Opinion

Woke Army or Woe Army: What really happened in the social media controversy rocking the force?

How can the Army dominate the information space when its leaders retreat from it?
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. (Capt. Bryant Wine/U.S. Army National Guard) 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.

It is not often that a delay in the retirement of a senior Army officer becomes national news, but as the current social media imbroglio goes to show, that is apparently no longer the case in America’s hyper-partisan political environment. 

The current controversy that’s embroiled the force began in September when news broke that Maj Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, had his scheduled retirement put on pause. Reporters quickly pieced together that the pause was due to an Army Inspector General investigation into allegations of misconduct linked to Donahoe’s social media use. 

Within hours, the news rocketed across military social media and then crossed into the national press ecosystem with outlets ranging from the Washington Post to New York Post. The reason for the stir is how the investigation tied into a range of important and controversial issues, from America’s culture wars and hyper-partisanship to proper online behavior to civil-military relations and the very future of the U.S. military. 

Yet, as with almost every controversy today, what actually happened has become warped and misunderstood — including maybe even by the investigators themselves. Even more striking, the lessons and implications of the controversy go well beyond the incident in question and could haunt the Army, the military profession, and American politics for years to come. 

As someone who has actually read the 41-page Army IG report, as well as worked on the questions of social media and conflict for the last decade, here’s what you need to know about the investigation, the controversy, and what comes next. 

Who is Patrick Donahoe? 

Donahoe joined the Army out of ROTC at Villanova University in 1989. In the decades that followed, his career reflected the demands foisted upon the force in the post-Cold War era of American hegemony and then the long arc of the Global War on Terror. He served everywhere, from Bosnia and Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving a Bronze Star and rising to the rank of major general. In July 2020, he was moved from his role as deputy commanding general of the Eighth Army in Korea to the new role of commander of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Georgia; as the name indicates, it is one of the key facilities for training and thinking on the future of the Army. 

It was primarily during this latter period, just before his move to Benning, that Donahoe apparently began to see social media as a place to reach his increasingly online force. Twitter, with its rapid messaging format and widespread use by both American political leaders and journalists, was an ideal platform for this manner of strategic communication, and his personal Twitter account, @PatDonahoeArmy , soon became one of the more followed Army leaders on the social network. 

Donahoe’s social media strategy — “to tell the Army story,” as he put it in the IG report — differed from the norm of formal organizational announcements. He mixed in inspirational quotes with articles he had read that he thought valuable for the military profession and talked up everything from base visits and recruiting to his love of tanks. He also was Army direct in his tone, as captured in a pinned tweet that stated, “We are leaders in the worlds most intellectually demanding profession where the cost of crappy preparation is the death of your people and the fate of your nation.”

Donahoe built up thousands of military followers on Twitter and Military Times named him No. 1 among “the top service members” to follow online in 2019. He wasn’t just popular, though; the institutional Army also showed its pleasure by highlighting his online presence in articles on the official Army website and, most notably, a Facebook live stream in 2020 where he talked about the importance of maintaining vigilance against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) despite widespread weariness over controversial restrictions intended to combat the spread of the virus. 

“COVID is not tired, so we can’t be either,” he said at the time. 

The woke military

Donahoe’s social media activity should have been a success story, and, indeed, was treated by the Army as such — until two other forces converged during his career: the rise of hyper-partisanship, in which toxic online behavior became endemic, and the U.S. military’s shift from respected institution to cultural war punching bag in the eyes of many conservatives. 

After the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. military — which had traditionally been lionized by the Republican party — was targeted by a new wave of far-right figures who condemned the armed forces as “woke.” “Woke” or “wokeness” is an internet-driven term for being “actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice),” one which conservatives quickly co-opted into a pejorative for progressive policies and sensibilities, namely those that, in the case of the Defense Department specifically, focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

The story of how Donahoe’s career and these larger forces crossed begins in December 2020. One of Donahoe’s staff officers, who according to both the report and online discussion was angry at being passed over for an assignment, filed a complaint against him. Contrary to the subsequent controversy on social media issues, the centerpiece of the officer’s complaint was not Donahoe’s online behavior, but allegations that ranged from him being a “toxic” leader to claims that he had misspent money and broken the law. 

These were serious charges, and an investigation was launched by the Army IG to assess their validity. In February 2021, the IG found “no evidence” to the officer’s accusations. It also found that, contrary to being a toxic leader, Donahoe was, in the words of one interviewee who had served under him, “a charismatic and passionate leader, teacher, mentor, and was approachable.” As such, the IG dismissed the investigation on Feb. 25, 2021. 

All would normally be good news for the Army and, in a previous era, would have closed the matter and Donahoe would have gone on to his retirement. Yet, in the interim,, the disgruntled officer sent eleven additional annexes of complaints about his boss that extended the investigation, leading to the new report that was issued in August of this year and sparked the recent social media firestorm. The litany of complaints ranged from not being verbally congratulated when he was selected to war college, that Donahoe was “blunt” in his interactions, to intimations that Donahoe was having affairs, to accusations that Donahoe was being irresponsible on social media. 

While the IG found no substance to the other new allegations and dismissed them again “as not credible,” the IG did find that Donahoe “failed to display Army Values and core leader competencies on social media.” There were three episodes in particular that the IG report honed in on — and, notably, each related to tweets that Donahoe had posted in support of fellow Army members and Army policies.

The TV host

The first instance came in March 2021, when Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked the U.S. military as being weak and ‘woke’ under the new Biden administration, specifically describing the appearance of women in uniform as a “mockery of the U.S. military” compared to more masculine adversaries like the Chinese and Russian militaries. 

The remarks immediately created controversy, as Carlson had obviously intended, and Donahoe was among the hundreds of thousands of people, both military and civilian, who responded online. The general in particular posted a video of him proudly leading the re-enlistment ceremony of a female soldier, commenting that the service of her and tens of thousands of other female soldiers showed that Carlson “couldn’t be more wrong.”

The IG’s report found that Donahoe defending women in uniform was “overly political” and it “cast the Army in a negative light,” due it to drawing attention to the matter from other Fox personalities like Laura Ingraham. Donahoe disagreed that his posts crossed the line into what is actually prohibited by Army policy, namely “partisan activity.” He told the investigators that what he had done was an “attempt to defend” the service of women in the Army. “If we…as Army leaders are unwilling to defend them in public, I think that is a tremendous threat to the cohesion of our Army.” 

In assessing these competing claims between the IG and Donahoe, it is important to note that we have had decades of women successfully serving in the military. To attack them in a uniform as a “mockery” is not just contrary to how honorably serving military members deserve to be treated, but also blatantly unfactual. Given the recent performance of Russia’s “masculine” army, oft-cited as a comparison to the weak and ‘woke’ U.S. military, it is also laughable.

More relevant to the question of military law and policy on social media, five matters stand out. The first matter is that a member of the military disagreeing with a civilian is actually not that remarkable. It happens all the time, on issues that range from military budgets to weapons systems, in settings that range from real-life congressional hearings, press briefings, and think tank events to online discussions, lectures, and social media. 

The second matter is the question of whether Donahoe crossed into prohibited activity, such as by using his military status to endorse a political candidate or party. Active duty military members have rights as all Americans do to vote and voice opinions, but they cannot use their official status to participate in partisan political activity. Just as they may vote but not wear a uniform at a political candidate’s rally, they may “follow” “friend” or “like” a political party or candidate running for office but cannot share posts from them. In this case, Donahoe had not made a mention of either Democratic or Republican party positions on women being a “mockery,” nor is Tucker Carlson an elected official or candidate for office. 

The third matter is whether Donahoe had crossed an obvious professional line, such as being personally insulting. He did write that Carlson “couldn’t be more wrong,” but that is a fairly tame disagreement for the online world. 

The fourth matter is the actions of others. While he is the only one cited by the IG, Donahoe was far from the only military leader to publicly disagree with Carlson. As just one illustration, the previous commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the organization that Donahoe served in, weighed in to “agree” that Carlson was “wrong,” followed by the currently-serving Sergeant Major of the Army, layering on top of their two tweets that Carlson’s “words are divisive, don’t reflect our values.” 

The deputy commanding officer at TRADOC, a lieutenant general, also weighed in.

The fifth and final matter was how the remarks landed on the targets of the discussion. While Carlson’s remarks that female service members were a “mockery” had obviously cast them “in a negative light,” many did not feel the same of the male soldiers like Donahoe who spoke out on their behalf against Carlson. As Martina Chesonis, spokeswoman for the Service Women’s Action Network, told Military Times, seeing senior military leaders address Tucker Carlson’s comments “so quickly and so directly is really validating, honestly.”

The Twitter pundit

The second issue that the IG report raised was Donahoe’s interaction with a private citizen, Josiah Lippincott, a Marine veteran, college radio talk show host, and graduate student at the conservative Hillsdale College. Lippincott has a combative online presence, frequently describing military officials and service members as “woke losers,” and appearing in “Don’t Join The Army” videos. Notably, Lippincott’s account has since been banned from Twitter for repeated violations of its rules against celebrating violence and spreading election disinformation. Even more, Lippincott’s later attempt to evade the ban, by creating a new account, was foiled after he was found out by mocking those grieving the deaths of U.S. soldiers

Before he was banned from Twitter, Lippincott responded to Donahoe’s posts on the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate policy by blaming the rules for soldier suicides and describing them as “a way bigger killer than the virus.” Donahoe took issue with this statement and responded that such a comparison was “a false equivalency” before tagging Lippincott’s college in a subsequent tweet encouraging them to “come get your boy” for posting falsehoods. During the exchange, Donahoe also posted back at an anonymous user weighing in with other falsehoods, “Don’t be a shill for Putin.”

Here, Donahoe clearly violated three rules of online conflict as opposed to Army rules. To begin, in social media arguments, there’s no value in fighting down: a major general has no need to engage a college radio station host. Even by follower numbers, Donahoe had an order of magnitude more, making him several weight classes above Lippincott; he could have easily shrugged it off with few noticing. The second rule is a familiar one: you don’t feed the trolls. They are seeking attention and granting them that gives them the win. And, third, don’t forget the real world: While Donahoe was using an internet meme by stating “come get your boy,” it was too easy to misinterpret by those not in the know and view as unbecoming of his rank. 

Donahoe would have done far better to ignore Lippincott altogether. Alternatively, he should have utilized the disagreement as a teaching moment, such as by screenshotting the post (so that the troll doesn’t get the clicks) and then commenting on it as a false belief circulating online, then explaining the facts of the issue. 

What’s interesting is that Donahoe subsequently came to the same realization. According to the IG report, he actually told his battalion commanders and sergeant majors that what he had done on Twitter was “not the way to go about it.” He encouraged them to behave differently, using his own mistake as a teaching moment. The IG report even noted that “after the Meeting, the BN CDRs and CSMs commented that MG Donahoe demonstrated a trait [admission of when he was in the wrong] they desired from leaders.” The same regret came in his interaction with the IG investigators; Donahoe told them his “snarky” tone was “beneath him” and that he was regretful because he had not been “following his own advice” to others on proper internet behavior. 

The junior officer

The final track of IG concern came from Donahoe’s online interaction not with civilians, but with a junior officer. 

A female officer in the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning posted an image of herself on her social media account. Sadly, and as happens to far too many female soldiers online, she then became the target of threats of sexual assault and harassment online, extending to calls for her to be “raped.” Donahoe weighed in, posting messages of support for this soldier. It was also intended to make clear that senior leaders in the force were aware of what was going on, to scare off any service members participating in the toxic behavior. 

The investigators here worried about potential interpretations of him reaching out to support a lower-ranking soldier, who was the target of “misogynistic and cruel” comments. Donahoe here again, disagreed, telling them he saw this kind of open support to a junior officer as part of his job as a leader, “protecting his soldier in the ‘larger context of gender integration in the combat arms branches.’”

In the week that followed, Donahoe named her account as among 15 military Twitter handles to follow and had a subsequent interaction online, during which he joked that wanted “co-author credit” for the job that she had done on a battle analysis. Investigators said it could have given the impression that the report “may have actually been MG Donahoe’s work.” Donahoe responded that the communication was intended to show continued support to the officer who had been under online siege, that all the messages had been out in the open, and the “co-author” tweet was very obviously a joke about the classwork. As above, no one ever actually raised the concern that he had written her report. 

Two aspects are notable about this last incident. The first is that the IG’s concerns were over potentials of what people might think and do rather than actuals. The second is that it illustrates the new questions about a leader’s role in and with the 21st-century force. Their interactions, and even jokes, with their subordinates play out both in the barracks and in the online world. That is, one of the seven core Army Values is “Respect,” to treat others as they should be treated. The IG and Donahoe clearly had different interpretations of what that meant in an era of online interaction and soldiers under attack. 

What are the repercussions?

With the IG’s report in, it is now up to the senior leadership of the Army on how to respond. It can punish Donahoe for one or all of these social media transgressions, all the way to stripping him of his rank, or it can let the general retire as planned and essentially ignore the report as tone-deaf. But how this plays out matters for far more than Maj. Gen. Donahoe, however, with the repercussions going far wider and longer for the force in four key ways. 

The first is that the IG’s biggest concern seemed to be Donahoe drawing attention to the force that could “cast the Army in a negative light.” By that measure, the IG may now need to conduct a report upon its own report. The entire episode is a near perfect illustration of what is known as the ‘Streisand Effect.’ This concept comes from an early 2000s incident in which actress Barbara Streisand discovered that a picture of her Malibu mansion was available online via a record of the California Coastal Records Project and sued to take it offline. But, in doing so, she drew far more attention to it than ever would have been otherwise. 

In this case, the IG’s report highlighting episodes that had already died out online drew scores of major media articles and generated almost a quarter million social media posts within the first 24 hours. In seeking to respond to perceived negative publicity of a perceived problem, it actually drew attention to it, now forcing leaders across the service to respond. Even more, it did so literally days before AUSA, the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. Whatever one’s take on the rightness or wrongness of either Donahoe’s actions or the IG report, one can agree that it was not the topic that the Army wanted talked about both online and in the hallways during its biggest event of the year. Indeed, half of the opening questions at the AUSA press conference with Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth and the Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville were related to the episode. 

The second effect comes from the IG’s failure to understand the very same rule that Donahoe failed to respect: don’t feed the trolls. It is clear that there is a culture war going on in America and, as part of that conflict, a variety of actors are trying to make political hay and personal gain out of turning the acts of the military and its individual members into their punching bag. The IG’s report seems to recognize this, but not its own role in it now. Intentionally or unintentionally, the IG not only waded into this conflict but sent the message out to those engaged in such efforts (who, in this case, ranged from a disgruntled subordinate to a national media figure) that there is value to be had by such episodes. You not only can gain and then regain attention months after a throwaway tweet, but you also have the potential means to professionally punish those you target. 

This leads to the third implication, the larger effect of what the episode means for military members in the future. Not only does it message that such tactics can work all the way up to a senior leader, but it also has been interpreted by those under attack from various parts of American civil society that they are now on their own. 

The Donahoe episode was not a one-off but builds upon a practice that took off in the summer of 2021. Online trolls and far-right activists have engaged in witchhunts for individual soldiers with “radical beliefs” who had committed the supposed sin of being “woke” or “anti-racist,” their targets ranging from young corporals up to lieutenant colonels. The resulting mob sicced upon well-meaning officers and sought to “end their career[s]” in the service of “the removal of metastatic cancer from the ranks,” contacting their chain of command and trying to turn them into a problem for their superiors. It is a surprisingly effective strategy, especially for an institutional Army that is caught flat-footed in its response.

Soldiers silhouettes.
Green Berets transport a simulated casualty during Medical Evacuation training (Spc. Peter Seidler/U.S. Army)

Indeed this came to the fore at a Monday AUSA press conference, where Army Secretary Wormuth answered questions on the episode by stating that, “One of the things I think that’s most important to [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [James] McConville and I is keeping the Army apolitical and keeping it out of the culture wars.” The challenge for this is that both “culture war” topics drew in Maj. Gen. Donahoe and the broader military were women in the military and military health policy. Trotsky’s aphorism may need to be updated for military leaders: “You may not be interested in culture war, but culture war is interested in you.”

The hard truth is that the U.S. military needs to expect more of these attacks on not just the force overall, but its individual members; an even harder truth is that provocateurs will also go after military families. Look no further than Donahoe, whose wife has received death threats via her Facebook page and his children’s names posted online. This is all now baked into our social media ecosystem. Its very design and how it drives our new politics, encourage what retired Marine Corps colonel and former Pentagon spokesman David Lapan calls “manufactured outrage.” 

It won’t stop at culture war, though. Our foreign enemies are learning from our domestic hyper-partisans about what divides us and how such rifts can be weaponized. As an essay in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings explains, we can expect online smears against individual military members to be part of any future conflict. Today, it is fellow Americans fighting a culture war. Tomorrow, it might be Russia or China in a real war undermining units by sidelining officers with faux crises and online mobs. Sadly, they will likely find bands of U.S. citizens ready to pitch in as what Soviet intelligence professionals called “useful idiots” and “fellow travelers.” 

The Army IG’s report has not only sent a message to future attackers that such provocations work, but also to their future victims — female service members in particular. Part of what drove the IG report viral was not just the news itself, but initial expressions of shock from female soldiers that a senior leader who had spoken out on their behalf was being punished for it. As one noncommissioned officer told Military.com, “Intentionally or not, this whole thing showed women that we are not worth defending. If he can get slapped for this, why would anyone defend women in public?” Searing comments from female service members and veterans capture the depth of their anger. “Every time these guys shit all over us [women in uniform] … it’s fucking crickets, it’s fucking silence from all the guys out there, from all our buddies, from the high-ranking officers, from the whole culture.” Others were concerned about what it would mean for recruiting. “Why would any women want to serve now?” an anonymous Army general told Military.com on the ripple effects of the IG report. “The Army gave a hunting permit to radical partisans.”

This illustrates the fourth and perhaps biggest effect of the episode on the military: Whether it was the IG’s intent or not, its actions will reverberate across the entire profession now, and it will lead officers to fear, perhaps rightfully, even being present in a needed communication space. What happens on social media matters, shaping everything from individual behavior to the outcomes of battles now. It also shapes the health of nations, both figuratively (over more than 30 democratic nations have seen their elections attacked by foreign government disinformation campaigns) and literally (the return of childhood diseases is linked to anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories). How can the Army dominate the information space when its leaders retreat from it?

Social media abhors a vacuum and while officers may fear to wade into it for fear of killing their careers, our adversaries won’t. This matters not only to the external fight, but also to officers’ task of leading the force. Social media is where their soldiers, their families, their partners in industry, other agencies, and allied militaries are now. It is also where public narratives about the military are shaped. To avoid it may be best for avoiding an IG report, but it also means avoiding communicating with those who matter. 

***

P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America and the co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media