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Opinion Why is the Army punishing a general for calling out MAGA lies?

Women soldiers at a ceremony outside the Pentagon in March 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The U.S. military is under assault, as I noted recently, from MAGA extremists who seek to harness it to carry out their malign agenda — and who disparage anyone who stands in their way as a “woke loser.” This is arguably the most dangerous civil-military challenge since the heyday of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The military is rightly eager to stay out of politics, but this laudable instinct can lead it to run away from controversy even at the cost of ceding the information battlefield to the far-right forces trying to subvert American democracy.

The treatment of Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe is a case in point. Until recently, this combat veteran was commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning in Georgia, home of the Army’s infantry and armor schools. Now, his retirement is being held up while Army leadership considers how to respond to an inspector general’s investigation that concluded that he had “failed to display Army values and core leader competencies.” (I obtained a copy of the inspector general’s report, which has not been publicly released. Neither the Army public affairs office nor Donahoe responded to my repeated requests for comment.)

What did Donahoe do wrong? Ironically, his only offense was to champion on social media the very values the Army claims to stand for. Having a senior officer defend the Army’s policies should not be seen as improper involvement in politics — but that is how it is being portrayed, not just by the Army’s right-wing critics but also by the Army’s own inspector general.

It all began in March 2021 when Fox “News” host Tucker Carlson expressed outrage over Air Force plans to develop a maternity flight suit. “It’s a mockery of the U.S. military,” huffed Carlson at the time, arguing that while “China’s military becomes more masculine,” ours becomes “more feminine.” In reply, Donahoe posted on Twitter a video of himself conducting a reenlistment ceremony for a female soldier. “Just a reminder,” he wrote, “that @TuckerCarlson couldn’t be more wrong.”

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Donahoe’s retort earned the ire of the MAGA right. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had compared the “emasculated” U.S. military unfavorably with the supposedly more macho Russian army, sent a letter of complaint to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, falsely accusing Donahoe and other officers who defended the role of women in the military of expressing partisan political views.

A few months later, in July 2021, Donahoe clashed again with the MAGA right after he posted a message encouraging all soldiers, as per Defense Department policy, to get vaccinated against covid-19. Josiah Lippincott, a Marine veteran turned graduate student at conservative Hillsdale College, attacked Donahoe on Twitter. (Lippincott is now banned from the platform, apparently for writing that Kenosha, Wis., shooter Kyle Rittenhouse “did nothing wrong.”) Lippincott wrote that “the lockdowns, liberty restrictions, quarantines and general disruption of servicemember’s lives is a way bigger killer than the virus.” (In fact, vaccines allow soldiers to safely resume their normal lives.) Donahoe engaged in a brief online debate with Lippincott, culminating in a frustrated tweet: “Hey, @Hillsdale, come get your boy.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham, a notorious anti-vaxxer, claimed that Donahoe’s tweet was an example of “high-level intimidation campaigns being used at the top of our military.” Far from being intimidated, however, Lippincott appeared on Ingraham’s show to accuse Donahoe of “spouting MSNBC talking points” and being one of the “woke losers who love cancel culture and can’t see reality.”

Rather than defend Donahoe, the Army might censure him. In the judgment of the Army inspector general, Donahoe’s criticism of Carlson “exhibited poor judgment,” “drew national attention for [Major General] Donahoe and did not reflect an Army culture of dignity and respect.” Donahoe’s exchange with Lippincott, the inspector general decided, “was unwise and had the potential to bring discredit on the Army. His use of sarcasm and ‘snarky’ tweets to private citizens was in poor taste, clearly displayed poor judgment, and ran counter to Army values.”

Donahoe’s third offense, in the eyes of the inspector general, was to offer encouragement to a junior female officer under his command who had been subject to vile, misogynistic attacks on Twitter. One user even wrote, after a picture of her was posted, that she needed to “get raped.” Donahoe came to her defense on Twitter, writing that this officer “looks like a tanker” — a compliment in Army-speak. He then had a brief, innocuous exchange with her on Twitter for all to see. The inspector general claimed that his tweets, in reaching out directly to a junior subordinate, “violated the cadre-student relationship” and “reflected poor judgment.”

Some infractions. You can argue that Donahoe shouldn’t have engaged in a back and forth with a random MAGA troll about vaccines and that he shouldn’t have been so snarky. (In fact, he told the inspector general he regretted it.) But he did not write anything remotely offensive or improper. He was simply defending Army policies on inclusivity and vaccines — policies that are anathema to the MAGA right.

Retired Army Col. Yegveny Vindman complained on Twitter that the Army and the Defense Department “are lost,” “fear the right” and “are losing their moral compass” because they want to punish “the ‘Woke’ general” for standing up to Fox News. It’s a harsh indictment but one that deserves serious attention considering the source.

Both Yevgeny Vindman and his twin brother, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, were fired in 2020 from the National Security Council and effectively driven out of the Army after Alexander courageously and honestly testified about President Donald Trump’s attempts to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically. “Whenever you get ‘politicized,’ even if it’s in support of Army or Department of Defense values, it’s a death knell to your career,” Yevgeny told me.

I understand where the Army is coming from: It desperately wants to avoid being dragged into the political muck. But the military cannot afford to ignore dishonest and cynical attacks against its professionalism. If Donahoe is now disciplined for his tweets, it will send a chilling message to the entire Army not to call out MAGA lies. And that, in turn, will enable the real threat to “Army values” — the one posed by Trump and his followers — to metastasize.