Stop Lauding General Milley’s Evasions on Critical Race Theory

There’s nothing new about military leaders dismissing criticism of their decisions by wrapping themselves in the flag. Progressives used to see it as an authoritarian tactic. Now, though, they are happy to salute — at least when the brass is using that move in defense of their causes.

Two Republican congressmen — Matt Gaetz and Mike Waltz, both of Florida — raised questions about “critical race theory” at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the congressmen that it was vital for the military to study different perspectives: “I’ve read Mao Tse-tung. I've read Karl Marx. I've read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.”

He added, “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned and non-commissioned officers, of being quote 'woke' or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”

His impassioned statement drew coverage everywhere from USA Today (“A top military official defended. . . studying theories about race relations in America”) to Rolling Stone (“delivered a powerful defense of the military’s right to study critical race theory”). Progressives cheered Milley in the terms that we now expect about viral clips: The website Uproxx said Gaetz “got absolutely wrecked.”

Democrats in Congress celebrated Milley’s statement, too, especially once Republicans started slamming him. Donald Trump called Milley’s comments “pathetic,” while Tucker Carlson of Fox News called him a “pig” and “stupid.”

You don’t have to agree with those shots at Milley to think he ought to be embarrassed over his performance at the hearing, not lauded for it. In an interview with me, Representative Waltz made three points that have gotten lost in the din.

First, Milley’s response wasn’t responsive. Neither congressman had said or suggested that the military should avoid studying left-wing theories about race.

Waltz was objecting to indoctrination, not discussion. His questioning arose, as he explained, from the correspondence with the family of a West Point cadet who thought a lecture on “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage” had crossed that line.

Second, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin agreed with Waltz. Right before Milley delivered his stem-winder, Austin said that while he would like to know more about that lecture, it “sounds like something that should not occur.” He raised the possibility that the lecture might have been defensible as “some sort of critical examination of different theories” — which is not at all how Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, the superintendent of West Point, had described the lecture in a letter to Waltz.

Third, Milley’s analogy is — and this is my characterization, not that of Waltz, who was much more diplomatic — preposterous. Nobody believes that West Point is taking the same attitude toward critical race theory that it does toward Maoism. It’s not inviting Maoists to give guest lectures with no rebuttals.

 If the military were treating CRT as a dangerous set of beliefs that needs combating, Waltz and Gaetz wouldn’t be complaining, although some other congressmen might. I would add that comparing CRT to ideologies that led to tyranny and mass murder is not quite the slam-dunk defense of it that progressives are taking it to be.

Neither Waltz nor Gaetz was making a negative generalization about the U.S. military or its officers. At the end of his remarks, Milley noted that Waltz and he are both Green Berets. In our conversation, Waltz volunteered that he respects Milley. During the hearing, Gaetz emphasized that he was channeling concerns he increasingly hears from officers themselves.

Maybe those concerns are overstated or misguided. That’s a fair debate. Saying that raising them is an attack on the military, on the other hand, is an attempt to shut down debate. A democracy should respect the military that serves it. But it should also have the self-respect to tell its top military commander when he’s out of line.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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