It cannot be said enough that—beyond installing Federalist Society–approved judges and lowering taxes for corporations and the rich—today’s Republican Party simply has no ideas and no intent to govern. Needing an explanation for why its constituents’ lives are getting worse, it turns to regurgitated culture-war rhetoric—tyrannical, gun-taking socialist Democrats, Big Tech censorship, Hollywood’s reputed obscenities, trans women and girls in sports, gender-neutral potatoheads. You get the idea.
The latest mile-marker on this particularly depressing road to nowhere is the bizarre idea that the United States military and intelligence community—you know, the organizations currently responsible for prosecuting several undeclared wars and occupying hundreds of military bases around the world—have become too “woke.” Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Dan Crenshaw recently set up a whistleblower form for military personnel to report sudden outbursts of critical race theory while their colleagues are supposed to be planning an airstrike in Somalia. “Enough is enough,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, tweeted on Friday. “We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology.”
Speaking to The Washington Post this week, Crenshaw said, “I have heard countless stories of commands teaching critical race theory, encouraging neutral pronoun use, promoting liberal activist books.” But he needed more evidence: “We are asking for whistleblower complaints to obtain more specifics.” Those specifics don’t seem to be forthcoming, if they exist at all. Predictably, the whistleblower line was flooded with satirical reports of misbehavior drawn from Dr. Strangelove and Starship Troopers. (One Marine veteran, inspired by the latter film, which chronicles a human war against an alien insectoid race, submitted a complaint stating that he was being taught too much moral philosophy and that his real goal was to “kill the bugs.”)
If it’s not clear already, all of this is extremely stupid and in exceedingly bad faith, unless dyed-in-the-wool patriots like Dan Crenshaw actually have fallen for their own dim rhetoric. Whatever H.R. exercises in tolerance and diversity may be conducted these days in the Pentagon or in the upper levels of the CIA, these organizations have hardly become soft or less lethal.
This ginned-up drama has been developing for the last month or so. First, there was a CIA ad filled with of-the-moment progressive symbolism and intersectional language (e.g., a CIA analyst proudly acknowledging her anxiety disorder and Latinx identity, alongside her success in an organization devoted to spying, subversion, and assassination). An internet sensation, the ad spawned takes from New York to Langley. Then conservative standard-bearers like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Senator Ted Cruz picked up the banner, with the former denouncing the feminization of the military and the latter claiming that the Army had become “woke” and “emasculated” when held in comparison to a particularly brawny ad for the Russian military, which is known to subject conscripts to brutal, torture-like conditions.
The notion of a woke military seems to be a Republican response to the Biden administration and the perceived dovishness that attends almost any Democratic presidency. Some have also mentioned the latest effort to suss out political extremists in the military’s broader ranks. But it also owes something to developing acceptance for women, especially transgender women, in new roles that were previously reserved for cisgender heterosexual men. Having lost the war over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, conservatives have now found trans soldiers and wokeness as their latest stalking horses, claiming that they are responsible for—well, what? That is the weird lacuna at the heart of this dust-up. No one could credibly claim that “wokeness” is somehow responsible for 20 years of a disastrous global war on terror, whether from a strategic, legal, or moral perspective. Critical race theory didn’t send us into Iraq and Afghanistan. ISIS wasn’t inspired by Americans’ use of gender-neutral pronouns. It’s absurd even to contemplate, but this new narrative probably makes the Republican base mad and fearful. That’s the point, right?
Right-wing critiques that our military and intelligence services are somehow not hardened and ruthless enough, not manly enough, have been a recurrent feature of political discourse going back decades. Whether traitorous commies or weak-minded appeasers who refused to fully incinerate North Vietnam or latte liberals making our armed forces “weak”—this vision of our leaders as insufficiently Spartan in their toughness has been a cultural constant, easy to come by. After all, there is rarely any political cost for being overly hawkish in this country, not when the wages of militarism are borne either by America’s poor or people in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world.
This time around, charges of a woke military might seem unlikely to stick, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing more of them in the coming months. This is still the party of Donald Trump, whose own slightly effete personality belies his constant demands for proof of toughness and masculinity. Today’s Republicans are not so much traditional in their gender roles as regressive. Besides, they don’t have any other ideas.
And as not-so-novel concepts of social justice, gender equality, trans acceptance, and interrogating white supremacy take hold even in the military and intelligence communities, there is likely to be some backlash. There may even be a few genuine reports submitted to Representative Crenshaw’s hotline: CIA targeting officers watch Tucker Carlson, too. But in the end, there’s one thing they’re there to do: confirm the target’s identity to the drone pilot operating out of a trailer in Nevada, and watch as an officially designated “terrorist” in Yemen is erased from the earth. It won’t be woke, it won’t be cool, it won’t be a threat to America’s battle-readiness. It will just be the U.S. war machine, doing what it has done, without fail, for years.