The Rise of Wokeness in the U.S. Military — Let me give some examples of what I mean by wokeness.

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.

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.

These indoctrination programs differentiate servicemembers along racial and gender lines, which runs completely counter to the military imperative to build cohesiveness based on common loyalties, training, and standards. Traditional training and education programs used to combat racial and sex discrimination have been supplanted by programs that promote discrimination by replacing the American ideal of equality with the progressive ideal of equity—which in practice means unequal treatment based on group identity.

The Biden administration’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, decided last year to add Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist—one of the leading sourcebooks on critical race theory—to his list of recommended readings. To give an idea of how radical Kendi’s book is, one of its famous (or infamous) arguments is that “Capitalism is essentially racist,” and that “to truly be antiracist, you also have to be truly anticapitalist.”

Last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Services Committee, “We do not teach critical race theory, we don’t embrace critical race theory, and I think that’s a spurious conversation.” Despite repeated denials by Austin and others in the Pentagon that critical race theory is being taught in the military, there is no shortage of evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, last year a senior officer in the U.S. Space Force, Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, was removed from command for publicly describing the role of critical race theory in indoctrinating servicemembers at his installation. And just this summer, multiple media outlets reported on training materials on the problems of “whiteness” obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. One training slide read: “In order to understand racial inequality and slavery, it is first necessary to address whiteness.”

Congressmen have obtained curricular materials from West Point showing lectures titled “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage” and classroom slides labeled “White Power at West Point.” When challenged about this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley became defensive: “I wanna understand white rage, and I’m white,” he said. “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.”

The rationale for reading communist writings in the service academies in the past has been that by doing so, we learned about our Soviet enemies at the time and how they thought. How is that analogous to reading Leftist tracts accusing white people (including servicemembers)—just by virtue of their being white—of racism?

Last year, Secretary Austin alarmingly called for a one-day military-wide stand-down to address the so-called problem of “extremism” in the ranks, despite the fact that there has been no evidence presented—including in testimony by senior officials—that there is a problem of extremism in the military. Commanding officers were required to discuss the topic using a PowerPoint presentation that included Ted Talks asking the question, “What is up with us white people?”

Since 2008, the Air Force has created at least eight “Barrier Analysis Working Groups” to “create an inclusive culture regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, orientation, religion, or disabilities.” These groups include the “Indigenous Nations Equality Team” and the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Questioning Initiatives Team.” President Biden signed an executive order in 2021 requiring all organizations in the military—as well as in the rest of the federal government—to create Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices, to produce strategic DEI plans, and to create bureaucratic structures to report on progress towards DEI goals. The overall goal, Biden said, was “advancing equity for all”—again using the Left’s euphemism for achieving desired outcomes through discriminatory policies.

Wokeness also comes in the form of conflating the mission of the military with environmental ideology. A year ago, President Biden told a group of overseas Air Force airmen that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined that the greatest threat facing America was global warming—a claim the Joint Chiefs had to walk back. In the same vein, Biden signed an executive order imposing a massive regime of environmental goals and requirements for the Department of Defense. These goals included transitioning to all electric non-tactical vehicles by 2035, carbon-free electricity for military installations by that same year, and net zero emissions from those installations by 2050. As a result, the Pentagon recently announced it will devote over $3 billion of its already stretched-thin military budget to climate-related initiatives in 2023 alone.

Although direct “cause and effect” studies on the impact of woke policies such as these do not exist, common sense suggests that the consequences for military readiness are dramatic. Spending billions on woke programs while the Chinese are outpacing us on hypersonic weapons, quantum computing, and other important military technologies is one piece of evidence. Recent reports showing the military’s dismal failure to gain new recruits in adequate numbers is another. Is anyone surprised that potential recruits—many of whom come from rural or poor areas of the country—don’t want to spend their time being lectured about white privilege?

These ideological policies move the military in a divergent direction from the American mainstream. In a recent poll of voters, for instance, 69 percent oppose the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Relatedly, Americans are increasingly losing confidence in the military. Between 2021 and 2022, the percentage of Americans who report a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military decreased five percentage points, from 69 to 64. In 2012, this confidence level stood at 75 percent.

The bottom line is that precious time and money are being poured into woke programs and projects that would be better applied towards making the military more capable. The billions of dollars that will be spent on Pentagon climate change programs, the time and money spent in creating DEI structures and hiring DEI commissars, and the time spent indoctrinating servicemembers in critical race theory and addressing an imaginary crisis of extremism in the ranks—all this detracts from the purpose of our military: preserving the security and freedom of the American people and nation.

These costs come at a time when the current administration is not even proposing to fund the Department of Defense to keep up with the rate of inflation—and a time when serious threats from China and other adversaries have never been greater.

Last month, Ramstein Air Base in Germany scheduled a drag queen story hour at its base library, where drag queen Stacey Teed was scheduled to read to children. When lawmakers back home got wind of the event and wrote to the Secretary of the Air Force, the event was cancelled. This suggests that pushback can be effective against the tide of wokeness plaguing our military. But there needs to be a lot more pushback.

Legislation introduced this year in Congress would stop the teaching of critical race theory in the military, the creation of the multitudes of diversity offices and officials, and the rolling back of physical fitness requirements. While the ultimate success of these proposals in the legislative process is uncertain, they are a start at least.

The American military remains a faithful and loyal servant of the republic. Most Americans are still proud and trusting of our military. But this trust and support cannot be taken for granted. If Americans perceive that the military is being exploited for political purposes or being used for experiments in woke social policies, that support will evaporate, and the consequences will be dire.

My hope and my prayer are that we figure this out before it is too late.


Thomas Spoehr

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. He earned a B.A. from William and Mary, an M.A. from Webster University, and an M.A. from the U.S. Army War College. While in the Army, he served in numerous leadership roles, including senior positions in the Pentagon and Commandant of the Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School. His operational experiences include service with the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st Armored Division. He participated in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and in 2011 he served as Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Forces Iraq.

EDITORS NOTE: This Imprimis Digest column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

2 replies
  1. Royal A Brown III
    Royal A Brown III says:

    Following are reasons why our military moral and combat readiness is at an all time low. The Obama 3 Administration and their WOKE DOD Secretaries and Staff and Generals/Admirals are having trouble recruiting and retaining today’s military personnel.
    – Exemptions from Deployment for up to a year for pregnant females and even military spouses once baby born
    – Field Laxtation Stations for pregnant females who can’t be deployed.
    – Opening Every military position including close combat to women.
    – Time Out Cards during basic training for those feeling the stress.
    – Mandatory instruction on Critical Race Theory.
    – Changing Chaplain’s Corps to entirely non-denominational collapsing this corps.
    – Terrible Rules of Engagement (ROI) for those who were in combat in Iraq & Afghanistan & elsewhere resulting in unnecessary deaths and maiming.
    – Afghanistan pull out travesty resulting in 13 deaths; $92 B in new military equipment and $200M in cash falling into hands of he world-wide Jihadist movement.
    – Allowing mentally unstable transgenders to serve and paying for their sex change operations.
    – Facilitating Nation Building missions rather than Combat Readiness.
    – Islaminization of our military.
    – Promoting traitors like Alexander Vindman who illegally leaked information from the National Security Council.
    – Allowing Iraq enemies to capture our fully armed gun boats and run rings around a fleet of our combat ships.
    – Training emphasizing Diversity, Inclusion and Equity rather than combat operations that leads to such disasters as 2 modern destroyers colliding with merchant ships on the high seas and resulting in unnecessary deaths of dozens of sailors.
    – Promoting a policy allowing military to refuse assignments based on perception they will be discriminated against because of LGBTQMxyz or other tendencies.
    – Renaming every military post named after Confederate Generals (despite fact that Congress enacted a law stating that those who fought on side of south are considered US veterans) Following Civil War I Our people’s representatives made a conscious decision to name many of our military installations after CSA generals in an effort to amicably re-unite our nation. At the time, our national wounds were still fresh and this effort was made to honor the bravery of the CSA military. The signs at the gates are set with steel posts in order to be permanent. The name of the installation is not fastened with Velcro and should not be changed just because a bunch of people who have no understanding of history, decided to throw a hissy fit.
    .- Following guidance that Climate Change is the #1 threat to national security,
    – Relieving Commanders for displaying values which clash with LGBTQMxyz values.
    – Going soft on traitors like Bergdahl whose desertion in combat resulted in deaths of 6 US soldiers looking for him (Note – current Chair JCS, Milley, then a LTG was directly responsible for leniency shown Bergdahl.
    – Changing physical fitness standards to gender neutral thus reducing any kind of reasonable standards – Reducing the standards and requirements for graduation from tough combat courses such as Rangers, Force Recon, Special Forces, Crucible, SEALs, etc. so that women could pass and be “qualified”.
    – USMC using rainbow colored patches and bullets in celebration of “Pride Month”.
    – Suppressing information on sexual harassment in military where the leading suspects are not heterosexual males but rather homosexual males.
    – Ridding the service of “toxic masculinity” and replacing many former warriors with pajama or pillsbury dough boys.
    – Cancelling the culture of the former military that most of us were proud to serve and replacing the “warrior spirit ethic/ethos” feared by our enemies with something we are hard pressed to identify with that is no longer feared by our enemies.
    – Armed Services Committee complained to the Army that too many women are not passing the Physical Training Test. They have told the Army to change the PT Test for women to measure the things women can master. Yep, that will make them combat ready.
    – Recruiting and retention stats are at an all time low. Here’s more reasons why.
    1. The constant headlines about sexual assault and sexual harassment looms large in the eyes of parents and potential recruits. People fear being at the mercy of sexual predators.
    2. The discussions about transgender individuals in the dorms and locker rooms.
    3. Some women believe they will be pushed into the combat arms.
    4. Unisex uniforms.
    5. There are some things about openly serving homosexuals that the current generation will tolerate but not embrace.
    6. Trust has eroded and must be earned back.
    7. Wesley Manning and Bo Bergdahl get more media coverage than the highly decorated heroes.
    8. There is no perceived challenge for the Alpha Males in mixed sex recruit training. The average 18 year old males does not take well to a screeching Harpie Army drill sergeant. Indirect Physical intimidation by leading by example simply will not work when the Drill Sergeant can not even pass your PFT. ( a linebacker team captain leads differently from a QB team captain. At the entry level the Tennis team captain cannot lead the linebackers.)
    9.The full scale entry of the Flag ranks (mostly retired) into the political fray has been an out and out disaster on every level. The perception is that they are partisan political, grossly self serving, corrupt and incompetent all at once.
    10. Being accused, almost daily, that you are racist, privileged, homophobic, sexist and that your values are toxic does not help recruit.

    I have been recommending that the state of the military is terrible and that I would not want anyone to join the military for any reason. Today, we have immoral leaders at the highest levels. No sense in becoming cannon fodder, or worse yet, having to give up all morality to become successful.
    I’m sure you can think of other ridiculous military polices in place under O’Biden, Austin, Milley, etc. which have grossly undermined morale and the ability to fight and win in combat.
    I know we still have brave, strong soldiers in the trenches today, serving honorably but for how much longer under these circumstances?

    Royal A. Brown III
    LTC (USA-Ret), Airborne, Ranger, Infantry
    President, Winter Haven (FL) 912 Group (575 conservatives)
    Ultra Maga
    Tyranny Hates the Truth

  2. Ruckweiler
    Ruckweiler says:

    Meanwhile, our most dangerous adversary, the Red Chinese, are going full-bore towards their goal of domination while we’re worried about everything but readiness and training. This “lack” will generate a fearsome price on a future battlefield for us and will cause desperate times such as haven’t been seen since 1942. Kurt Schlichter refers to the diversity game as DIE which is correct.


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