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General Milley, critical race theory and why GOP's 'woke' military concerns miss the mark

When it comes to developing future military leaders, Congress needs to be following Milley and Austin’s lead — not the other way around.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to talk about the 2022 Defense Department budget.

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.

The general also reminded the committee that West Point is a university and that it is crucially important for those in uniform “to be open-minded and widely read.”

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.”

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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.

Republicans are hoping they can use personnel issues such as this to gain leverage over the military and energize voters. As a result, culture war debates may occur at the expense of serious discussions about rising threats posed by China, hybrid warfare and North Korea, as well as ongoing efforts to modernize the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent, which may cost $1 trillion.

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.