Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo responds to questions at a March 22 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo responds to questions at a March 22 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Office of Sen. Joe Manchin

Pentagon’s No. 2 Civilians Fire Back in ‘Woke’ Wars

“There's been no detraction from the primary mission,” Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven told dubious GOP senators.

The U.S. military’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, policies and training are not hurting combat readiness and recruiting, the No. 2-ranking civilian leaders of the Army, the Navy and Marine Corps, and the Air Force and Space Force told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Their sworn testimony before a Senate committee is the latest of a string of public rejections by top Pentagon civilian and military officials of allegations by far-right political figures that so-called “woke” policies were weakening the armed forces. 

“There's been no detraction from the primary mission of both the Navy and Marine Corps to defend our nation and do so in a forward-deployed manner,” Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In the last two weeks, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger also have said that DEI policies, far from being a distraction, were good for their services, in exclusive interviews for Defense One’s State of Defense series. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to be asked about the issue by House Republicans in a hearing before the Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning.

Later that day, senior Pentagon and military personnel officials also will testify before the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee on DEI effects.  

In opening remarks on Wednesday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited a recent Army “pulse survey” about “barriers to service,” which found that among potential young recruits, only five percent thought the Army emphasized “wokeness” too much.

“Let me be clear: diversity and inclusion strengthen our military. By every measure, America's military is more lethal and ready than it has ever been. It is also more diverse and inclusive than ever before,” Reed said. “This is the right direction, as America's strength is its diversity. But greater diversity requires greater understanding within the ranks. And understanding requires learning and regular training.”

Ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the Defense Department should work on fixing the recruiting crisis as much it does on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion; fighting extremism in the ranks; and ensuring access to abortion. 

“These initiatives are at best a distraction. At worst, they dissuade young people from enlisting,” Wicker said in his opening remarks, without offering evidence. “They suggest to the American people that the military has a problem with diversity and extremism. In truth, the military is the greatest civil-rights program in the history of the world.”

Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s anti-extremism efforts that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurgent attacks on the Capitol as an unfair “purge” of adherents of far-right political beliefs. On Wednesday, they argued that the programs have convinced the public that extremism in the ranks is a bigger problem than it really is. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, appeared to refer to a 2021 Pentagon report that found fewer than 100 service members in the previous year had been “subject to official action due to engagement in prohibited extremist activity.”

“The vast majority…of the men and women who serve in the military serve with honor and distinction. They're the best and brightest,” Sullivan said. “Don't you think that that impacts recruiting? That for the last year, we've been saying that we have all these quote-unquote extremists in the military?”

Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo said they had no evidence it has had an impact.

Raven agreed that most sailors and Marines serve honorably. “I think there is a perception on a range of toxic behaviors that I believe are very small, but very important to get at, that Americans are concerned that they may join the military and be faced with unacceptable behaviors ranging from sexual harassment to other behaviors.”

The second-ranking barrier to entry listed in the Army’s pulse survey was that 13 percent of potential recruits believe “women and racial or ethnic minorities are discriminated against in the Army.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked the three undersecretaries whether programs to address racism and prevent sexual assault hurt recruitment, and all responded “no.”

“It is when these programs fail that young people question whether joining the military is a safe career path for them, not whether or not these programs exist in the first place,” Warren said.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said he disagreed with comments that the “military isn’t focused on the right things.” He asked the Navy’s Raven whether the DEI initiatives—many of which, Kelly said, were started in 2012—reduce readiness. “Of the dozens of no-fail operations our service members have conducted over the last decade, do you have any evidence, any evidence at all, that these initiatives have adversely impacted our success anywhere?” 

“No,” said Raven to both questions. “And I would also say that Gen. [David] Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, was recently asked a similar question, and he said there was zero evidence, that's a quote, zero evidence that all these initiatives have impacted our readiness.”