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A theme that keeps dominating certain corners of media commentary is the idea that the U.S. armed forces have become “woke.” In today's vocabulary, this implies that the American military has been overtaken by ideological imperatives that push a far-left political agenda.
Allegedly, U.S. enlisted personnel and officers are being subjected to compulsory exercises in groupthink that devalue the American historical experience, spread contempt for traditional American values and diminish the appeal of military service in favor of other alternatives.
From time to time, concern about political bias in the American armed forces has been voiced both by liberals and conservatives. Some liberals have warned against infiltration of the enlisted ranks by right-wing extremists who regard the American government as fundamentally illegitimate and deserving of overthrow.
Some conservatives have warned against Marxist or postmodern ideas being adopted by government agencies, including the Pentagon, and foisted on officers and enlisted personnel whom they claim are quietly gritting their teeth in resentment.
Is the present-day American military leaning too far to port instead of starboard? Critics who assert this also blame so-called woke Pentagon culture for the challenges facing military recruiters, including declining rates of enlistment.
There are reasons to doubt that the U.S. military is submerged in leftist or woke culture, and that is causing difficulties in military recruitment.
There are other forces driving the recruitment troubles. First, the labor market is one of nearly full employment, with even high-paying jobs in the private sector desperate for suitable applicants. The more attractive the civilian job market proves to be, the more challenging military recruitment always becomes.
Second, the skill set and learning potential expected of recruits to the U.S. armed forces no longer fit the popular civilian image based on 20th-century “dogfaces” and G.I. Joes. For example, infantry recruits today will be expected to deal with complex equipment and training regimens that demand physical durability and cognitive flexibility well beyond that of their fathers and grandfathers. The U.S. Space Force and cyber commands need to be populated by persons at the upper end of the scale for imagination, creativity and the ability to "connect the dots."
Another motive for military recruitment is patriotism. The tradition of serving in the armed forces is often handed down from generation to generation in military families. These multigenerational military families come disproportionally from small-town and rural America, where great pride in military service is combined with shrinking job opportunities in the civilian labor market. That component of the American population is shrinking, meaning that there are fewer and fewer potential recruits from this group.
For the past 50 years, the United States has had an all-volunteer force. That means that the sociological diversity of the armed forces cannot be imposed by fiat in the same way that a force based on conscription can operate.
Diversity means that the American military is open to all races, genders, gender identities, nationalities and so forth -- but the force is made up from persons who self-select military service as a profession (at least temporarily, although some make a career of it). Recruitment rates therefore are less revealing of the true diversity in the armed forces than are retention rates.
In addition, there is a misunderstanding of what training sessions in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) are intended to accomplish, in or outside of the military. If effectively presented, these sessions are not indoctrinations in political messaging, but awareness-raising opportunities for informed discussion and sharing of experiences.
Granted, some bureaucracies excel in reducing nuanced issues into wood chip fragments of imbecility. But this outcome from DEIB information is neither inevitable nor desirable. Civilian workplaces have developed successful programs in support of diversity, and there is little or no evidence that the Pentagon has failed to meet acceptable standards of professional competency in this area.
Finally, “diversity” in the larger sense implies intellectual diversity, including the encouragement of a clash of ideas about national security policy, military strategy and operational art. Anyone who has taken part in war games, conferences and-or seminars at U.S. war colleges and staff and command colleges can testify to the thorough preparation and intensity of participants as they dissect one another's arguments and analyses.
Large egos and senior rank offer no guarantees against the exposure of weak arguments and assumptions. Many faculty in civilian universities would be surprised to witness the aggressive give-and-take among candidates for general or flag rank in the American armed forces -- compared to the not uncommon groupthink in many civilian faculty offices and classrooms. The American military leadership is awake, not woke.
Lawrence Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a former assistant secretary of defense and a retired Navy captain.
Stephen J. Cimbala is distinguished professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University Brandywine and author of numerous works in the fields of U.S. national security studies, deterrence and nuclear arms control.