Politico

Conservatives lash out at the military over ‘woke’ policies


Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused the Pentagon of caring more about hiring pregnant pilots than defending the United States. Sen. Ted Cruz said the left is trying to turn the military into “pansies.” And the Army was forced to disable comments on a series of new recruiting ads after criticism that the service has become too “woke.”

Republican lawmakers and right-wing personalities are increasingly criticizing military leaders over what they say is political bias against conservatives in the armed forces and the new Pentagon leadership’s “cancel culture” and focus on being “woke.”

For the most part, conservative critics have primarily aimed their fire at Defense Department leadership. But that’s not always the case. Former Trump aide turned right-wing radio and TV host Sebastian Gorka on Thursday launched a personal attack on an active-duty corporal featured in a new Army recruiting video discussing her childhood experience growing up with two moms.

“You are a disgrace to what it means to serve in the military at any rank,” Gorka said on Newsmax TV of the soldier, Cpl. Emma Malonelord, calling her out by name.

Republicans have a long history of touting their support for the armed forces, from featuring American flags and active-duty service members in campaign videos to advocating for higher defense spending in Congress. But the Pentagon’s recent diversity push has incensed conservatives, who accuse civilian and uniformed leaders of focusing on political correctness to the detriment of readiness.

Experts said conservatives are using the policy changes as a cudgel to attack Biden.

“Politicians like Senator Cruz are disgracefully trying to draw the military into culture wars that are terrible for cohesion in our military. Cohesion and commitment are what wins wars, and these attacks damage it,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

However, she noted that the new Pentagon leadership “talking so much about social issues and so little about fighting and winning wars — the reason we actually have a military — leaves some room for politicians like Sen. Cruz.”

The latest uproar comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has focused on rooting out extremism and increasing diversity in the military, a priority of President Joe Biden’s administration. Austin’s new mandate that troops complete a diversity and inclusion training program has been a particular source of mockery, along with his previous move to end the last administration’s ban on transgender troops.

“Most of the generals we see quoted in the press seem more committed to meeting some counterproductive diversity goal — hiring more pregnant Air Force pilots, assembling the world’s first transgender SEAL team — than on defending the United States,” Carlson said this week.

Carlson also mocked Austin for working to tackle climate change, another top Biden priority.

“This nation’s most formidable foe, the new secretary of Defense just announced, is the weather itself,” he said, although previous leaders have also cited climate change as a top threat.

The Pentagon has pushed back on previous conservative attacks, particularly in March after Carlson ridiculed pregnant women in the armed forces and insinuated that the U.S. military is weak compared to China because it is becoming “more feminine.”

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby took the unusual move of ripping into Carlson in front of reporters, saying that Austin expressed “revulsion” over the remarks.

“What we absolutely won’t do is take personnel advice from a talk show host, or the Chinese military,” Kirby said. “Maybe those folks feel like they have something to prove. That’s on them.”

Other military leaders also fired back, sending out tweets and videos in support of women in the military.

Cruz responded by sending a letter to Austin calling the Kirby statement and other military responses “far beneath the dignity of the United States military.”

The controversy over Carlson’s criticism, and the military’s response to it, has also ended up in court. The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch sued the Pentagon last week for emails between Austin and Gens. Mark Milley and John Hyten containing the terms “Tucker Carlson” and/or “Fox News.”

The lawsuit comes after the group filed a Freedom of Information Act request in March for the internal communications.

“We are deeply disturbed over the Pentagon’s illicit secrecy about its coordinated attacks on the First Amendment-protected speech of Tucker Carlson,” the group says. “To sum up, we asked the Pentagon to search two weeks’ worth of email, in three accounts, using two search terms. And they stonewalled.”

Pentagon spokesperson Jamal Brown said this week that “we are aware of the FOIA request and we will respond appropriately.”

Despite the Defense Department’s forceful responses in March, it’s unclear whether the Pentagon will strike back at detractors after this latest wave of criticism, or wait for it to blow over. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.

But one defense official said the rank-and-file is tired of both parties using the military to score political points. The military is apolitical and needs to stay that way, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.

“Don’t use an apolitical tool of national security for domestic voting games,” the person said. “Sure, we are a microcosm of society. But that’s not for politics to play with.”

‘Cancerous idealogy’

Conservatives this week slammed the decision to relieve Space Force commander Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier after comments he made about diversity training in the military.

“The diversity, inclusion and equity industry and the trainings we are receiving in the military … is rooted in critical race theory, which is rooted in Marxism,” he said on a podcast, Military.com reported.

Prominent lawmakers, already on edge over the whether the military would go too far in policing opinions as it focuses on extremism in the ranks, warned that the increasingly politicized environment was getting out of hand.

“Freedom of speech is one of the founding principles of our country, and right now, our military servicemembers’ careers are in jeopardy if they dare to be conservative,” House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) told Fox News on Thursday. “This cancel culture is getting out of control and it’s seeping into every aspect of American life.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, sent Austin a letter Thursday demanding the Defense Department publicly explain the rationale for Lohmeier’s dismissal.

“As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I am committed to stopping this cancerous ideology from corrupting the world’s greatest fighting force,” Wicker wrote to Austin. “I urge you to recognize the harm and division being sown in our Armed Forces and to commit to uprooting un-American [critical race theory] activism from our United States military.”

Conservatives, including Gorka, also pushed back this week on the new series of Army recruiting commercials designed to reach potential recruits from all backgrounds. One features Malonelord, the Army corporal, discussing her childhood in which she took ballet and marched for equality with her two moms; another ad shows a first lieutenant who immigrated to Florida from Haiti as a child.

Cruz on Thursday retweeted a video comparing the ads to Russian military propaganda featuring buff soldiers working out, shooting rifles and jumping out of planes. He wrote that the new U.S. Army videos are “terrible,” and accused liberal Democrats and the media of trying to turn “the greatest military on earth” into “pansies.”

A spokesperson for Cruz, Erin Perrine, added that national security and the military are endangered when the troops “focus on anything else” besides winning wars.

“Sen. Cruz passionately supports the brave men and women of the United States military and has repeatedly expressed concerns that Democrat politicians, left wing bureaucrats, and the media are politicizing our armed forces to promote a fringe woke agenda based on identity politics,” Perrine said in a statement.

Heidi Urben, a retired Army colonel who specializes in civil-military relations, said Cruz’s claims are damaging to the military’s efforts to stay out of the political fray.

“I found Sen. Cruz’s follow-on tweet, where he tried to claim he wasn’t attacking the military, just as problematic as his original one, when he claimed that ‘Dem politicians & woke media are trying to turn [the military] into pansies,'” said Urben, who now teaches at Georgetown University.

“By labeling the Army recruitment videos as ‘Dem videos,’ he is following a trend of politicians using the military as a partisan football — attacking the military when it’s perceived to be in opposition to their partisan stance and praising it when it appears to be a co-partisan,” she said. “Such comments aim to divide the military — a nonpartisan institution — and the public’s perception of its military.”

Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, director of Army marketing, defended the video series, saying the Army’s success “hinges on our ability to attract the best and brightest our country has to offer, which includes Soldiers from all walks of life.”

“Our new campaign ‘The Calling’ takes an important step in appealing to the next generation — Gen Z — and closing the relatability gap that exists today by offering a rare look at the lives and motivations of those who serve,” Fick said. “We are proud of all five Soldiers who volunteered to tell their stories as part of this campaign, and the Army is proud to have them in its ranks.”

Coming legislation

Fears that the Pentagon is attempting to purge conservatives extend beyond the far right, and even some establishment Republican lawmakers are looking to take on the issue in upcoming defense legislation.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, this week declared that he wants to see the issue addressed in the panel’s defense policy bill. He called on Republicans and “free-speech minded Democrats” to join him in drafting legislation that he says stems from silencing conservative voices and punishing troops for their political leanings.

“The United States Armed Forces should be focused on preparing to face and win any battles against the threats posed by China and other foreign adversaries and not imposing political beliefs on those who chose to serve in uniform,” Rogers said.

“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 servicemember’s military career,” Rogers added.

Though Rogers hasn’t given specifics on what that legislation might look like, the debate could become a marquee partisan fight in defense legislation that will likely need at least some GOP support to pass a tightly divided House.

And Rep. Mike Gallagher, the new top Republican on the Armed Services panel that oversees military personnel issues, signaled he’ll take a hard line on the issue. In a statement announcing his appointment this week, Gallagher, a Marine veteran, quoted from Marine Corps doctrine that states the military’s two basic functions are “waging war and preparing for war.”

“I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the Department is laser-focused on performing these functions and training our service members to be warriors — not wokesters,” Gallagher said.

Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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