GOP House members plan to open a new front in the culture wars, seeking to attack the Pentagon for its “woke” social policies. Republican leaders won an early battle when Congress passed a defense bill that won’t require service members to receive the Covid-19 vaccine — one of the many military policies the House, which is soon to be Republican-led and may be spotlighted in the next session.
Members of military oversight committees in the House are signaling they plan to target the Pentagon over efforts to root out extremists in the ranks, funding abortions for troops and the racially-focused curriculum at military academies. The issue may get an increased focus in Congress as GOP members have new sway over the chamber’s agenda.
“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done in many of these, especially in the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and the ‘woke-ism’ that they want to bring in there,” said Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who may become Speaker of the House.
In a 2022 survey conducted by the non-profit Reagan Foundation, 50% of respondents feel that so-called “woke” practices have undermined military effectiveness in some way. Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary, has many urgent items on his agenda, said Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh.
According to Singh, Austin “is focused on the priorities he set out the beginning of this administration — defending the nation, deterring strategic attacks against the U.S., allies, and partners, deterring aggression and building a lethal, resilient joint force — and we will continue to work with Congress in a bipartisan, bicameral way, just as we always do.”
Democrat Representative Adam Smith of Washington said a discussion surrounding the social policies would need to be framed differently, with more of a focus on addressing racism and bigotry.
“The debate around this has really been idiotic trying to put this into a box of ‘woke’ or ‘not woke,'” said Smith.
In December, Congress passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included a provision reversing the mandate that all troops must receive the Covid-19 vaccine. According to Pentagon data, more than 3,700 Marines, 2,000 sailors, and 1,800 soldiers have been discharged for refusing to be vaccinated.
“There were a lot of service members who were wronged by this policy,” said Republican Representative Brian Mast of Florida, an Army veteran.
Mast sponsored legislation allowing service members to return to duty at the same rank they were dismissed when they refused the vaccination.
Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who served on active duty in the Marine Corps, said the vaccine played a vital role in the recruits’ willingness to join the military.
“I would submit that if 335 of 16- to 28-year-olds are not going to get the vaccine, that the vaccine mandate has to play a role there,” said Gallagher during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum last month, where he emphasized that recruitment numbers are falling.
A Pentagon survey conducted among young people from January to September showed the majority said the mandated vaccine didn’t change the likelihood they would join the military, said Singh.
‘Woke’ issues remain important to Republicans
Gallagher said the issue of “wokeness” continues to resonate with Republicans. The representative said it is fair to criticize equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives. They only add another layer of bureaucracy to an already heavily burdened institution.
Republicans are concerned the programs are counterproductive or have no impact and increase friction within forces, according to Gallagher.
The focus of the Pentagon on cultural issues is a distraction from the primary purpose of “winning our nation’s wars,” said Waltz. He noted threats from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, as well as worldwide terrorism and other critical priorities.
Mast added that the cultural policies are “a very big deal” for recruits and their families.
“These are very literally subjects and questions that have come up in very crowded meetings that I’ve had with groups of parents,” said Mast. The issue is a “very big deal, people are paying attention to it.”