The military’s entry into the culture wars remains an important development. Until recently, the military was officially apolitical, in keeping with the constitutional requirements for a civilian commander-in-chief. In the 1990s, the military became more aligned with the Republican Party, and many commentators expressed legitimate concerns about this development. The pendulum swung-back after George W. Bush’s disastrous performance in Iraq, and things mostly balanced out by the time Obama took the reins.
Trump proved to be a catalyst for a new type of friction. Washington D.C. proved to be allergic to Trump from the very beginning. His style, his goals, and his contempt for the government class’s pretentions all rankled the permanent bureaucracy.
Every government institution resisted him: the Department of Justice, the courts, the intelligence community, low-level staffers, and even the military leadership. The last part was unusual. But, for them, it appeared to be a situation not of complete rejection of civilian control, but of careerists choosing to endear themselves to the Congress and the permanent bureaucracy over some temporary occupant of the Oval Office.
This was most visible in the case of outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman, Mark Milley.
Military Leadership Assimilated Into Washington D.C. Hivemind
The Joint Chiefs of Staff are supposed to provide the president reliable advice on military matters. While Milley has a background that suggests intelligence, I’ve never personally heard him say anything insightful or interesting. Even so, when he made it to the top, he had delusions of grandeur. As a uniformed military man, he thought he could circumvent the chain of command and had a duty to resist President Trump’s deviations from Washington D.C. orthodoxy.
This was totally inappropriate. While the military often uses the phrase “civilian control,” the controller is one civilian, the commander-in-chief. There is not rule by committee for reasons the Constitution’s framers made clear. Perhaps the many ex-generals who broke with tradition and openly criticized President Trump during the BLM race riots inspired Milley, but, in the process, he and they did a lot of damage to civil-military relations.
Milley later admitted to establishing a back channel to China during the transition and bragged about how he undermined the ordinary chain of command for the use of nuclear weapons. After the Biden administration’s crackdown on extremists in the military, he testified in 2021 how he wanted to understand “white rage,” as if his countrymen were some faction of al Qaeda.
High-level military people spend a lot of time in Washington D.C. It is a government town, and a distinct managerial class culture has emerged. Not only is D.C. highly partisan for Democrats (the district voted 93% for Biden), but it is also on the leading edge of woke workplaces, with very visible pride celebrations and accommodations for sexual and other minorities.
The office culture of the Pentagon, which has a small army of civilians working alongside career military personnel, encourages a melding of cultures, beliefs, and perception between bureaucrats and senior military leaders. Because of their permanence, the career civilians often have more influence than many of the uniformed officers passing through.
I suspect this has a lot to do with Milley and other generals’ mechanical recitation of the latest “woke” conventional wisdom. He went native. No one in the military leadership was talking like this even 10 years ago.
From Amoral Careerists to Angry True Believers
President Biden has nominated Charles “C.Q.” Brown to be the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, having previously served as the top general in the Air Force. While very qualified on paper, he appears worse ideologically than Milley. If Milley was an amoral phony, who would say anything to advance his career, Brown is a true believer, an angry black man determined to rid the military of its excessive number of white male leaders. For those about to be sacrificed: “No thanks for your service.”
Brown made this clear in numerous statements before and since his nomination. In addition to a self-pitying discussion of race during the 2020 BLM riots, he signed off on a memo that recommended explicit, race-based goals for the composition of Air Force officers. Senator Eric Schmitt (R-MO) pointedly noted in a recent hearing that Brown’s talk of diversity is really code for anti-white, which requires the removal of qualified, patriotic, and experienced white men. Instead of defending his extremism, Brown bobbed and weaved and avoided most of the questions.
Brown hales from a successful military family. His father was a full-bird colonel in the U.S. Army. He is now a four-star general. In other words, America’s allegedly endemic racism did not hold him or his father back in any way. But, even with these accomplishments, Brown has an enormous chip on his shoulder. He complains that his mentors did not look like him, neglecting to thank them for the help they provided to propel him to the highest rank in the U.S. military.
Back in the 1960s, when the WASP elite of university presidents and CEOs first adopted affirmative action, it came from the spirit of noblesse oblige, the generous act of a society with a surplus of social capital. The America that put a man on the moon could trade away some efficiency for the sake of social harmony.
This is quite different from today’s minority beneficiaries of affirmative action, several generations removed from anti-black discrimination, announcing that they’re going to impose policies that discriminate against whites, who will soon form a minority themselves. Far from generous, this is mean-spirited revenge fueled by envy and resentment.
When the beneficiary seeking special privileges in the zero-sum game of college admissions and workplace advancement demands affirmative action, “it hits different,” as the kids say.
While corporate America and the Deep State make it seem as American as apple pie, affirmative action has always been profoundly contradictory and unpopular. It lost on a ballot initiative in liberal California as recently as 2020, has recently been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and it is not particularly popular even among minorities.
The reasons are obvious.
First, it is unfair on its face. Second, it leads to weaker organizations, where excellence becomes a lower priority than representation. And, finally, it stigmatizes beneficiaries, some percentage of whom could have and would have succeeded in a race-blind regime.
Woke Leaders Are Hurting Military Recruitment
The military is in the midst of an epic recruiting crisis. The declining collective health of our youth, the military’s recently-acquired reputation for wokeness, and the lack of any relationship between our overseas empire and the tangible interests of the American people all play a part. No one wants to join a losing organization, which is not being used to protect the country, and where one will face discrimination to get ahead.
Will Brown improve things? With his openly stated objective of reducing the number of white men in the leadership billets, it is doubtful.
White men, particularly white men from certain rural and “old stock” parts of the country, have made up the backbone of the combat arms and the special forces since the advent of the all-volunteer force. Like the Red Army’s string of defeats after Stalin’s purge, removing people with talent, experience, and capability from the military will cause significant and foreseeable problems down the line.
If Charles Brown gets this job, the office will shift from a cynical careerist to an angry true believer. This does not bode well for reversing the military’s recent string of failures, its descent into wokeness, and the all-volunteer forces’ recruiting collapse.
Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.