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Army secretary concerned ‘woke military’ criticism could hurt the service

Claims that the military has gone ‘woke’ are now an issue in the upcoming presidential election.
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Christine Wormuth
FILE: Army Secretary Christine Wormuth speaks at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Feb. 24, 2022. (Jorge Garcia/U.S. Military Academy)

For more than two years, cable news pundits and Republican lawmakers have accused the military of going ‘woke,’ a loosely defined term that refers to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that Republican critics have claimed portray white people and the United States in a negative light. The term has been used to attack LGBTQ service members and to claim the military is becoming too feminine, unlike Russia.

Now ‘Wokeness’ in the U.S. military has already become an issue in next year’s presidential election.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who served in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps, has made his criticisms of the ‘woke military’ a pillar of his campaign to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. He recently vowed to change the name of Fort Liberty, North Carolina back to Fort Bragg if he is elected president.

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Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Tuesday that she is concerned about the drumbeat of criticism that the military has gone ‘woke’ becoming part of the 2024 presidential campaign.

“I think one of the things that we see that’s contributing to a decline in trust in the military is a concern on both sides of the aisle about politicization of our military leaders,” Wormuth told reporters during a media roundtable. “I think the more our military leaders are sort of dragged into spaces that have been politicized like that, I think the more it contributes to this perception that they’re political when they really aren’t. So, I hope that we don’t see more of the kind of talk that’s been out in the past few days.”

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth speaks at the ceremony inducting six Medal of Honor recipients into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., July 6, 2022. (U.S. Army) (DoD photo/Lisa Ferdinando)

But it is unlikely that the ‘woke military’ rhetoric will go away anytime soon. House Republicans recently added an “anti-woke” amendment to a budget bill that would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing abortions, transgender health care, or flying LGBTQ Pride flags.

In recent interviews with NPR and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Wormuth has sought to dispel any notion that the Army had gone ‘woke.’

“As I said a few times last week in some media engagements: We are a ready Army, not a ‘woke’ Army,” Wormuth said on Tuesday. “That’s something, frankly, the chief [Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville] and I said throughout posture season in hearings, in meetings with members of Congress.” 

Still, the Army’s record at standing up to accusations of going ‘woke’ has been mixed at best. An Army investigation in 2022 found that Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe had “brought a measurable amount of negative publicity to the Army” for defending female soldiers after former Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused the U.S. military of becoming “more feminine.”

In her initial comments following the investigation, Wormuth said the Army needed to stay “out of the culture wars,” but later clarified she expects Army leaders to “stand up for women — and all Soldiers — who are unduly attacked or disrespected.” 

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, then-commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, gives opening remarks to the Georgia Joint Defense Commission April 22, 2021, at Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, Georgia.

The escalating attacks on the military going ‘woke’ come as the Army continues to struggle with a recruiting crisis. The Army recruited 45,000 new soldiers last fiscal year, far short of its goal of 60,000 recruits.

On Tuesday, Wormuth said she does not expect the Army to meet its goal of recruiting 65,000 new soldiers this fiscal year either. She added that the service is recruiting more people than it was at this time last year, but declined to provide any data on how many new soldiers have signed up so far in Fiscal Year 2023.

Although Republican lawmakers have also claimed that military recruiting overall is suffering because the Defense Department has embraced ‘woke’ ideology, Wormuth said the Army’s marketing research indicates that concerns about a weak or ‘woke’ military have not been a major challenge for the Army’s recruiting efforts so far.

Wormuth’s comments are supported by a Defense Department survey of young Americans released in August 2022, which found that the top reasons respondents said they would not consider joining the U.S. military included the possibility of getting injured or killed, concern about developing post-traumatic stress and other psychological or emotional issues, and fear of being sexually harassed and assaulted. 

“Wokeness” did not appear anywhere in the survey at all.

But Wormuth added that she has “no doubt” some young Americans are reluctant to join the Army because they believe the Army is ‘woke.’

“I think we did see in our market research some differences geographically in terms of which factors were higher on the list or lower on the list in terms of affecting recruiting,” Wormuth said. 

Wormuth also cautioned that young Americans are influenced by what they see on the news and in social media, and is concerned that rhetoric of a ‘woke military’ could hurt the Army going forward.

“What I am trying to do is talk about now how that drip, drip, drip of criticism about a ‘woke military,’ I do think is having some counterproductive effects on recruiting,” Wormuth said. 

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