Two weeks ago, two Republican lawmakers launched a whistleblower site to gather complaints from troops about “anti-American indoctrination seeping into parts of our military,” as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., described it during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.
Cotton, a former Army infantry captain, detailed a handful of anonymous submissions to the site, set up in partnership Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a retired SEAL lieutenant commander.
One Marine wrote that his unit’s “mandatory military history training was replaced with training on police brutality, white privilege and systemic racism,” Cotton said. “He reported several officers are now leaving this unit citing that training.”
Of course, while service members regularly rotate in and out of units, and sometimes have opportunities to leave a unit early to pursue another role, they are not able to transfer at will.
Continuing, Cotton spoke of a special operations troop who was told “the special operations community is racist”; a soldier who said a general officer referred to “the entire U.S. as racist”; an airman said his or her unit was forced to conduct a “privilege walk,” where troops separated themselves by race and gender to talk about their experiences with privilege; and soldiers “forced to watch videos about systemic racism and “documentaries that rewrite America’s history as a fundamentally racist and evil nation.”
Cotton also cited a response to his website claiming that a freshly recruited Space Force guardian filed separation paperwork saying that joining the armed services amounted to “indoctrination.”
Cotton and Crenshaw’s effort was met with widespread derision, including a good deal of fake submissions trolling the effort.
Beginning his line of questioning Thursday, Cotton asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin whether he believed the U.S. military “is a fundamentally racist organization;” whether troops should be treated differently based on their skin color or gender; and whether selections for leadership roles should be based on sex and gender rather than operational and leadership acumen.
Austin answered no to all, though Cotton cut off most of his attempts to explain why the questions required more than one-word answers.
“I would also say that diversity, equity and inclusion is important to this military now and it will be important in the future,” he said. “We are going to make sure that our military looks like America and that our leadership looks like what’s in the ranks of the military. And I appreciate your support on that.”
Efforts by the Pentagon and the services to promote diversity and inclusion, many of which began during the Trump administration, have drawn the ire of some conservatives.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson in March famously derided the advent of maternity flight suits ― designed for Air Force pilots and aircrew as an everyday uniform ― as an example of the “feminization” of the military.
“So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits,” Carlson said, also invoking recently updated Army and Air Force hair regulations. “Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military.”
Senior leaders, many of them Army generals, pushed back on that assertion.
“This is me, yesterday, conducting a re-enlistment for one of the tens of thousands of women who serve in our Army,” Maj. Gen. Pat Donahoe, who commands the Maneuver Center of Excellence, tweeted. “Just a reminder that @TuckerCarlson couldn’t be more wrong.”
That discussion has dovetailed with an invigorated effort to prevent and root out extremist ideology, including white supremacism and white nationalism, among service members.
To some, that effort translates to silencing or punishing conservatives, though the Pentagon has reiterated more than once that certain partisan or religious beliefs are not under scrutiny.
“That wasn’t a concern that the secretary heard today at all,” spokesman John Kirby told reporters in April, after Austin met with service leaders to discuss their feedback after a mandatory Defense Department-wide stand-down to address extremism.
While Austin told Cotton on Thursday that he does not believe the military is inherently racist, he did say the organization can do some work to better reflect not only the demographics of the American people, but to make sure more women and people of color have the opportunity to rise to positions of leadership traditionally held overwhelmingly by white men, thus better reflecting the demographic makeup of the military.
“Where we’ve done a great job in recruiting highly qualified and capable people, I think we need to do a bit better in terms of making sure we’re absolutely inclusive, and making sure … pathways are available for everybody that’s in the ranks to realize their full potential,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.