By John Haughey
Recruits read their Recruit Training Guide for Basic Military Training in a compartment of the USS Hopper at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. More than 40,000 recruits train annually at the Navy's only boot camp. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Stephane Belcher)
The directive came from the top: A memo from the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordering Pentagon leaders and the commanders of the six military branches to review and recommend changes to “policies, programs, and processes that may negatively affect equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion for all our people.”
A month later, the secretary issued a second memo, ‘Immediate Actions to Address Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity in the Military Services,’ outlining a “three-pronged approach” for implementing those recommendations.
The secretary called for reviews to ensure diversity in promotions, prohibit pregnancy-based discrimination, bias awareness, “bystander intervention in response to improper remarks or other communications made by peers or superiors,” and a Workplace and Equal Opportunity survey to “include metrics concerning harassment and discrimination, extremist groups and activities.”
The Secretary was Mark Esper. The President was Donald Trump. It was the pandemic summer of 2020 and there was violence on the streets in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
As Esper—who Trump would later fire via a November Tweet—was installing expanded focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training in the armed forces during the summer of 2020, the Democrat-controlled House and split Senate were deliberating the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (FY21 NDAA), the annual defense budget.
Congress incorporated Esper’s initiatives into the spending plan, adding a requirement for the Department of Defense (DOD) to establish a “Chief Diversity Officer” and “Senior Advisors for Diversity and Inclusion” within each branch to advise on “training in diversity dynamics and … leading diverse groups effectively.” The NDAA also called for renaming military bases bearing the names of Confederate generals.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, was objecting to DEI-related training being imposed on all federal employees, not just uniformed military. A September 2020 directive from the Office of Personnel Management required agencies to identify any training on topics such as “critical race theory” or “white privilege.”
Trump that same month issued an executive order prohibiting federal funding for training on “divisive concepts” with specific reference to prohibiting teaching, instructing, or training on these concepts within the uniformed services. Ensuing OPM guidance required that it approve all such training programs “before being used.”
Nevertheless, Congress adopted the FY21 NDAA encoding the enhanced DEI training into statute. Outgoing President Trump vetoed the defense budget, citing a host of objections, including the removal of Confederate generals’ names from military bases.
In their final act of 2020, the House and Senate overrode Trump’s veto in supermajority votes and adopted the defense budget. It went into effect Jan. 1, 2021—three months after the fiscal year began and three weeks before President Joe Biden would enter the Oval Office.
On Jan. 20, 2021, the day he was inaugurated, Biden issued an executive order revoking Trump’s September 2022 directive and lifting its restrictions on DEI-related training in the military.
In June 2021, Biden issued another executive order to “enable Federal employees [including DOD], managers, and leaders to have knowledge of systemic and institutional racism and bias against underserved communities, be supported in building skillsets to promote respectful and inclusive workplaces and eliminate workplace harassment, have knowledge of agency accessibility practices, and have increased understanding of implicit and unconscious bias.”
Conservatives had argued for years that DEI training, as it was being implemented in the military, was a misguided attempt to impose political correctness with little relevance in the ranks and was, in fact, hurting morale and exacerbating tensions, potentially degrading force readiness.
With Democrats in control of the House and the Senate knotted at 50-50, those 2021-22 objections got nowhere. DEI proponents, largely progressives, argued the military has always been in the forefront of societal change, and that the new programs were merely updates of 1971 programs that were last addressed in 1997.
Conservatives were further agitated when Biden’s newly appointed Secretary of Defense, former U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, ordered a 60-day stand down “to address extremism in the ranks” in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol protest.
Two factors have changed the tenor of the debate in 2023—Republicans regained a narrow majority in the House in the 2022 midterms and the military is experiencing its most significant recruiting shortfalls in the half-century history of the all-volunteer force.
Marine recruits prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina, on Feb. 25, 2013. (Scott Olson/Getty Images))
Recruiting Shortfalls Give GOP a DEI Wedge
Only the Marine Corps and newly created Space Force met recruiting goals in 2022 while the three largest branches fell short, or marginally attained reconfigured goals.
The Pentagon projects that trend will continue in 2023 in what it calls the “most challenging recruiting environment in the 50 years of the all-volunteer force,” primarily because of a strong job market and quality-of-life issues.
The Army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by 15,000 active-duty soldiers, or 25 percent of its target, leaving the nation’s largest military force 7 percent smaller than it was two years ago.
The Navy fell shy even after lowering its recruiting quota, increasing its oldest enlistment age to 41 from 39, and relaxing other standards, including for those with criminal backgrounds.
The Air Force met 2022 goals but anticipates missing its manpower objectives for the first time since 1999 by as much as 10 percent in 2023.
The Army estimates it will fall at least 20,000 soldiers short of its ideal 485,000 active-duty force in 2023. It has lowered its goal to 452,000.
Even military academies are seeing shortfalls. Applications to attend the Air Force Academy dropped by 28 percent for the class of 2026, the Naval Academy by 20 percent, and West Point by 10 percent.
In addition to a strong job market and perceived quality-of-life issues, the DOD cites two other factors aggravating recruitment efforts.
Only 23 percent of 17-to-24-year-old Americans are eligible, or capable, of serving because of obesity, low test scores, criminal records, and behavioral health issues, the Pentagon states.
Plus, it notes, surveys show only 9 percent of the nation’s military-age population has “a propensity to serve” in public service, including the armed forces, underscoring a growing “civilian and military cultural divide” where more than 80 percent of those now serving in the military come from families of military veterans.
During congressional hearings through winter and spring, senior military leaders said the recruitment shortfalls follow a historic pattern when competition from the private sector for workers increases.
In a May 11 hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, Austin said “headwinds” fostered by “two years of Covid” are also impairing recruitment.
“It is not the first time we have seen challenges in recruiting,” he said, noting he was a recruiter himself at one point in his Army career. “I am optimistic” that the military will get out of “this trough” and attract the people needed to fill its lower ranks again soon.
Congressional Republicans, while acknowledging those claims, say the DOD is purposely overlooking another reason some young Americans, especially constituencies that traditionally have filled the all-volunteer ranks, are not signing up: the Biden administration’s imposition of mandatory expanded DEI training and other “woke” programs, such as support for transgender members.
“Asking young Americans to put their lives on the line for a nation they are required to acknowledge is inherently racist” is not a good recruitment strategy, Heritage Foundation Center for National Defense Director Thomas Spoehr told The Epoch Times.
Right now, the former Army lieutenant general said, “military leaders will have to fight a perception of political indoctrination” to meet recruitment quotas.
Spoehr said “direct ‘cause-and-effect’ studies on the impact of woke policies such as these do not exist,” but suggested “common sense” dictates they are hurting recruiting.
“Is anyone surprised that potential recruits—of whom many come from rural or poor areas of the country—don’t want to spend their time being lectured about white privilege?” he asked.
For some who join the armed forces, military boot camp serves as a rite of passage to manhood. Above, recruits run sprints during a U.S. Navy boot camp session in Great Lakes, Ill. (Spencer Fling/U.S. Navy)
The Retention Rebuttal
Pentagon leaders and branch brass have refuted GOP claims regarding DEI’s alleged influence on recruiting and readiness by stating there is no anecdotal or statistical evidence to support the contention.
During more than four months of hearings, various DOD officials also blunted House Republicans’ claims by touting highest-ever military retention rates; if DEI was such an onerous issue, they insist, those who’ve been subjected to the training wouldn’t be reenlisting at three times the rate of decades ago.
Spoehr said the key stat not detailed is how many completing a first enlistment are signing on for another. Otherwise, it’s no surprise that those who’ve chosen to make a career in the military are making a career in the military.
“People in the military are not free agents,” he said, noting they often have car loans, mortgages, children in school like everyone else. “To some degree, they are invested already in service, in their pension plans. They’re not at complete liberty to leave. They will leave when they can. I do not take a lot of stock in retention” arguments.
When retention outpaces recruitment, Spoehr warned, it is indicative of things “getting out of whack” with a force that “gets older, gets more costly. The military is a pyramid. You need a lot of junior people.”
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) also dismissed the Pentagon’s defense of DEI by citing retention. Just as the DOD claims there is no data to support claims that DEI is hurting recruiting, it is avoiding asking questions about the programs in surveys canvassing prospective recruits about motivations to join or not join.
For instance, he told The Epoch Times, he and others have asked the Navy if “they regularly collect data on why people are not enlisting? And, why they are not reenlisting? And, they don’t have it. Navy leadership may have their own opinions, their narratives” that no data could change.
A second reason, Waltz said, is “a so-so economy … have you seen the bonuses they are offering?”
A recruit division marches in formation at Recruit Training Command. More than 40,000 recruits train annually at the Navy’s only boot camp. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brandie Nix)
Overwhelming Anecdotal Evidence
The first Green Beret ever elected to the House, Waltz is a West Point graduate and 26-year Army combat veteran who continues to serve as a colonel in the Florida National Guard. He emphatically refutes the Pentagon’s contention that there isn’t ample anecdotal evidence that DEI is depressing recruitment.
“One of the things that I hope you can impart,” he told The Epoch Times, “is this is not an issue that a bunch of Republican lawmakers are making up or exacerbating for political reasons. This is coming from the ranks.”
For instance, Waltz said, “I would never have known the Air Force suggest to cadets that they shouldn’t say ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ or ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend.’ I would not have known that West Point was asking cadets to discuss their ‘white rage.’ This is coming from the service members.” And he knows contacting a congressional representative about perceived injustices is frowned upon. “I would have been petrified as a cadet to go to a congressman” with complaints, Waltz said. “They feel they have no avenues to express discomfort.”
Spoehr “was not aware” of DEI as a recruiting and readiness issue until he saw a 2021 Gallup poll “detecting this big drop in loss of confidence in the U.S. military” that cited “the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, DEI programs, and support for transgenders to enter without restrictions.”
That, he said, was followed by an October 2022 analysis that maintained “wokeism” was the “chief worry of grizzled American veterans today.”
Spoehr wrote in an American Heritage column that month that veterans were alarmed by “the weakening of [the military’s] fabric by radical progressive (or ‘woke’) policies being imposed, not by a rising generation of slackers, but by the very leaders charged with ensuring their readiness.” During a House Oversight Committee March 28 subcommittee hearing, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) said people in southern states, always a mainstay in military recruiting, are not happy with the “‘wokeism’ permeating the Pentagon.”
“Southern families, conservative families, we are not going to encourage our young men and women to join the military and endure this stuff,” he said. “In society, ‘woke’ is a social discussion but in the military, ‘woke’ is weak—and that is the problem.”
The Pentagon refuses to see this disconnect, Higgins said. He waved printouts of two Epoch Times articles documenting how, according to the Navy and Marine Corps, three of its biggest challenges are “climate instability, COVID’s ongoing impact, strengthening a naval culture of inclusiveness and respect.”
“What’s happening now is families are holding our youngsters back. Families are saying, ‘Don’t join!’” he said.
The nation’s military leadership is a “laughingstock,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Texas) said during the hearing. “The administration’s intent in clear—cleanse the military of conservatives, and the consequences are devastating.”
“The U.S. Army has fallen 15,000 soldiers short of its recruitment goal this year,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) in a tweet. “Maybe we ought to stop imposing vaccine mandates, preferred pronouns, and ‘woke’ education training on them. Just a thought.”
A 2021 Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) survey of more than 8,600 military families revealed those now serving were less likely to recommend their children enlist. Quality of life was the top-cited concern. MFAN’s survey do not ask questions about politics.
But in testimony before Congress, Independent Women’s Forum Senior Fellow Dr. Meaghan Mobbs said the MFAN survey confirms what her group is hearing from veterans encouraging family members not to follow in their footsteps.
“Such a precipitous drop in such a short period of time is alarming,” she said, attributing that decline to DEI and ‘wokeism.’ “Unfortunately, it will be many years before the full effect of such a decrease will be known, and it will take at least a generation to fix.”
Critics maintain the Biden Era Pentagon is also relying on the fact that, as most veterans will recount, there’s always some form of “baloney”—not their most commonly-used ‘b’ word—that soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians, and Marines must endure during their time in the military. Sure, Waltz said, it’s “just more nonsense, nothing new. That is what the services do. ‘Really, this is not that many hours, it’s a big picture thing.’”
But DEI is not about fostering awareness and respect for each other, he said, it’s an indoctrination of the best of America’s youth.
“When you are imposing this stuff on very young 18- and 19-year-olds, it has an impact over time,” he said.
Waltz has filed a bill, the ‘Working to Address Recruiting and Retention to Improve Our Readiness (Warrior) Act,’ that he says will “provide much-needed reforms to prevent the Biden administration from further politicizing the Department of Defense and improve military readiness.”
The bill would require the DOD to institute “a hiring freeze of Equal Opportunity and Equal Employment Opportunity personnel at a ratio of 1:2,000 EO/EEO staff to uniformed service members.”
It would require the DOD to audit DEI programs “that have caused greater division within the force. These programs are diverting focus and resources away from lethality and readiness against our potential adversaries.”
The audit will require the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, listing all FY22 DEI programs and expenses by Dec. 1.
“The report shall include a description of the purpose of the program and how many man-hours were spent participating in the program, billets and personnel (both civilian and uniformed) dedicated to each program, and the total costs associated with each program,” the bill states. In the interim, the bill would bar “the use of appropriations to fund DOD race-conscious selections, assignments, accessions, or promotions,” prohibit “the instruction or propagation of critical theories, such as critical race theory as part of military training or at the service academies,” ban “the use of non-merit-based criteria in the consideration for selection for the military service academies,” and suspend “the use of appropriated funds to investigate extremism in the military.”
The bill would require “a cost/benefit analysis be submitted to Congress before funds are appropriated … that affirms the proposed policies or programs will improve war-fighting capabilities and there is no less expensive alternative available.”
Waltz’s proposed ‘Warrior Act’ seeks a more complete audit of DEI programs than those the Pentagon has provided in response to Republican requests since 2021.
In response to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and 11 other GOP senators, a 2022 letter from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Army Gen. Mark Milley estimated the armed forces dedicated nearly 6 million hours and about $1 million in additional expenses to DEI training sessions in 2021. “This averages to just over 2 hours per Service member in a total force of 2.46 million members and is comparable to other Joint Force periodic training requirements,” Milley wrote in the letter. The GOP senators said they were “alarmed” by the data and accused Biden of being “more focused” on enacting a woke agenda in the military than on confronting America’s adversaries. Their math took the Pentagon estimate and factored in the less than 100 documented cases of “extremism” reported during the span, calculating that 58,000 hours of DOD manpower hours were expended in training for every instance.
During the March 28 hearing before House Oversight & Accountability Committee’s National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, Veterans on Duty, Inc. Chair Jeremy Hunt testified that the Pentagon’s DEI program “subjects some service members to 11-week resident DEI training classes—despite the military’s history of leading the fight against discrimination.”
Hunt, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who is black, said his alma mater now “lectures cadets about ‘addressing whiteness,’ while the Air Force Academy has started the bizarre practice of appointing cadet DEI officials.”
He said the army spent $114 million on DEI in 2022 and “in some cases we are paying these ‘DEI bureaucrats’ $200,000 a year” despite there being “no data to determine if it actually works, which we know it doesn’t, and whether there was any type of underlying data that necessitates the dramatic increases of this programs.”
Spoehr said he believes Waltz’s bill will gain traction and be adopted because Democrats, even the progressives who lobby for DEI, are beginning to realize it could be affecting recruitment. “I do, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Just the other day, Lloyd Austin decreed there would be no more drag queen shows on military installations. That came as a surprise to me. I thought they were heading down the path that we’re going to have drag queen story hour at the installation library.”
Spoehr said there is bipartisan concern about “military recruiting and readiness in the context of countering China. People are taking this seriously. [Waltz’s] bill, I can see it succeeding.”
Retired Navy Capt. Frederick J. Passman, Continental Commander of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS), said mere presence in the military teaches people to “make sure that we respect various opinions.”
Stressing he was not speaking on behalf of the NOUS, which he emphasized is “apolitical and nonpartisan,” Passman told The Epoch Times that under current DEI protocols, “I feel very grateful for having been in when I was and to have served in the time that I did.” He regards DEI training as “rocks and shoals” that place “too much focus on things that don’t have anything to do with the accomplishment of the mission. It is taking time taking away from mission accomplishment.”
A warship drilling to fight—and to survive a fight—will foster “good teamwork” and doing so is “part and parcel … of a successful command,” he said.
“The break-way times for specific types of training evolutions that aren’t related to mission accomplishment creates confusion and distractions and is counter-productive,” Passman said, noting what especially “bothers me” is “gender identification. Superiors being called on the carpet because they didn’t use the proper pronoun for a subordinate? That is unacceptable.” And besides, he said, in the terms of the Navy, it already has a cadre of skilled “attitude adjustment” specialists—the chiefs, the veteran enlisted non-commissioned officers who are the lifeblood of every ship, every squadron, every fleet.
“The best solution is what has always worked. Let the chiefs administer ‘attitude adjustment training,’” Passman said. “Back in the day, you got ‘sea lawyers’ who end up mysteriously ‘tripping down the ladder to the boatswain’s locker.’ After a few years, they become excellent sailors. That is considered totally unacceptable these days.”
Paul Gagne of the Massachusetts NOUS, a retired chief who administered plenty of on-the-job “attitude adjustment” training during his Navy career, said the whole DEI conversation is a bunch of “baloney.”
“I’m an old chief raised by old chiefs. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: The reality is the people you need to recruit are going to turn away,” he told The Epoch Times. He also pointed a broadside to GOP politicians who may also need some “attitude adjustment.” “I’m really tired of the ‘politi-speak,’ the ‘wokeism’ talk, the labels, the whole conversation,” Gagne said. “It’s not hard. It’s very simple. If you want a certain type of people in your service, market your recruiting to them.”