The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, had a strong reaction when pressed on the issue of critical race theory before the House Armed Services Committee.
After facing attacks from Republicans that he called “offensive,” General Milley strongly argued in favour of the Defence Department’s efforts to better understand social injustice, both within the military and in American society at large.
The unusually emotional response from the General came after antagonistic questions from Republicans during a hearing on the 2022 budget, including from Florida Rep Michael Waltz, who, like Gen Milley, served in the Army as a Special Forces officer.
Mr Waltz and others claimed they had evidence that the military and its academies were forcing studies in “white rage” and “critical race theory” onto troops and cadets.
Critical race theory used to be a fairly unknown academic term, but has recently been picked up by Republicans hoping to use it as a political cudgel against their opponents.
“On the issue of critical race theory, a lot of us have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is,” General Milley said.
“I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read,” he added.
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white, and I want to understand it. What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the constitution of the United States of America, what caused that? I want to find that out,” Gen Milley said, referring to the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January.
“I want to maintain an open mind here. And I do want to understand that,” he added. “It's important that leaders now and in the future do understand it.”
Gen Milley then appeared to criticize Florida Rep Matt Gaetz who shortly before had gone after the General for allegedly pushing for troops to be taught Marxist theories and hiring aides who pushed those ideas. Mr Gaetz offered no substantive evidence for his claims, US News reported.
“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 personally here to defend,” Gen Milley said.
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our non-commissioned officers of being quote ‘woke’ because we are studying some theories that are out there,” he added.
Mr Gaetz could be seen shaking his head as Gen Milley spoke.
Citing a broad summary of critical race theory, Gen Milley said it was “started at Harvard Law School years ago and it proposed that there were laws in the United States – antebellum laws prior to the Civil War that led to a power differential, with African Americans that were three-quarters of a human being when this country was formed. We had a Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation to change it. We brought it up to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 – took another hundred years to change that.”
“Antebellum” is Latin for “before the war” and in this context refers to the US Civil War.
To Mr Waltz, he said: “Look, I do want to know. I respect your service. You and I are both Green Berets.”
“It matters to the discipline and cohesion of this military,” Gen Milley concluded.