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Right-Wing Culture Warrior Attacks Hurt Military Recruiting


By 2017, the U.S. military knew it had a serious problem in the ranks.

In a survey of more than 80,000 personnel, one out of four minority service members had reported that they had experienced racial or ethnic harassment by fellow soldiers in the previous year; as a result, roughly a third of those were considering leaving the military.

In an institution already scrambling to attract and keep trained personnel, that posed a threat to readiness both in terms of manpower and military cohesion.

So, in 2020, under President Donald Trump, the Defense Department took steps to address the problem. For example, it stripped photographs from promotion-review packets, so that those deciding who had earned promotion would have to rely solely on written evaluations and reports. It also stepped up training, making diversity discussions a part – but only a small part — of basic training.

“When I looked at it, there is one hour of equal opportunity training in basic training, and 92 hours of rifle marksmanship training,” Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston testified to Congress earlier this year.

Nonetheless, the culture warriors on the right began to attack, insisting that efforts to ease racial strife be ended.

“A woke military is a weak military,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens, Georgia.

“I know a lot of young people don’t want to have anything to do with [joining the military],” said another Georgian, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome. “It’s like throwing your life away.” Greene actively discouraged enlistment, citing “the woke training, where they have to undergo this ridiculous ideology of the sick and satanic left.”

U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, put it even more forthrightly last week in an interview. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “Our military is not an equal opportunity employer.”

Working with different people

This is hardly a new challenge for the U.S. military. My father grew up deep in the coal-mining country of West Virginia, and his father – my grandfather – had been a member of the KKK. When Dad joined the Air Force at age 19, he brought that upbringing with him.

Dad went on to make a career in the military, serving 28 years, rising to chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank possible, and by going to night school earned a master’s degree along the way. To achieve all that, he had to fight to shed the racism that he had been taught since childhood.

I’m not going to tell you he succeeded entirely, but he made a lot of progress, some because he experienced working closely with a lot of different people, and some because even back then, in the ’70s, the military required senior enlisted personnel to go through racial sensitivity training in order to advance. It just made sense: If you have all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, thrown together to work in an important common cause, friction is inevitable, and any good manager will attempt to ease it.

So, one day, 12-year-old me was sitting in my room when Dad came home from work wearing his dress blues. He walked in and tossed a paperback book on my bed. “Here,” he said. “You need to read this,” and then walked away.

This was not usual behavior on his part, so I started reading.

Turns out, Dad had been required to read the book as part of what we now call diversity training, and it had such a huge impact on him that he wanted to make sure that his eldest son read it too. I still have that book, tattered and frayed: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

It’s the first “adult” book I ever read, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. Just as important, it gave me a new appreciation for my father and the path that he was attempting to walk. He would have scoffed at terms like “personal growth” but, at the military’s prodding, that’s what he was attempting.

This is not an unusual story; millions of American military families – white, black, Hispanic, Asian — have lived some version of it. Critics call it “social engineering,” as if the military should never engage in such activity, but that’s just ignorance. Social engineering is pretty much what the military does, right from the first buzzcut in boot camp. They don’t do it because it’s “woke,” they do it because it’s a necessity, and it makes both the military and this country stronger.

That’s why it angers me to see politicians using the military as a means to divide rather than unite us. It undercuts the military and it undercuts the country that relies upon it.

Documenting the damage

In a research project at the U.S. Army War College, Col. James C. Stultz has documented some of that damage. Using data compiled at the congressional district level, Stultz focuses on what happened to recruiting in the spring of 2021, when right-wing criticism of a supposedly “woke” military was reaching a peak.

“In congressional districts where the member of Congress’ condemnation of the military is loudest,” Stultz found, “data shows that recruiting drops twice as much as [in] their fellow representatives [districts].” In Greene’s district in north Georgia, for example, the “penetration rate” – military talk for recruiting success – fell by more than 13% that quarter.

“The impact is more significant in districts where far-right congressmen are loudest and constituents get their news from conservative media outlets,” Stultz writes. “This rhetoric discourages recruits and damages the morale of minority service members, leading to a decline in recruitment and retention.”

In short, he concludes, “there appears to be a direct correlation between incendiary comments by politicians about the U.S. military and the ability to successfully recruit and retain military professionals.”

The irony, of course, is that these same people posture themselves as patriots.

Jay Bookman is a columnist at the Georgia Recorder, a media outlet of the States Newsroom. He covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional, and state journalism awards. He was awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • rjckeuka4

    Isn't it interesting that Senator Tuberville became famous as a football coach, and VERY RICH, largely on the backs of BLACK athletes!! I think that's spelled H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-S-Y!!!!!

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • san.gander

    So much truth in this. I grew up with integration. I watched my midwestern small city school system integrate, a few white schools, a few grades at a time, until by high school only one segregated black high school remained - this was in the fifties & sixties. I was raised with Christian ethics & values and I took those lessons to heart. I knew it was right, even if my parents didn't agree... no it didn't always go smoothly. There were rabid segregationist, and racists - even violence from the haters sometimes. But came the early sixties, I was in the military, and I was stationed in the South, I was utterly shocked at how backward, unjust, and even un-Christian, the South remained in their treatment of Americans of color... who in all ways I knew should be treated as equals, as American citizens. My years in the integrated "All American" mililtary taught me that!

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • Charlene

    This country has never lived up to the ideals it holds on paper. And it's sad that even as we try to move closer to honoring the ideals, that some people want to go backward. The conversation around "woke"ism is stunted and lacking in nuance and empathy, and riddled with ignorance.

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • Cat L

    And without sensitivity training.... you get avoidable instances like we saw last year with the Russian troop that got fired on by one of the allied troops they'd imported to help them with their invasion. Someone insulted someone's God/religion and that someone opened fire on the insulter's whole unit... not super helpful when you're trying to get help militarily.....

    Also, accelerating division within a country might be in much more line with the targeted misinformation campaigns we solidly know every major government engage in. Don't help those campaigns. If something makes you judge your own countrymen, question it.

    Monday, October 9, 2023 Report this