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Opinion Why the military is so well-suited to close down the critical race theory war

Gen. Mark A. Milley, center, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testify at a House committee hearing June 23. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

Conservative politicians have weaponized critical race theory to thwart discussion about America’s pernicious racial history. The U.S. military — an institution with a mixed record on racial equality — should close down this phony war by simply telling its own story with a full and open examination of the record.

I am not normally hawkish about calling for military action, but I’ll pound on the table to advocate for this battle. Why is the military so well suited to take this on? Let’s start with the Capitol Hill testimony last week by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the conservative response that followed it.

Milley defended the study of critical race theory while appearing alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first Black American to hold that post. Republican lawmakers had argued that including CRT on the syllabus at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point would weaken the military by giving in to a progressive agenda. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret, said a guest lecturer speaking to officer candidates at West Point dared to include the phrase “White rage.”

Oh, the irony of a GOP congressman decrying White rage when White rage on full display drove lawmakers out of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Milley wasn’t having it. “I want to understand White rage. And I’m White,” Milley said. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America. What caused that? … I want to find out.”

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Milley has since been eviscerated for those common-sense remarks. Former president Donald Trump called him “pathetic.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said, “He’s not just a pig. He’s stupid.“

At some point, this disrespect drifted into delusion. Pennsylvania Senate candidate Sean Parnell, an Army veteran and Fox News regular, mocked Milley’s comments last Friday saying, “We have been a colorblind culture in the U.S. military for almost 200 years.”

That’s just wrong. Pretending that the military has had a sterling history on race erases both the current challenges and the slow evolution past racist restrictions. It’s too easy to see the fully integrated armed forces of today and forget that there have been outright bans, separation of the races and a wide range of restrictions on service going back to the American Revolution.

So yes, tell the story of how and why the Militia Act of 1792 excluded black men from service. Explain how and why Black World War II vets did not have equal access to GI Bill benefits or how the Marine Corps did not have fully integrated units until 1960, a dozen years after segregation officially ended in the armed forces. In each of these cases the how will likely be easier to explain than the why. Please do it anyway.

But please also tell the story of the Buffalo soldiers, the Philippine Scouts, the Navajo Code Talkers. Describe how Black, Latino, Native American and Filipino men served as the literal backbone of the military during both world wars, building roads, hauling cargo, peeling potatoes and shoveling coal. Tell the stories of the Harlem Hellfighters and patriots such as Robert Smalls, Marcelino Serna, Dorie Miller and Susan Ahn Cuddy. Every American should learn how their valor rose above the strictures meant to restrict their service.

Racism is a scourge that limits the potential of individuals and groups within a specific cohort. But in the end, everyone pays a price — even those who enjoy the false comfort of status built upon the lie of inherent supremacy. The military learned that lesson in the heat of battle, and it’s clearly spelled out in a World War II era document.

In February 1945, the same month that the battle of Iwo Jima began, the U.S. Navy published a pamphlet called the “Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel.” After years of limiting roles for men of color, the Navy by necessity was shifting course. “In modern total warfare any avoidable waste of manpower can only be viewed as material aid to the enemy, “the document said. “Restriction, because of racial theories, of the contribution of any individual to the war effort is a serious waste of human resources.”

I hope you noticed the word “theories” in that last sentence. It stands as a reminder that many of the laws, customs, covenants and hierarchies that opponents of critical race theory so desperately want to avoid discussing were tenets based on dubious conjectures about race.

Those theories were used to justify the foundation, frame and ceiling for the house we all still dwell in. We may have opened wide some of the windows and rearranged the structure, but the basic blueprint has not fully been researched or replaced.

I hope Austin, who has demonstrated courage by openly discussing racial issues in his ranks, will direct the military to fully tell the critical race facts within its history — to the public, to recruits and future generals, to a young generation that needs to understand that to win clean, you have to play fair on the battlefield and in the regulations — because to do anything less provides material aid to the enemies of truth, honor and decency.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: The cold truth about Republicans’ hot air over critical race theory

Karen Attiah: The challenge for educators amid the critical race theory backlash: How do you fight hot air?

George F. Will: A teacher pushes back against K-12 critical race theory indoctrination

Dana Milbank: Why does Biden hate the flag, family, grace, God and America?

Christine Emba: Why conservatives really fear critical race theory

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