House Republicans expect to press forward with legislation targeting Pentagon policies they view as "woke" despite recent attempts by Defense Department officials to defend initiatives aimed at diversifying the force.
At several congressional hearings over the last month, top department officials and military officers have attempted to swat down GOP attacks that diversity and inclusion efforts are distracting from warfighting, arguing that the efforts are needed to attract a younger, more socially conscious generation -- and in some cases are required by law.
Asked recently by Military.com whether the Pentagon's testimony has satisfied Republicans or if he expects there to be anti-woke provisions in the annual, must-pass defense policy bill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., promised that "there'll be some legislation." Still, he added, it's too early in the process to say exactly what the language in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, will be.
Rogers' comments came after his panel held a series of hearings in which Republicans pressed senior officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, on complaints the GOP has built up in the two years of the Biden administration. Republicans similarly questioned officials at several Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.
While the hearings were not as fiery as some others in recent years, top brass stood by their efforts.
"The purpose of those programs is 'e pluribus unum,' to build teamwork," Milley said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, quoting the Latin motto of the U.S. meaning "out of many, one."
"I've been on ships and planes and forts and bases, etc. The military I see is a military that is motivated. And the folks that are in the military -- we have the highest reenlistment rate in 50 years."
Republicans came into the House majority at the beginning of the year vowing to target Pentagon policies they deem to be woke. The term, which originated as Black slang to describe someone who is mindful of racial and social injustices, has been adopted by Republicans and others on the political right to describe what they see as a more general and destructive preoccupation with social justice among those on the political left.
The term, especially on Capitol Hill, has also more recently become a nebulous insult for left-leaning policies Republicans disagree with.
The GOP has cited the Pentagon's preparations for climate change and the now-scuttled COVID-19 vaccine mandate, as well as President Joe Biden's decision to delay shooting down a Chinese spy balloon. The woke term is often used against efforts to make the military more welcoming to women, minorities and other historically marginalized populations.
Republicans argue such efforts take away time from military training and turn off potential recruits by injecting politics into the military. They point to military recruiting woes in recent years -- which defense officials have attributed to a strong job market, lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of qualified young Americans, among other factors.
"When I talk to people and say, 'Well, why aren't you looking to join the military?' A lot of them say, 'Well, the military has been over-politicized. Well, the military has gone woke,'" Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., said at a recent hearing with the senior enlisted leaders of each military branch. "We're saying that this new focus, this new shift, this new kind of woke ideology is not impacting recruitment and not impacting our readiness and lethality? I have a hard time believing that."
Republicans will have their chance to put their rhetoric into action in the coming months when Congress begins work on the NDAA, the sweeping annual bill that sets a wide array of Pentagon policies.
Meanwhile, in the recent hearings, the Pentagon has added a new counter-argument to GOP criticisms: We're following the law.
"The fiscal year 2021 NDAA, which passed with bipartisan supermajorities, contained groundbreaking DEI provisions, which I am now diligently working to implement," Gil Cisneros, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified at a House Armed Services Committee panel hearing on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in the military.
Mandates in recent NDAAs include creating a chief diversity officer in the Pentagon, a job assigned to Cisneros, and senior advisers for diversity and inclusion within each military department.
The legislation also requires a diversity strategic plan and the incorporation of diversity goals in the National Defense Strategy, and establishing a role in the inspector general's office specifically to conduct oversight on diversity and inclusion programs.
Military officials have also been arguing that the time spent on diversity training is negligent compared to the time spent on training for warfighting skills.
"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 said at a different personnel subcommittee hearing. "And if you go to [One Station Unit Training], there is 165 hours of rifle marksmanship training and still only one hour of equal opportunity training."
The equal opportunity training Grinston referred to is not new to the Biden administration and is required by decades-old employment law, Agnes Schaefer, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, added at the DEI hearing.
Among Republicans' most cited examples of wokeness distracting the military is the extremism stand-down that Austin ordered in the early days of the Biden administration after it became clear that people with ties to the military participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans say the hours the military spent on the stand-down were disproportionate to the fewer than 100 cases of "prohibited extremism activity" a Pentagon extremism working group said it found in December 2021.
In a letter sent to Republican senators at their behest last year, Milley estimated the military spent about 5.4 million man hours on the stand-down. But as Republicans repeated the 5.4 million figure over and over at the recent hearings, Milley stressed that it was a ballpark estimate based on the assumption that all 2 million-plus service members spent about two hours each on the stand-down.
Further, Milley said, the time spent on the stand-down represents a sliver of the 2.8 billion man hours in the military's typical workweek.
But Republicans are not letting up.
A day after Austin and Milley testified before the full House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who chairs the panel's readiness subcommittee, helped unveil a report at the conservative Heritage Foundation that blamed diversity initiatives for recruiting struggles.
At the rollout event, Waltz vowed lawmakers "will do all we can to codify" the report's recommendations in legislation and that he'll "run through brick walls until we get it done."
"We're not making this stuff up. This isn't some kind of Republican election year gotcha talking point," Waltz said, contending his office has been contacted by concerned service members. "When I stop getting this stuff from our service members, then we'll stop bringing it up."