Pentagon Critics Blame Diversity Policies and Fitness Standards for Recruiting Woes

Sprint-drag-carry event during an Army Combat Fitness Test.
Soldiers complete the sprint-drag-carry event during an Army Combat Fitness Test at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, April 21, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Mary Katzenberger)

Conservative politicians and critics of the Biden administration have released a report that offers a solution to the recruiting issues facing the military: Ditch efforts to add diversity, fight extremism, or combat climate change.

"What we're trying to do is save the military from a pernicious ideology that can have a very negative effect on warfighting capability," Rebeccah Heinrichs, a member of the Heritage Foundation panel that wrote the newly released report, said during a public rollout at the conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The Heritage report underscores many of the same warnings issued for years by Republicans -- though especially in recent months as politicians have escalated allegations of a "woke" force. Many say the left-leaning policies embraced by the Biden administration lead to a loss of confidence among service members, weaken the military and, in turn, hurt recruitment.

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The report, authored by a panel handpicked by Heritage, includes a poll of troops and civilians, and a bevy of citations to news coverage and editorials meant to bolster the claims.

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who chaired the panel, told the same auditorium that "these initiatives have taken a real toll on our military and its perception amongst the public."

The Heritage panel's top concern is the Pentagon's "sweeping embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion" policies.

It specifically names critical race theory, known as CRT, as a key example, and cites the choice by the Navy's top officer to include Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's book "How To Be An Antiracist" among other titles on a reading list in 2021. Kendi argues that there is no such thing as "non-racist," and his book has become a flashpoint in the ongoing U.S culture wars.

CRT is an academic theory, developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that is found mostly on college campuses. It argues that racism has been embedded in systems and policies throughout the United States over long periods of time.

Waltz said that "we should prohibit the instruction and propagation of these divisive teachings such as CRT" but also acknowledged "often they're not labeled that way" by the military.

The report also notes that "there are no such explicitly labeled programs or policies" but asserts that CRT's principles are being taught and implemented through policy actions."

Pentagon officials say there is no evidence such programs are distracting from preparing to fight wars or are scaring off potential recruits. On the contrary, they argue, such programs strengthen the military.

"There's been no detraction from the primary mission of both the Navy and Marine Corps to defend our nation and do so in a forward-deployed manner," Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a recent hearing on recruiting challenges.

The military has maintained that the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of qualified young people, a strong job market and a misunderstanding of the military are main causes of recruitment troubles.

The debate has generated hot hearing exchanges tailored for cable news. Republicans had promised to use their new majority in the House to zero in on policies they deem to be "woke."

The Heritage report is also concerned that the military is lowering its standards -- specifically physical fitness requirements -- in order to "even the playing field."

They cited the Army's new fitness test -- rolled out last summer after a troubled development -- as an example of the problem. The report argues that the largest military branch has potentially hurt recruitment by lowering its minimal physical fitness standard over concerns that women were not going to pass.

"I think that if you water it down and take away something that is hard, and frankly exclusive, about the warriors who joined the military, I think that obviously is going to have an impact on recruitment," Heinrichs said.

As Heritage points out, the new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, was originally intended to have gender-neutral grading standards. An earlier version of the test also tasked soldiers with doing pull-ups and touching their knees to their elbows.

That event was eventually replaced with the plank, and gendered standards were put in place after it was discovered roughly half of women could not pass an earlier version of the ACFT.

However, the new test is largely considered a much better measurement of fitness than its predecessor, which only measured push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. The new test measures deadlifts, hand-release push-ups, how long a soldier can hold a plank, a timed two-mile run, an event in which soldiers sprint and carry heavy weight, and another in which troops throw a 10-pound medicine ball as far as they can.

The think tank report includes a poll that Heritage conducted with both civilians and service members on some of their greatest concerns.

Among the military, the poll showed 41% of service members felt both reduction of physical fitness standards to promote equity and an overemphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion programs were the top two areas of politicization that drew concerns.

The report found that "70% of active-duty personnel ... stated that reduction of physical fitness standards to 'even the playing field' had decreased their trust in the military."

However, the poll sampled only 301 service members -- a much lower number than most national polls would use and nearly four times fewer than the sample used in this poll for the overall public. Heritage polled 1,000 Americans of all ages and 299 more Americans 18 to 24 years of age for other results.

The survey found that the top reason for a loss of trust in the military among adults in the U.S. was "reports of sexual assault in the military."

To Mike Berry, a former lawyer for the Marine Corps and another member of the panel, the issue comes down to the fact that "we're in an era in which our young people are being told, 'America is not worth sacrificing for, America is not worth serving, America is not worth risking your life for.'"

-- Steve Beynon contributed to this report.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Republicans Double Down on 'Woke' Criticism After Army Says Safety Top Recruiting Challenge

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