Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, September 2019
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Conservative American pundits and politicians have found a surprising new punching bag: the “woke” U.S. military. “Anti-American indoctrination [is] seeping into parts of our military,” Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, railed in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. “Holy crap,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, tweeted in May in response to a recruitment ad showcasing the U.S. Army’s diversity. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea.”

In the ongoing controversy over “critical race theory” (CRT)—a framework for analyzing racism that was once confined to the ivory tower—the U.S. armed forces have emerged as a surprising defender of the importance of teaching about systemic racism in the United States. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, angered many Republicans in July 2020 when he apologized for his misguided walk with President Donald Trump across Washington’s Lafayette Square in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. “I should not have been there,” he said. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Milley provoked an even more intense conservative backlash this past June, when, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he defended the idea of military cadets studying CRT: “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding—having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” CRT, Milley suggested, would be useful in understanding “white rage” as well as the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol: “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”

The response was immediate. Trump called Milley’s comments “pathetic” and “sad,” adding that he would have “gotten rid of them”—Milley and other senior military officers who saw value in CRT—“in two minutes.” Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, chimed in on Twitter: “With Generals like this it’s no wonder we’ve fought considerably more wars than we’ve won.” More recently, Republicans called for Milley’s resignation after Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported in their book Peril that before and after the 2020 election, Milley called his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that the United States would not suddenly attack China. “He should be court martialed if true,” Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, tweeted earlier this month, echoing many others from his party.

The long Republican romance with the military appears to have finally come to an end. And as conservative politicians and pundits have put the U.S. military—and especially the top brass—in their cross hairs, their supporters and listeners have taken note. The consequences for the U.S. military could be dire.

OUT OF LOVE

For decades, conservatives and Republicans have been in a love affair with the armed forces. Republicans have consistently expressed greater trust in and warmth toward the military than have Democrats, and Republican candidates for political office, more so than Democrats, have sought the endorsement of retired generals and flag officers. In the early days of his presidency, Trump followed this pattern by surrounding himself with the military men he called “my generals,” appointing John Kelly, Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster, and Jim Mattis to key cabinet positions and other leadership roles.

But the love affair has ended in acrimony. As with many of the changes the Republican Party has undergone in recent years, this one began with Trump. The former president quickly came to dislike and disrespect the retired generals he had appointed and to abuse the active-duty generals advising him. For the most part, he refrained from expressing his mounting vitriol in public—until September 2020, when, at a press conference, he accused his top generals of corruption: “They want to do nothing but fight wars,” he claimed, “so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” Since then, Trump has regularly lobbed attacks at the military and its top leaders, accusing them of being politically craven and operationally incompetent.

The long Republican romance with the military appears to have finally come to an end.

As the CRT controversy came to dominate the headlines earlier this year, many Republican politicians and conservative media personalities followed Trump’s lead. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas who is a former Navy SEAL, tweeted in May, “Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology.” The Fox News host Tucker Carlson, angered by Milley’s defense of cadets’ education, alleged that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  “didn’t get that job because he’s brilliant, or because he’s brave, or because the people who know him respect him. . . . He is not, and they definitely don’t. Milley got the job because he is obsequious. He knows who to suck up to, and he’s more than happy to do it. Feed him a script and he will read it.” Carlson’s colleague at Fox, Laura Ingraham, took a page out of the left’s playbook and floated the idea of “defunding the military.”

The onslaught by right-wing pundits and politicians appears to be changing the views of ordinary Republican voters, weakening their attachment to and admiration for the armed forces. Survey data we collected in late June and early July showed an appreciable shift in popular attitudes—call it “the Tucker Carlson effect.” The change was not apparent from the most obviously relevant question that is typically included on national public opinion surveys, which asks Americans to describe their level of trust or confidence in the armed forces. True, Republican trust in the military as measured by this question had waned slightly, and Democratic trust had intensified some. But such partisan shifts have long accompanied changes in party control of the White House, with the losing party expressing less trust in all institutions of government, including the military. Overall, moreover, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents continue to trust the military more, and distrust the military less, than do Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

But there is more to the story. Our survey found that Republicans were much less deferential to the military in 2021 than we expected them to be. In an article in Foreign Affairs last year, we argued that Americans’ beliefs about civil-military relations—and, specifically, their degree of deference to the armed forces—have more to do with partisanship and party loyalty than ideology. Political conservatives should be disposed to defer to the military, which epitomizes the values they prize, and political liberals should be inclined to support tight civilian control of an institution they tend to distrust. But we found the opposite was true in a 2019 survey. With Trump in the White House, Democrats were surprisingly deferential to the armed forces, looking to the military to check Trump. Republicans, meanwhile, were more likely to endorse extreme civilian supremacy. We predicted that a Joe Biden victory would prompt partisans to swap positions, with Republicans once again becoming more deferential to the military and Democrats becoming less so.

The only thing worse than the nation venerating its military officers is the nation reviling them.

Yet only half of our prediction came true. In our recent survey, Democrats were indeed much less deferential to the military now that their party controls the White House, but Republicans were not appreciably more so. We asked respondents if the president should approve a military mission that has the support of U.S. military officers “even if the president thinks the mission not worthwhile.” In 2019, 46.5 percent of Democrats said yes to this question, compared with just 30.3 percent of Republicans. This year, only 32.8 percent of Democrats said yes—a substantial decline that comports with their political interests and ideological predilections. Yet only 36.1 percent of Republicans said yes, a mere 5.8 percent increase from 2019.

Republicans’ weak deference to the military—contrary to conservative ideology and partisan interest—appears closely related to another marked shift: Americans distrust the military for different reasons than they used to. Just 15 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans distrusted the military to some degree in 2021 (compared with 21 percent of Democrats and ten percent of Republicans in 2019). But among those who expressed distrust, a whopping 64.6 percent of Republicans said it was because the military is political—compared with just 35.8 percent of Republicans who felt that way in 2019. The proportion of Democrats who said they distrusted the military because it is political remained stable (31.3 percent in 2019 versus 28.2 percent in 2021). And this year, unlike 2019, those who distrusted the military because they perceived it as political tended to be less deferential toward the armed forces. In other words, concerns about the political nature of the military were predictive of weak deference.

WANING TRUST

A similar phenomenon appears in our data on views about oversight of the military—in particular, oversight of soldier training. In 2019, 48.9 percent of respondents called for less frequent and intense oversight in this area, compared with 35.3 percent who wanted more frequent and intense oversight. In 2021, the reverse was true: 49.0 percent wanted more frequent and intense oversight of training, and just 33.6 percent wanted less. This increased demand for oversight stretched across the political spectrum: Democrats were worried about rising right-wing extremism in the military, especially in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, in which veterans were overrepresented, whereas Republicans were concerned about liberal indoctrination. These calls for oversight were especially strong—and revealing—on the right, with 53 percent of self-identified “Strong Republicans” wanting more intense and frequent oversight of training in 2021, compared with 43 percent in 2019.

Republicans’ newfound skepticism of the armed forces extends to their attitudes about military involvement in policy debates, as well. In 2019, when Trump was president, Democrats tended to support senior military officers advocating publicly for policies they believed to be in the country’s best interest, even if those policies were not related to the officers’ area of professional expertise (and Republicans tended to oppose this). With Biden in the White House, we thought Republicans and Democrats would swap places. However, the opposite has happened. A strong majority of self-identified “Strong Democrats”—55.9 percent—supported policy advocacy by senior officers, compared with 43.9 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, support for policy advocacy among Strong Republicans has fallen—from 44.5 percent to 39.3 percent. In 2021, a plurality of Strong Republicans—41.6 percent—opposed policy advocacy by senior military officers. It seems that Democrats are increasingly confident that senior military officers share their policy preferences and so are happy for the top brass to speak out. Meanwhile, Republicans are increasingly sure that senior military officers do not share their policy views and therefore oppose military engagement in policy debates.

Public respect for and trust in the military in general is not in free fall—yet. But politicized denigration of the military is no less problematic than its politicized adoration. The main risk is growing skepticism of the military’s professional judgment: if Republicans believe that a “woke” military prioritizes political correctness over the unvarnished truth, might they not also suspect that the armed forces’ political correctness trumps the truth when it comes to prospective and ongoing military operations? Such sentiments will likely also complicate recruitment: if Republicans come to believe that the military is the enemy of right-thinking Americans like them, why should they send their children into its ranks? And it will almost certainly lead to more intrusive congressional investigations into the political leanings of prospective senior officers and possibly the application of political litmus tests. Promotion based on politics rather than professionalism would have disastrous consequences for the military’s warfighting capability and for the retention of promising junior officers.

NOT ABOVE THE FRAY

Historically, right-wing politicians have been far more likely to embrace military officers than to attack them. After President Harry Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur from his command in Korea for insubordination, for instance, leading Republicans feted “America’s Caesar” upon his return home. A clearer historical parallel to the current assault on the military comes from the political left: opposition to the Vietnam War expanded into antipathy toward the military officers who were its public face. But widespread hostility to the military dissolved with the end of the draft in 1973 and the revival of the Cold War later that decade.

The current situation is historically unprecedented and worrisome, and the military bears some blame. Since the end of the Cold War, senior military officers have chipped away at the military’s reputation for being above politics, thereby unintentionally signaling that they are fair game—just a political interest group like any other in Washington. By playing politics, they have sometimes won battles over policy, such as the approval of a larger surge in Afghanistan in 2009. But the long-term costs to the institution and the nation have been great.

For its own sake, as well as the country’s, the U.S. military should make a greater commitment to democratic civil-military relations. 

For its own sake, as well as the country’s, the U.S. military should make a greater commitment to democratic civil-military relations. Generals need not claim, as George Marshall famously did, never to have voted. But active-duty officers must remember that decisions about the use of force properly lie with elected politicians who are directly accountable to the public. The nation’s military leaders have a responsibility to offer their unvarnished professional opinions to the commander in chief and his representatives. But other ways of influencing policy—such as sharing those views in public testimony—subvert democratic control and contribute to public confusion about the military’s role. The same is true of retired generals’ political activities, book deals, and television appearances: they cannot claim a right to speak based on their new civilian status while simultaneously trading on their military credentials. Not surprisingly, in our surveys we find that Americans see little difference between active-duty and retired generals intervening publicly in policy debates.

However, restoring the military’s apolitical standing is a long-term, generational project. In the short term, Republican politicians can avoid precipitating a full-blown crisis of trust in the military by dialing back their rhetoric. The only thing worse than the nation venerating its military officers is the nation reviling them. Unwarranted hero worship of the armed forces nurtures civilian deference to the military and threatens civilian oversight. Unwarranted vilification of the armed forces threatens the United States’ military capabilities. Republican voters are not clamoring for attacks on an institution they have traditionally revered—but they are beginning to distrust and, in some cases, even disdain it. Conservative leaders and pundits must stop their political attacks before it is too late.

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  • RONALD R. KREBS is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.
  • ROBERT RALSTON is Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School.
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