The nation’s top military officer clashed sharply with Republican lawmakers Wednesday during a budget hearing over allegations that the Pentagon has embraced controversial topics such as critical race theory since the election of President Biden.
During questioning by two GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hotly denied that efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the ranks have undercut military readiness and unit cohesion.
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military — general officers, commissioned and noncommissioned officers — of being ‘woke’ or something because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Gen. Milley said, sitting alongside Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The four-star general said it was important for military personnel to be well-informed and “open-minded.” Gen. Milley said he wanted to understand “white rage.”
“What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States?” What caused that? I want to find out,” Gen. Milley said, citing the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by supporters of President Trump challenging the 2020 presidential election result.
It’s critical for top military leaders to fully grasp what happened because the armed forces are made up of the American people, Gen. Milley said.
“So what is wrong with … having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” he asked.
Rep. Matt Waltz, Florida Republican and a former Army Green Beret with multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and the Middle East, questioned the Pentagon leaders on why a course on critical race theory — which posits that racism was a deep and constant factor in U.S. history — was part of the curriculum at West Point.
“This came to me from cadets, from families, from soldiers with their alarm and their concern at how divisive this type of teaching is that is rooted in Marxism,” said Mr. Waltz.
West Point is a university, Gen. Milley pointed out, a place where students may be exposed to different viewpoints — even those that might be objectionable.
“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,” he said.
Some lawmakers claim that the Pentagon‘s efforts to combat alleged extremism in the ranks have evolved into a crackdown on political and religious conservatives along with supporters of Mr. Trump. Rep. Matt Gaetz, another Florida Republican, said military officers have told him they are afraid to speak out for fear of professional retribution. He mentioned the case of U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, who had lost his command by claiming critical race theory was rooted in Marxism and was a growing force in the military.
Mr. Austin said he couldn’t comment on the Lohmeier case because it was currently under review by the Air Force inspector general. But he insisted that the military isn’t focusing on the thoughts or political opinions of those in the ranks.
“We are focused on extremist behavior,” he said.
He bristled when told that perhaps subordinates in the Pentagon were telling him what he wanted to hear rather than what was actually going on.
“I trust my leadership from top to bottom that they will give me fair and balanced and unvarnished input,” he said.
Mr. Gaetz shot back, saying political targeting of conservatives does happen.
“Maybe they’re telling you what you want to hear,” Mr. Austin replied.