Thomas Spoehr is director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. He served previously for over 36 years in the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant General. The following is adapted from a talk delivered on July 20, 2022, at the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship on Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C. campus, as part of the AWC Family Foundation Lecture Series.
The Rise of Wokeness in the Military
Complaints by veteran soldiers about younger generations who lack discipline and traditional values are as old as war itself. Grizzled veterans in the Greek phalanx, Roman legions, and Napoleon’s elite corps all believed that the failings of the young would be the ruin of their armies. This is not the chief worry of grizzled American veterans today. The largest threat they see by far to our current military is the weakening of its fabric by radical progressive (or “woke”) policies being imposed, not by a rising generation of slackers, but by the very leaders charged with ensuring their readiness.
Wokeness in the military is being imposed by elected and appointed leaders in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon who have little understanding of the purpose, character, traditions, and requirements of the institution they are trying to change. The push for it didn’t begin in the last two years under the Biden administration—nor will it automatically end if a non-woke administration is elected in 2024. Wokeness in the military has become ingrained. And unless the policies that flow from it are illegal or directly jeopardize readiness, senior military leaders have little alternative but to comply.
Woke ideology undermines military readiness in various ways. It undermines cohesiveness by emphasizing differences based on race, ethnicity, and sex. It undermines leadership authority by introducing questions about whether promotion is based on merit or quota requirements. It leads to military personnel serving in specialties and areas for which they are not qualified or ready. And it takes time and resources away from training activities and weapons development that contribute to readiness.
Wokeness in the military also affects relations between the military and society at large. It acts as a disincentive for many young Americans in terms of enlistment. And it undermines wholehearted support for the military by a significant portion of the American public at a time when it is needed the most.
Let me give some examples of what I mean by wokeness.
In 2015, then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus rejected out-of-hand a Marine Corps study concluding that gender-integrated combat formations did not move as quickly or shoot as accurately, and that women were twice as likely as men to suffer combat injuries. He rejected it because it did not comport with the Obama administration’s political agenda.
That same year the Department of Defense opened all combat jobs in the U.S. military to women, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter committed to “gender-neutral standards” to ensure that female servicemembers could meet the demanding rigors involved in qualifying for combat. Since then, the Army has been working for a decade to put in place the gender-neutral test promised by Carter. But after finding that women were not scoring as highly as men, and under fierce pressure from advocacy groups, the Army threw out the test. Now there is no test to determine whether any soldier can meet the fitness requirements for combat specialties.
In 2015, near the end of his second term, President Obama initiated a change to the Pentagon’s longstanding policy on transgender individuals in the military. Before that change could take effect, the incoming Trump administration put it on hold awaiting future study. Subsequent evidence presented to Secretary of Defense James Mattis—including the fact that transgender individuals suffering from gender dysphoria attempt suicide and experience severe anxiety at nine times the rate of the general population—raised legitimate concerns about their fitness for military service.
This led the Trump administration to impose reasonable restrictions on military service by those suffering gender dysphoria. But only hours after his inauguration in January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that did away with these restrictions and opened military service to all transgender individuals. Since then, the Biden administration has decreed that active members of the military can take time off from their duties to obtain sex-change surgeries and all related hormones and drugs at taxpayer expense.
Along similar lines, the Biden administration has recently ended support for a longstanding policy prohibiting individuals infected with HIV from serving in combat zones. The policy had been based on sound science tied to the need for HIV medications and the danger of cross-infection through shared blood.
Physical fitness has long been a hallmark of the U.S. military. But in recent years, fitness standards have been progressively watered down in pursuit of the woke goal of “leveling the playing field.” The Army, for instance, recently lowered its minimum passing standards for pushups to an unimpressive total of ten and increased its minimum two-mile run time from 19 to 23 minutes. The new Space Force is considering doing away with periodic fitness testing altogether.
Back in 2016, Navy Secretary Mabus decreed that Navy sailors would no longer be known by traditional job titles such as “corpsman,” adopting instead new gender-neutral titles such as “medical technician.” The resulting blowback was so severe from enlisted sailors who cherished those historic titles that the Navy was forced to reverse the changes. But wokeness has a way of coming back, and last year the Navy released a training video to help sailors understand the proper way of using personal pronouns—a skill Americans have traditionally mastered in grade school. The video instructs servicemembers that they need to create a “safe space for everybody” by using “inclusive language”—for instance, saying “hey everybody” instead of “hey guys.” Can the return of gender-neutral job titles be far behind?
Much of the emphasis of wokeness today is on promoting the idea that America is fatally flawed by systemic racism and white privilege. Our fighting men and women are required to sit through indoctrination programs, often with roots in the Marxist tenets of critical race theory, either by Pentagon diktat or through carelessness by senior leaders who delegate their command responsibilities to private Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion instructors…(article continues)