Just a few days before the 2022 midterm elections, Sen. Josh Hawley tried to rally GOP voters in Arizona with a curious message. “We’ve got a military that is more interested in pronouns than winning wars,” the Missouri Republican complained.
It echoed related rhetoric from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who last year encouraged Americans not to enlist in the U.S. military, saying it’s like “throwing your life away.” The Georgia Republican added that she believes military training is too “woke.”
Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to be more specific, claiming that he had received complaints about a course at West Point titled, “Understanding your whiteness and white rage.” The congressman further alleged that the class was “taught by a woman who described the Republican Party platform as a platform of white supremacy.”
We later learned that there was no such course and the classroom instruction Waltz referenced did not exist. [Update: See below.]
Nevertheless, after the midterms, future House Speaker Kevin McCarthy stuck to the party line, complaining, “I’ve watched what the Democrats have done in many of these, especially in the [National Defense Authorization Act] and the ‘woke-ism’ that they want to bring in there.”
On Saturday, Donald Trump headlined an event in New Hampshire, where he took this rhetorical line a little further. Forbes magazine reported:
He ... went after Biden’s controversial withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021, arguing, “we have a woke military that can’t fight or win, as proven in Afghanistan.”
Historians can speak to this with more authority than I can, but I’m not aware of any modern examples of a former American president — by some measures, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination — publicly declaring that the United States’ armed forces are incapable of fighting or winning.
Alas, it fits into a larger pattern in which Trump has publicly disparaged military service, mocked prisoners of war and even downplayed the importance of injured troops.
But stepping back and taking stock of the larger context, why in the world are so many Republicans preoccupied with criticizing their own country’s military? The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman recently explained the problem well:
So here’s the truth: The military has indeed changed, because American society has changed, and so has the nature of modern warfare. Our military needs not just guys with big muscles, but people with a wide variety of skills and knowledge. To be maximally effective, it can’t deprive itself of the talents of large swaths of the population. But conservatives — especially those whose ideas about war come mostly from the movies — don’t like many of those changes. While they sometimes claim to oppose “politicization” of the military, what they actually want is for their cultural and political agenda to prevail there.
In other words, the increasingly common whining among Republicans about the military is less about the armed forces themselves, and more about society becoming more inclusive and progressive in ways that make the right feel uncomfortable.
The GOP believes the military can and should be shielded from the larger societal trends, and when it’s not — when the troops celebrate Pride Month; when the Pentagon lifts a ban on transgender Americans serving; when abortion services are made available to those in uniform; when the Defense Department considers environmental impacts; etc. — Republicans stomp their feet as they feel another culture war slipping away.
“We need to refocus our military on what it’s supposed to do, which is blow things up and kill people,” Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas recently declared.
Except, that’s wrong. It’s not what Americans should expect from the planet’s strongest fighting force, and it doesn’t serve our interests to limit the military’s role to death and destruction.
This won’t stop Trump from slamming his own country’s military, and it won’t stop GOP lawmakers from complaining about “wokeism,” but it should.
Postscript: Right around the time I was writing this, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik appeared on the Fox Business Network and said her party was prepared to cut “woke” programs at the Defense Department.
The New York congresswoman did not elaborate on what that was supposed to mean.
Update: While West Point did not have a course entitled “Understanding your whiteness and white rage,” Rep. Waltz's office reached out to note that there was a lecture with a slide featuring the phrase.
What's more, while there was no such course, the lecturer in question, in a since deleted tweet, described the Republican Party platform as a platform of white supremacy. There is no record of the lecturer making any such comments to U.S. Military Academy students.