Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has come under fire for his apparent embrace of “critical race theory.” When questioned by Republican members of Congress about the teaching of the theory at the U.S. Military Academy, he replied that although he had to “get smarter” on critical race theory, he thought it necessary “for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read, and the United States Military Academy is a university, and it is important that we train and we understand. And I want to understand white rage — and I’m white, and I want to understand it.”
He continued, “I’ve read Mao Tse-tung. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.” He added, “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned and noncommissioned officers, of being, quote, ‘woke,’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”
Let me say that I know Gen. Milley. As a lieutenant colonel, he was a student of mine at the Naval War College. He has always struck me a fine officer. President Donald Trump nominated him for chairman of the Joint Chiefs because of his reputation as a serious war fighter. I am appalled by the personal attacks on him. But I believe he is the victim of bad advice. For instance, his characterization of critical race theory is simply wrong.
To begin with, it’s not simply a benign academic theory in support of the advancement of civil rights for African Americans. Instead, it is a species of Marxism, albeit one with its roots in the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, that divides all questions into matters of oppressors and victims, which is determined via racial lines. Such racial essentialism is not a contribution to the expansion of civil rights but rather is fundamentally at odds with the principle that underpinned all advances in the rights of black Americans, from Civil War constitutional amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race, color, creed, or religion.
This promise of equal treatment for all men as presented in the Declaration of Independence was left unfulfilled by the American founding. But rather than critique the founding for its shortcomings, on slavery and other things, advocates of critical race theory reject the principles and promises of the Declaration altogether. They want to replace this framework with something radically different, for instance, replacing such concepts as “equality” with “equity” and subverting the meaning of “justice.”
Some suggest that opposition to critical race theory is motivated by a desire to whitewash American history. That history should be taught. But perspective matters. Slavery is America’s original sin, but when the United States was founded in 1776, slavery was a worldwide phenomenon. America’s founding principles made the abolition of slavery a moral imperative. Jim Crow was indeed a terrible stain on America, especially as it was nationalized by progressives such as President Woodrow Wilson. The Tulsa Massacre must never be forgotten.
Teaching our history honestly is not the same thing as the CRT program to which Gen. Milley genuflected. Its radical dogma seeks to unmake America entirely. But the main reason for the military to reject critical race theory is practical, not theoretical. In practice, the theory would undermine the cohesion necessary for military effectiveness and undo those successes that have made the U.S. military successful in minimizing the disruptions that arise from racial conflict.
The fact is that the U.S. military, while far from perfect, has been very successful in achieving racial equality. The late military sociologist Charles Moskos observed several decades ago that the U.S. Army was the only institution in America in which black men routinely gave orders to white men. But the Army was not alone. That was my own experience over 30 years of service in the Marine Corps as well. And the services accomplished this not by favoring African Americans over whites, or by focusing on race above all, but by holding all to equal standards. As former secretary of the Navy and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb observed, in the military, “fairness is the coin of the realm.”
I believe I was a reasonably effective and successful infantry platoon commander in Vietnam mainly because I treated my Marines, black or white, fairly. I promoted and rewarded them based on their performance, not their skin color. I think this was true of my fellow officers. Nothing destroys trust and morale like the perception of favoritism. It may seem like a cliche, but for me, the key to creating unit cohesion, which is the foundation of military effectiveness, was to ensure that my Marines were not members of a “white tribe” or a “black tribe,” but a “Marine green tribe.” It was my experience that most chose the Marine green tribe, rising above whatever prejudices they may have had in order to operate together.
The problem with the military’s embrace of critical race theory and other forms of identity politics is threefold. Firstly, they destroy trust and undermine unit cohesion. Secondly, they undermine trust between political and military leaders on the one hand and those they lead on the other. And finally, they undermine trust between the military as an institution and the public.
The first seems self-evident. If some military members are being taught that they are victims and others are oppressors, intentionally or not, the result will be the rise of a destructive tribalism. It was my experience in Vietnam that blacks and whites may have self-segregated in rear areas, but in combat situations, the Marine green tribe took precedence. The embrace of critical race theory encourages distrust among racial groups, which is fatal for the unit cohesion upon which military effectiveness depends.
As to the second, if the rank and file believe that their leaders are willing to sacrifice them on the altar of political correctness, as determined by some Robin DiAngelo-style human resources “equity” initiative, which has sadly risen to prominence in today’s Pentagon, there will be retention and recruiting consequences. There is no place in the U.S. military for KKK members, neo-Nazis, or skinheads. Of course, the services have long been on the lookout for such types, but critical race theory teaches that all whites are racist, which is a slander. Who wants to serve when people think you are a racist, essentially no different than a neo-Nazi?
Finally, the relationship between the military and the public will be adversely affected by the military’s embrace of critical race theory. And the military as an institution will suffer. In my writings on civil-military relations, I have noted that the often-forgotten party to the civil-military bargain is the public. Ultimately, no national security policy can survive without the support of that public. And it is here that a clash is coming.
On the one hand, the military remains popular at large, despite its failure to prevail in the post-9/11 wars. People seem to accept the argument that this failure has more to do with the constraints placed on the military than on the military’s doctrine, planning, and execution. They accept the military’s self-image as a profession and support its professional ethos, manifested as duty, honor, and sacrifice.
On the other hand, polls reveal that critical race theory is unpopular with the public, including African Americans. If people believe that the military is embracing the theory, that support may well erode. Evidence suggests that this move is already afoot. Many liberals have denounced the lack of “patriotism” on the part of conservatives because of the latter’s criticism of Gen. Milley and other high-ranking military leaders for their alleged “wokeness.” But it seems to me what the public is really criticizing is the military’s apparent shift from a true profession to just another self-interested bureaucracy.
That is where things stand today. Does the military refocus its attention on its purpose: to defend the United States against its enemies? Or does it continue to sell its soul to HR bureaucrats and racial extremists?
I have previously criticized flag and general officers, both active and retired, for not denouncing the calumny that the military has somehow become a hotbed of white supremacist racism. Had I been advising Gen. Milley, I would have encouraged him to push back against critical race theory rather than appearing to embrace it.
Mackubin Owens is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and author of U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain. He is currently writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.
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