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Opinion What the right’s war on ‘wokeness’ in the military is really about

Marine recruits stand in formation during their final drill evaluation at the Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego. (Lance. Cpl. Jesula Jeanlouis/Marine Corps) (Lance Cpl. Jesula Jeanlouis/Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San )
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Congress just gave the military a staggering $858 billion for the coming year; if there’s one thing the two parties agree on, it’s that we should shovel as much money as possible at the Pentagon. Nevertheless, Republicans are convinced that the military is being rapidly destroyed from the inside by “wokeness,” a catchall term that refers to any development related to a social issue that conservatives don’t like.

The evidence they present for this alleged crisis is comically weak. But this isn’t about evidence, or the actual nature of warfighting in the 21st century. It’s about discomfort with modern society, deep insecurities about the changing nature of manhood, and an impulse to delegitimize institutions, even those conservatives used to revere.

“These Are The Top 7 Times The Military Went Woke In 2022,” trumpets the Daily Caller website, lamenting developments such as the removal of Confederate names from buildings. The Wall Street Journal editorial board breathlessly exposes “woke training” manuals in the Pentagon, while admitting it’s unclear who actually has to undergo this training.

Prominent conservatives regularly complain that the military is becoming “emasculated.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chip Roy (R-Tex.) put out a “report” called “Woke Warfighters: How Political Ideology Is Weakening America’s Military.” A GOP lawmaker expresses his outrage about a West Point course on “white rage,” even though there’s no such course. The fantastical picture they’re trying to paint is one of a military that looks more like the gender studies department at Oberlin College than what it actually is — our enormous and sprawling machinery of war.

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Now that Republicans control the House, they’ll be holding hearings on “wokeness” in the military, offering members a chance to emote angrily for the Fox News audience. “All this wokeness in the military, we are going to be aggressively trying to root that stuff out,” says Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), who will likely chair the House Armed Services Committee.

Lacking from any of this bloviation is evidence that the various things conservatives call wokeness, from trying to prevent extremism in the ranks to designing body armor that fits female soldiers, have harmed the military’s mission in any way. Have there been attacks on the United States that weren’t stopped because soldiers were being forced to read books on critical race theory? What exactly can’t our military do that it used to be capable of, now that gay soldiers don’t have to stay in the closet? The critics can’t quite say. At least one lawmaker says parents of potential recruits are complaining to him about military wokeness. And where might they have learned about it? Fox News, perhaps?

So here’s the truth: The military has indeed changed, because American society has changed, and so has the nature of modern warfare. Our military needs not just guys with big muscles, but people with a wide variety of skills and knowledge. To be maximally effective, it can’t deprive itself of the talents of large swaths of the population.

But conservatives — especially those whose ideas about war come mostly from the movies — don’t like many of those changes. While they sometimes claim to oppose “politicization” of the military, what they actually want is for their cultural and political agenda to prevail there. They want the military to be a bulwark against progressive social change, where traditional gender norms are reinforced and reproduced.

When the wokeness panic is aimed at the military, it isn’t about the military at all. In a world where most men are unable to demonstrate that their upper-body strength justifies their superior social status, some are desperate to defend a physical hierarchy wherever it can be found. But if women can do nearly all military jobs just as well as men, then what’s left?

What’s left for many on the right is the feeling of being unmoored from any order that makes sense to them. Government can’t be trusted, the media are corrupt, corporations are against you, and the only appropriate response is rage. That feeling, Republicans also believe, is political gold.

That’s why leading figures on the right are so eager to tell everyone we’re suffering through a “crisis” of manhood. The answers to the supposed crisis range from the banal to the bizarre: Few men are likely to follow Tucker Carlson’s advice to reinvigorate their manliness by tanning their testicles. The point is the problem, not the solution; it’s to make men more insecure and angry, so they’ll find reassurance in joining the culture war and voting Republican.

Unlike joining the actual military, service in the culture war is easy. You don’t have to suffer through boot camp, or follow orders you don’t like, or risk your life. All you have to do is stay mad.