Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is seen in the Capitol during a vote on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is seen in the Capitol during a vote on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Lawmaker Wants to Grill Officers on Critical Race Theory Before Approving Promotions

It’s the latest step Sen. Tom Cotton has proposed to stop “culture wars” within the military.

Sen. Tom Cotton says he may start grilling general officers about their views on critical race theory before agreeing to promote them. 

The additional questioning would be a new step in the Arkansas Republican’s efforts to eradicate military training that concerns white privilege or the oppression of Black people. Cotton argues that teaching about these things undermines troop morale and unit cohesion. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee considers about 50,000 nominations each year for civilian and military officials, including all general or flag officers, even if they are not leading a major command that would require a confirmation hearing. Just last month, for example, the Air Force sent the Senate a batch of 113 Air National Guard officers who were being promoted. These slates of names are typically handled at the staff level and approved without fanfare. 

But Cotton wants to rethink that. 

“I may start probing nominees to be promoted to the ranks of O-7 to O-10 on their views on it and what’s happened in their commands,” Cotton said at a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday. “There’s almost never a confirmation hearing, unless it’s also a four-star promotion to a major combatant command or one of the services, but maybe it’s time to change that.” 

“Maybe it’s time we start ensuring that our flag officers subscribe to those very basic principles that are outlined in our Declaration [of Independence] or in King’s Dream speech,” he continued. 

Some former officials immediately pushed back on the idea.

“Living the oath, ‘I swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic’ isn’t good enough?” Tony Thomas, the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a tweet. “C’mon @SenTomCotton, stop politicizing the institution you used to be part of.”

Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, are asking troops to tell them when they encounter training programs in the military centered around critical race theory, which seeks to understand how racism and discrimination permeate various legal and other societal systems. A memo from Cotton obtained by Defense One last month offered some two dozen examples, including troops who said they were offended by a Black Lives Matter flag hung on base and who expressed anger that training about extremist groups focused on right-wing organizations and not Black Lives Matter or Antifa. 

Teaching about racism also came up at a contentious June 23 congressional hearing, where Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley were grilled by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., about a West Point seminar on “white rage.”

Milley defended the need to educate troops about the matter. “It's important that we understand that because our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians, they come from the American people. So it is important that the leaders now in the future, do understand it. 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?” the general snapped back in a now-viral clip that prompted former President Donald Trump to call for his firing. 

By including this type of training, Cotton said, military schools are becoming too similar to civilian graduate schools. 

“Every minute they dedicate to some critical race theory primer could have been...better dedicated to...studying Chinese military doctrine, things that we actually expect and need our military to know,” Cotton said.  

Cotton, who served in Iraq as an Army infantry officer, argued that equality training should go back to how it was when he was in uniform. 

“Most of my buddies who contact me feel they just want to know why we can’t just go back to what we all took an oath to, our founding principles...or for that matter why these training sessions can’t just replay Martin Luther King’s dream speech that we should all be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin?”