U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify during a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services at Rayburn House Office Building June 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify during a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services at Rayburn House Office Building June 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mark Milley, Anti-Racist

The Joint Chiefs chairman’s defense of anti-racism education continues his support for American values he says are the heart of the U.S. military.

I don’t know if Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., hates me because I’m Jewish. I don’t know if he thinks I’m less of an American because I’m not a white Christian. But I’m positive that Gen. Mark Milley doesn’t think that way. 

The Joint Chiefs chairman’s response to questions in the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday defending anti-racism and anti-white-extremism education in the military is rightfully going viral. His soliloquy on why he thinks it’s important for cadets at the Army’s university to learn about critical race theory and to understand “white rage” and the reasons why Americans felt compelled to attack the Capitol building and the Constitution he’s sworn to defend is a landmark moment. Milley’s speech should be held up and remembered as important as when his predecessor Adm. Mike Mullen sat at a similar witness table in the Senate and laid bare why he could no longer support the shameful, dishonest, and dishonorable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned openly gay Americans from serving their country. Milley’s stance against the shameful, dishonest, and dishonorable march against the critical race theory boogeyman is no less important. 

There’s a battle for America going on right now. Milley stood on a wall, as most military men and women do, and defended it. It’s a wall between freedom and fascism; good and evil. It’s a wall holding back something sinister that we have seen in human history before, here and elsewhere. He didn’t build the wall. It’s always existed. But it’s a wall that partisan-factioned opportunists like Gaetz and other firebrand extremists depend on. They use it hoping to separate themselves and a narrowly-defined and -experienced America from what exists before their very eyes. Led most recently by ex-President Donald Trump, they brand nearly every segment of American society that doesn’t look, sound, talk, think, vote, or pray like them as enemies of the state, including, now, the U.S. military.

It’s like that poem. “First they came for the…”—you know the one. In the past four years, with the rise of the Trump era’s brand of white supremacy and nativism, the far right has been embraced by the center-right and they’ve targeted a similar list of enemies: journalists, Muslims, Black protestors, imaginary caravans of culture-changing Latino immigrants, the conspiracy of “globalist” Jews, moderate conservatives, and women, gays, and transgender Americans who serve their country in uniform. Well, now they’re coming for the generals. 

In the last few years, something has changed. Not long ago, the speech and sentiments we are hearing from today’s leading Republicans and white supremacists rightfully were shunned and marginalized. Attacks on the military were unthinkable. Today, it gets them the lead guest spot on Fox News in prime time and right-wing morning talk radio. It gets them elected to Congress (but not re-elected to the White House) and cheered by their party elites. What they are saying and feeling is a backlash to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the continued reckoning with racism that’s driving policies, schools, and businesses nationwide to reassess what they are teaching and how Americans are treating each other, from newsrooms to the NFL, and even at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point

That’s why we’ve continued to see right-wing pundits and politicians until now aiming their rage at liberals and Biden appointees, but largely avoiding the military leaders who support their policies on anti-racism and anti-extremism education, like Milley and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead they claim the military is a victim of the diabolical far left, being manipulated by President Joe Biden’s latest liberal social experiment, just as they did about transgender troops, women in combat, gays in the military, and integrating blacks into the ranks. But the attacks are starting to hit the Pentagon directly. They’ve lodged similar complaints of “wokeness” in attacking recruiting campaigns by the military and intelligence community seeking diverse candidates and promising an inclusive federal workplace—normal stuff for the real world. For that, Cruz called the Army “pansies.” 

Milley, the nation’s top general, is having none of it. But they know this, so on Wednesday once again Republican panelists directed their questions at Biden’s appointee, Austin, and not the four-star general sitting next to him. When Austin told Gaetz that the military was not teaching critical race theory, later Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., claimed to have caught him lying because it appeared in West Point coursework. So Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., an Air Force veteran, chose to give her time to Milley so he could say what the Republicans didn’t want to hear: 

“I do think it’s important for us to be open-minded and widely read,” Milley said. “I want to understand white rage.” U.S. troops come from the American people, he said, so it’s important their leaders understand it. “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned and noncommissioned officers, of being ‘woke,’ because we’re studying some theories that are out there.” 

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Milley, who graduated from Princeton and Columbia, said critical race theory, which came out of Harvard, is one of the theories that deserve study as he recounted the systemically poor treatment of Blacks in America from its founding through the Civil Rights era, Milley looked directly at Waltz. “So, look, I do want to know. I respect your service, and you and I are both Green Berets. But I want to know. And it matters to our military, and the discipline and cohesion of this military.” 

This wasn’t Milley’s first speech in this vein. In the year since he was excoriated by liberals for walking behind President Donald Trump in his spontaneous violent sweep of protestors outside the White House at Lafayette Park in that bible-and-smile photo op, Milley has given a series of keynote speeches to admitting his error and reaching out to Black communities preaching positive change, unity, and equity. And he’s done it all through the lens of the U.S. military’s needs and morals. In July, Milley slammed the Confederacy as “treason” and supported renaming military bases that honor Confederates. By October, some wondered whether his stance against white supremacy was crossing the line into political speech. This year, he’s strongly supported Austin’s force-wide stand down to learn and teach about racism and white extremism. Just last month, Milley told graduating ROTC cadets at Howard University, “It is your generation that can and will bring the joint force to be truly inclusive of all peoples.” 

But Milley’s battle is just getting started. Gaetz and Waltz got the media moment they wanted. In the 24 hours since, Republicans have grown only bolder. “It’s one thing for some kid out at Cal-Berkeley to hear this stuff, but these are the future leaders of our military that literally will have their finger on the button, and that’s incredibly disturbing to me,” Waltz said on talk radio, claiming troops are writing in with complaints. “The military has always been color-blind, merit-based, and mission focused…but this is about indoctrination of people going forward, not a history lesson.” 

Congressional candidate Joe Kent, a retired Green Beret and widower of Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent gunning to become a rising firebrand, said, “Biden wants to weaken the military so that it’s submissive to his regime.”

Gaetz, sharing right-wing media pickups of Milley’s speech, said, “With Generals like this it’s no wonder we’ve fought considerably more wars than we’ve won.” But by midday, he had redirected his Twitter fire back at Austin, the civilian, writing, “Our nation’s military should be focused on defending America, not defending wokeism. @SecDef Lloyd Austin is failing our military and our country.” 

Gaetz pinned it atop his wall. Milley will have to continue standing watch atop his.