The Military’s Long History of Dealing with Racism

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Senior National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (releasing in November 2021)

OPINION — The current clash between Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley and former-President Trump reminds me a bit of the Army’s confrontation back in 1954 with the late-Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The issue 66 years ago, was McCarthy’s claim that the Army was soft on communism. Trump’s argument is that Milley and other senior military officers have adopted “critical race theory,” and thus are “woke,” as Trump claimed during his Wellington, Ohio, rally last Saturday night.

“The Biden administration issued new rules pushing twisted critical race theory … into our military,” Trump told several thousand supporters gathered at the Lorain County Fairgrounds. “Our generals and our admirals are now focused more on this nonsense than they are on our enemies.”

He rambled on, “You see these generals lately on television? They are woke. Our military will be incapable of fighting and incapable of taking orders.” Trump then carried on a hypothetical conversation saying, “You’re going to tell some private, ‘Private stand up. You stand up right now,’” with the private responding, “I’m not standing up. You can’t talk to me that way, general.”

Trump then predicted, “That private’s going to tell the general, ‘Don’t you ever speak to me that way, general — I’ll kick your ass.’ That’s where we are going,” Trump continued, “Woke. I know some of these guys [generals] and boy do they change quick. They went right over to the other side.”

McCarthy, 66 years ago, also made outrageous claims and eventually lost his fight with the Army. That was because the facts were on the Army’s side and eventually so were most Americans.

The trigger for Trump’s recent remarks were  statements Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Milley made during last Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing where the subject was supposed to be the fiscal 2022 Defense Department budget.

However, in his questioning, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) first asked why Space Command Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier had been relieved of his command. Austin said it was a decision made by Lohmeier’s commander and cited “lack of confidence,” but the Secretary would not comment further because the matter was under investigation by the Inspector General. Lohmeier, author of the book, Irresistible Revolution: Marxism’s Goal of Conquest & the Unmaking of the American Military, had claimed during an interview promoting his book last month, that “our diversity, inclusion and equity industry and the trainings we’re receiving in the military via that industry are rooted in critical race theory which is rooted in Marxism.”


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Gaetz then said he had been told by service personnel that Secretary Austin’s stand-down to discuss extremism had “impaired group cohesion,” echoing what Lohmeier said in an interview. Gaetz asked, “How should the Department of Defense think about critical race theory?” Milley tried to make a comment, but Gaetz said the question was for the Secretary.

A clearly irritated Austin responded saying, “I don’t know what the issue of critical race theory is, and the relevance here is, for the Department. We do not teach critical race theory. We don’t embrace critical race theory, and I think that’s a spurious conversation. We are focused on extremist behavior and not ideology, not people’s thoughts and not people’s political orientation. Behavior is what we are focused on.”

After Gaetz again claimed Lohmeier was relieved from duty because of “his thoughts,” the congressman then questioned Austin as to why he had hired “a critical race theorist to give you advice on personnel matters.”  The person Gaetz referred to was Bishop Garrison, an African-American, West Point graduate and veteran of the Iraq war with two Bronze Stars, who was hired in February as a senior advisor to the Secretary to deal with issues such as diversity, white supremacy and extremists in uniform.

Gaetz went on to try to link Garrison to critical race theory using a July 2019 tweet by Garrison which criticized then-President Trump. The tweet said, “Support for him [meaning Trump], a racist, is support for ALL his beliefs,” but offered no connection to critical race theory other than the tweet ended referencing a hashtag “Black 44.”

It was 25 minutes later, when Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) yielded time to Milley saying, “I knew he had some comments to make.”

Some of Milley’s remarks have gotten wide circulation, particularly when he said he wanted to understand the thinking behind the crowd that, as he put it, “caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America.”

He went on to say, “What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind and I do want to analyze it. It’s important that we understand that because our soldiers, sailors, Marines and Guardians, they come from the American people so it is important that the leaders, now and in the future understand it.”

He also said, “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned and non-commissioned officers of being ‘woke’ or something else because we are studying some theories that are out there, that were started at Harvard Law School years ago. It proposed that there were laws in the United States, antebellum laws prior to the Civil War that led to…African Americans being three-quarters of human beings when this country was formed. And we had a Civil War and an Emancipation Proclamation which changed it. And we brought it up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took 100 years to change that.”

“Look,” he said speaking directly to Rep. Waltz (R-Fla.), a 24-year Army Green Beret officer, who had just questioned a lecture on “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, at West Point, “I do want to know, and I respect your service, we were both Green Berets, but I want to know and it matters to our military and to the discipline and cohesion of our military.”

What the public needs to know today are the facts supporting Austin, Milley and their military colleagues.  It is worth noting that in January 2017, West  Point offered a course entitled: Race, Ethnicity and Nation, which according to its description, “will aim to provide a historical comprehension of what the concepts of ‘ethnic,’ ‘racial,’ ‘national,’ and gendered identities are, theories of how and when they emerged, and how they intersect or break down.” For this course, the reading for its January 24, 2017, class was listed as “Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1-38.”

More recently, on June 25, 2020, nine West Point graduates from the classes of 2018 and 2019 delivered to the Academy leadership, a 40-page report of examples of racism at West Point along with several proposed remedies. One proposal called for the creation of “a core academic class on the intersection between race, ethnicity, gender, and class that every Cadet is required to take,” and another was to “Commit West Point’s leadership development program to help Cadets unlearn racism and be allies in pursuit of an anti-racist and anti-bias society.”

The report from the former West Pointers hardly took place in a racial a vacuum.

After the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, there were hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country, some of which had violent moments. One was the June 1, 2020 demonstration outside Lafayette Square, north of the White House, which was broken up forcefully by law enforcement officers, allowing then-President Trump to cross through the area on his way to have a photo taken in front of St. John’s Church.  He was accompanied by then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Ten days later, on June 11, 2020,  Milley publicly apologized for appearing alongside President Trump as he walked across Lafayette Park, saying in a pre-recorded graduation speech to students at the National Defense University that it “was a mistake that I have learned from…I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.””

Milley decried the “senseless, brutal killing” of Floyd, saying, “His death amplified the pain, the frustration, the fear that so many of our fellow Americans live with day in and day out…The protests that have ensued speak not only to his killing, but to the centuries of injustice toward African Americans.” Milley also called for military leaders to look for ways to improve equality, noting the military’s “mixed record” on the issue.

The next day, June 12, 2020, Trump was asked his reaction to Milley’s statement and a similar one from Esper during an interview on Fox News. “No, no, I mean, if that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine…I have good relationships with the military. I’ve rebuilt our military. I spent two and a half trillion dollars—nobody else did,” he said.

On September 2, 2020, West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams told an Association of the U.S. Army audience that he had directed his inspector general’s office to begin a formal investigation into the allegations of racist incidents raised by the former cadets. He added, “Oftentimes, we don’t stop and take time to listen. But it’s incumbent on leadership, once we’ve listened, that we take action. So we look forward to taking action.”

West Point had already been staging individual “Honorable Living Days,” Williams said, during which all classes and extra-curricular activities were cancelled and the entire day directed at what he called “corrosive subjects,” such as sexual assault and sexual harassment. One had been held the previous January 14, 2020, when the subject was combat issues related to sexual assault and harassment. He added, “The one we’re going to do in a few weeks is focused on racism.”

Ironically, two days later, the Trump Office of Management and Budget (OMB), on September 4, 2020, put out a statement that the then-President had become aware of press reports that “employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism” or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism.’” The OMB statement went on to say, “The President has directed me to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.”

However, West Point’s Honorable Living Day on September 23, 2020, as Williams had promised, began with a morning program at Michie Stadium, where cadets shared personal stories about their experiences related to racism and prejudice. “We know that our graduates will lead diverse formations in the future, so they must be ready to build and lead cohesive teams with their soldiers,” said Jeffrey Peterson, director of West Point’s Character Integration Advisory Group.

West Point was aware, and teaching about racism, before concerns about critical racial theory were raised, and they will continue to do so because it is the right thing to do.

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The Author is Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (releasing in November 2021)  He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the... Read More

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