Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday fired back at Sen. Ted Cruz and other critics who have warned that an increasingly woke military is losing its edge, dismissing such accusations as welcome gifts to U.S. foes such as China and Russia.
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Austin said flatly that the American armed forces will never be “soft.”
His comments amount to a direct rebuke of recent charges leveled by Mr. Cruz. The Texas Republican suggested last month that the U.S. military is too concerned with inclusion and political correctness while America’s enemies remain focused on lethality and toughness.
Mr. Austin not only dismissed such accusations but said they aid China, Russia and other enemies.
“I will not lose one minute of sleep about what the Chinese leadership is saying or what [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is saying. What I will focus on, and what I am focused on, is the defense of this nation, and making sure that we have what’s needed to be successful,” Mr. Austin told CNN.
He also said China and Russia “would like to capitalize on talking points” like those put forth by Mr. Cruz.
The Texas senator has become one of the most vocal critics of what he sees as a leftward shift inside the military, or at least among some of its leadership.
For example, he recently took aim at a series of Army recruitment videos titled “The Calling.” The spots follow the life and path to the military for enlisted men and women across the country, and they show service members from a variety of backgrounds and explain how they ended up pursuing a career in the Army.
One video follows a soldier named Emma and tells her story that “begins in California with a little girl raised by two moms” and continues through her decision to enlist in the military.
The content of the videos themselves does not appear particularly controversial, but Mr. Cruz and others have taken aim at their tone, which is far softer than many other military recruitment ads of the past. In fact, some critics tweeted out a side-by-side comparison of “The Calling” spots next to a Russian military recruitment video that focuses on men exercising, firing weapons and jumping from planes.
“Holy crap,” Mr. Cruz said in a Twitter post last month that accompanied the two videos.
“Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea,” he said.
Mr. Austin defended the military’s recruitment efforts.
“I think we’re doing a great job in terms of recruiting the right kinds of people, providing access to people from every corner, every walk of life in this country,” he told CNN. “As long as you’re fit and you can qualify, there’s a place for you on this team.”
The growing rift between military leadership and some Republicans also comes amid an ongoing anti-extremism push in the armed forces that some critics fear may go too far and could inadvertently target conservatives and Catholics.
Key lawmakers, for example, have publicly questioned the recent removal of Space Force Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, who lost his command after publicly questioning “neo-Marxist-based” race and diversity programs in the military.
His dismissal is being investigated by the Air Force inspector general.
“My Republican colleagues and I hear regularly from active-duty and retired service members that even holding conservative values is now enough to endanger a service member’s military career,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said last month.
Col. Lohmeier was dismissed just weeks after a military-wide “stand-down” on extremism ordered by Mr. Austin. The 60-day initiative ran from early February through early April and required commanders at all levels of the military to set aside one day to discuss hateful ideologies, bigotry, discrimination, and related issues.
Mr. Austin and other military officials insist that the initiative has not targeted those with politically conservative beliefs and never will in the future.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this report.