U.S. Army soldiers walk from the woods, through a cloud of smoke, for the start of a Family Day ceremony while attending basic training at Fort Jackson on September 28, 2022 in Columbia, South Carolina.

U.S. Army soldiers walk from the woods, through a cloud of smoke, for the start of a Family Day ceremony while attending basic training at Fort Jackson on September 28, 2022 in Columbia, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Woke-ism Not to Blame for Army Shortfalls, Says Top Recruiting General

“That is not what I’m seeing,” says commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, as right-wing pundits target the military over anti-racism, anti-extremism, gender, and climate change policies.

Though some lawmakers and other conservative politicians have pinned the blame for the Army’s recent recruiting woes on “woke-ism,” the top general in charge of recruiting for the service said he is “not seeing that at all.” 

Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, just five days into his role as commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told Defense One that he has identified many factors keeping young Americans from joining the service, including basic knowledge about life in the military, but “woke-ism” is not among them. 

The Army’s recruiting problems became a leading topic of conversation within the first hours of the first day of the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference, due in part to a recent investigation into Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe’s tweets defending female service members. 

In a report released last week, the Army accused Donahoe of bringing “negative publicity” to the service after he publicly chided political talk show host Tucker Carlson for criticizing women serving in uniform,—a frequent target for far-right personalities. The Army’s decision, in turn, has sparked a fury of outrage right back at the Army for not supporting Donahoe. 

The Donahoe episode is only the latest in a string of right-wing accusations against the Biden administration and military leaders for adopting anti-racism, anti-extremism, and gender equality policies. In recent weeks, as midterm elections approach, partisan conservative leaders have ramped up “woke-ism in the military” as a popular theme. It has appeared in tweets by popular far-right personalities, including Robert O’Neill, the former Navy Seal who controversially claims to have killed Osama bin Laden. And in the last two weeks, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and CIA director who is also a West Point graduate, linked woke-ism to the Army’s recruiting shortfalls and unleashed a political fundraising campaign targeting “gender, or woke ideology, or climate change” in the military. “We have to walk away from this radical left ideology, we cannot let it penetrate our military,” Pompeo says in a video.

The right’s politically-based accusations have put Biden administration appointees on their heels. In a press conference to open the AUSA conference on Monday, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth was asked repeatedly about the ongoing investigation into Donahoe’s actions and “woke” policies.

“I’m not sure what ‘woke’ means,” Wormuth said. “I think woke means a lot of different things to different people. But, first of all, I would say if ‘woke’ means we are not focused on warfighting, we are not focused on readiness—that doesn’t reflect what I see at installations all around the country or overseas when I go and visit.” 

Pompeo quickly replied in a tweet, saying, “Madam Secretary - you know exactly what woke means: dividing by race, promoting CRT, turning Army Green into climate change green. Soldiers don’t need safe spaces, they need a relentless focus on keeping America safe.” Pompeo’s tweet was not entirely factual; Army leaders have expanded diversity and inclusion programs, but insist they do not promote critical race theory. 

“The key for senior leaders in an environment that is as politicized, unfortunately, as the one that we’re all operating in is to exercise good judgment,” Wormuth said. “I do want our leaders to be able to have a social media presence and to be able to speak up for soldiers and defend soldiers…but I think in this environment, senior leaders have to choose their words very carefully.” 

The inspector general investigation is just the latest in a string of conflicts that have forced the Army to assess its perception by the public—a perception that is largely flawed, according to the Army. 

Bridging the knowledge gap and correcting the perception is one of the biggest challenges for the Army’s recruiting operations, leaders said. 

“We really believe that exposure to the Army is really important,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in the press conference. “What we need to do is expose those who may not have the opportunity to understand what the Army is all about.”

Davis, the recruiting general, said “a lot of our young superstars who will lead our nation just don’t know about the Army.” New recruits have all sorts of misperceptions: “They’re asking ‘Can I have a pet? Can I drive a car?’ I say, ‘Of course you can.’” 

Davis said one challenge is reaching the Gen Z population through their own influencers, where misperceptions are flourishing about life inside the military, but not about “woke-ism,” he said. “From the influencers that I’ve talked to, that just doesn’t come up.”

Davis said he is unsure if the Army has data to quantify whether or not new policies on racism, extremism, and gender are affecting the Army’s recruiting or retention numbers. It would be “interesting” to see that data, if it does exist, he said. But he’s convinced those policies are not to blame. “That is not what I’m seeing.” 

Going into his new job, the two-star general said he’ll be focused on the three straight-forward issues that the Army has identified that are keeping young Americans from enlisting: “information, education, and access.”