiah Lippincott (currently suspended from Twitter), a veteran, who was criticizing his post about Covid vaccinations.

The inspector general’s investigation reportedly considered allegations that Donahoe had exhibited toxic leadership, but those were not substantiated. In fact, the investigation reportedly found the opposite — and the fact that he would publicly defend the women serving under him, including one whom he personally praised on Twitter after she was subject to threats and abuse, certainly argues as much. 

Still, the investigators reportedly did agree with the charge that Donahoe had engaged inappropriately in his social media usage after right-wing media personalities, including Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, called him a “woke” “leftist troll.” A conservative website also charged that his Twitter response to the threatened female soldier, his subordinate, amounted to “grooming.”

The pearl-clutching is especially rich coming from the same people who routinely complain about cancel culture and didn’t bat an eye for years about far more outrageous posts by former President Donald Trump.

But the investigators apparently felt Donahoe was wrong to speak out against Carlson’s remarks. “While potentially admirable, his post brought a measurable amount of negative publicity to the Army, enough that [the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs] warned [the secretary of the Army] of the fallout,” the report found, according to Task and Purpose. The investigators particularly cited his “sarcasm and snarky tweets” as being “ill-judged” and in “poor taste,” according to the Post.

Internal reviews holding high-ranking officers responsible when misconduct is alleged are a good thing. That includes reviews of how active-duty officers engage on public social media platforms, where they are rightly held to stricter standards than typical users.

Undoubtedly social media poses challenges to military leadership, as ill-judged comments injurious to personnel or the services at large can be publicly disseminated. If Donahoe had been spouting partisan rants, personal attacks or profanity, censure would be appropriate. However, his comments are hardly incendiary, and, in some instances, they are entirely defensible.

The services have long sought to remain in the good graces of both Republicans and Democrats who at turns control their budgets. However, as social media plays an increasingly crucial role in communication to the public, fellow service members, officers and even military adversaries, it’s simply not a viable option to cede this space to the worst actors.

The Pentagon shouldn’t forgo public messaging and allow conspiracy theories and disinformation to thrive without pushback because it comes from politically powerful quarters. In fact, Donahoe was showing how Twitter could be used effectively to interact with the troops and the public, amassing followers for his messages affirming the value of his soldiers’ service and promoting social media engagement as something that can benefit officers.

This is evident in the war in Ukraine, where social media has greatly influenced the global public’s perception of the war. And it’s also essential as the military tries desperately to make inroads with the next generation as it struggles to attract recruits.

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Indeed, one of the more damaging results of Carlson’s attacks on female soldiers and the Army’s acquiescence to them could be that it hurts efforts to enlist women. The U.S. military faces a crisis-level shortage of volunteer personnel to meet recruitment targets. Overlooking literally half of the population to preserve a boy’s club atmosphere isn’t a wise tradeoff, particularly as finding specialized technical and intellectual talent is more important in modern warfare.

And yet the senator who complained about military leaders’ pushing back against Carlson’s tirade is the same one who showed admiration for a Russian recruitment video showcasing Russia’s supposedly tough and “masculine” military, in contrast to the “woke,” “emasculated” “pansies” he felt were evoked in a U.S. armed forces ad.

The Army has rewarded disingenuous political posturing and sent a message to female personnel that it will prioritize appeasing baying partisans instead of standing up for them.

It’s true that just 4% of Russian military personnel were women in 2020, compared to 16.5% in the U.S. armed forces. And Russian female military personnel aren’t permitted to serve in combat roles.

But Russia’s military has performed shockingly poorly in Ukraine — and it’s doing so fighting a Ukrainian army that, among many other virtues, has roughly three times the percentage of female troops, including more than 10,000 in front-line combat roles. Russia is also facing an acute shortage of personnel, including those with the technical skills needed to operate equipment such as drones.

Sure, Donahoe should have been more careful with his social media engagement to avoid falling victim to such dishonest attacks, and he himself admitted he regretted how he interacted with Lippincott.

But by choosing to make an example of Donahoe for his mildly worded defense of the female soldiers under his command, the Army has rewarded disingenuous political posturing and sent a message to female personnel that it will prioritize appeasing baying partisans instead of standing up for them.

It likewise has told male officers that they have a lot to lose for publicly defending their female colleagues and that engaging with female soldiers can be maliciously misconstrued as sexually inappropriate in a way that interactions with male subordinates aren’t.

Combined, that sends a terrible message to the women in the Army, which hasn’t been lost on them.

That won’t help the service attract and retain capable soldiers, to the detriment of the Army and to U.S. national security more broadly.