Claims that “woke” Pentagon policies are fueling a massive U.S. military recruiting crisis are overblown – and the criticisms may only be making things worse, one expert said.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former member of the National Security Council during the Clinton and Bush administrations, said concerns over so-called “woke” policies have been blown out of proportion by politicians and critics. The main driver of the crisis are issues such as the current labor market and the shrinking pool of young Americans who are qualified to serve, he said.
“Because of drug use, obesity or health concerns, it’s just a smaller pool than it was even two years ago,” Feaver told Fox News Digital. “These are the big drivers.”
Feaver recently released a book titled “Thank You For Your Service,” which takes a deep dive into declining public confidence in the military. At the heart of that issue, Feaver said, is the politicization of the military by both parties. Feaver cited a Gallup poll released In July that showed public confidence in the military at 60%, noting that while that number compares favorably to other U.S. institutions, it represents a worrying trend for the military.
According to the poll, the 60% number has not been this low since 1997 and hasn’t been lower than 60% since 1988, when 58% of respondents expressed confidence in the military. Those lower numbers of the 1980s, which hovered between 50% and 63%, were during a particularly trying time in American foreign policy, Gallup noted, amid the Cold War and high-profile events such as the Iran hostage crisis.
Gallup recorded a number as high as 74% public confidence in the military as recently as 2018, but that number slid sharply in the wake of other high-profile events such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The drop has been most pronounced among independents, with only 55% expressing confidence in the military in Gallup’s most recent polling – down from 73% as recently as 2019.
“On the margins, that’s going to make recruiting a little more difficult,” Feaver said.
Feaver argued that much of the blame for declining public confidence can be pinned on politics, including claims that the military has become “woke.”
That point seemingly aligns with the stance of Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who told reporters earlier this year that critics of the military are damaging its image and playing a role in its recruiting woes.
“I think one of the things that we see that’s contributing to a decline in trust in the military is a concern on both sides of the aisle about politicization of our military leaders,” Wormuth said.
“I think the more our military leaders are sort of dragged into spaces that have been politicized like that, I think the more it contributes to this perception that they’re political when they really aren’t,” Wormuth added.
Wormuth said there was “no doubt” that the perception that the military has gone “woke” was contributing to the Army’s recruiting woes, something she called “counterproductive.”
“What I am trying to do is talk about now how that drip, drip, drip of criticism about a ‘woke military,’ I do think is having some counterproductive effects on recruiting,” Wormuth said.
Wormuth’s comments come as military leaders have faced a cascade of criticism on the introduction of so-called “woke” policies from political leaders, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Navy veteran and 2024 GOP presidential hopeful, pointing to the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs that have recently been introduced.
“I think the military that I see is different from the military I served in,” DeSantis said this year. “I see a lot of emphasis now on political ideologies, things like gender pronouns. I see a lot about things like DEI, and I think that that’s caused recruiting to plummet.”
Representatives for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a Fox News request for comment.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also weighed in on the issue, writing in an op-ed for Fox News last year after the Army missed its recruiting goals.
“How can we ask young men and women who have decided to risk their lives for America, even die for America, to affirm that our country is inherently racist?” Pompeo wrote. “How can we ask them to view their brothers and sisters in arms through the narrow prisms of race or gender? The clear and obvious answer is that we cannot – not without putting their lives at risk on the battlefield. A woke military is a weak military. Unfortunately, woke and weak are exactly what our military is becoming under Biden’s leadership.”
Pompeo has not backed down from that stance since, telling Fox News Digital that there is “no question that the Biden Administration has pushed DEI policies and initiatives into our military institutions – including West Point, my alma mater.”
“This has seriously affected our military’s ability to recruit excellent young men and women who wish to defend their country and serve in proud, storied institutions that rightly reward merit, not left-wing compliance,” Pompeo said. “The solution to this problem is not to stop criticizing the Administration and cease supporting our warriors. Winning wars and deterring our adversaries demands that we work to fix failures and bad leadership. Making clear that rewarding or punishing servicemen by race or by group is inconsistent with that national imperative will improve – not harm – the world’s finest military.”
Robert Greenway, senior advisor to the vice president at the Heritage Foundation, argued that the military has taken a divisive approach in recent year, citing training in critical race theory and “gender ideology” that he said has become “pervasive.”
“Precious time and money are being poured into woke programs and projects that would be better applied towards making the military more capable,” Greenway told Fox News Digital. “Overall, the effect has been to subordinate operational readiness in defense of the nation to social shibboleths such as diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Greenway argued that there was “little evidence” to support the idea that the training time spent on “diversity, equity and inclusion indoctrination, or claims of rampant racism and extremism in the military” has been useful.
“We are now seeing a significant decline in public confidence and trust in the military’s effectiveness, a crisis in recruiting, a persistently climbing suicide rate among both active duty and veterans despite an end of decades-long combat deployments, a disastrous and embarrassing evacuation from Afghanistan, and the introduction of DEI/CRT/LGBTQ policies at the expense of the meritocracy and focus on warfighting skills required to fight and win in defense of our nation,” Greenway said.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a Fox News request for comment.
Feaver acknowledged that some left-leaning talking points could be finding their way into military training, noting that an organization as large as the Defense Department is likely to have some people “overdoing” the training. But Feaver argued that overall only a small percentage of the military’s training time has been spent on such programs, even if some individual members overdo the training.
“It just stands to reason that an organization that large is going to have people falling off the horse on that side,” Feaver said.
Feaver also pointed out that such attacks on military credibility are not exclusive to Republicans, saying many Democrats have raised alarm bells over concerns that there are a growing number of right-wing extremists in the ranks. In Feaver’s view, there is little evidence to support that the military has either a “woke” problem or an extremist problem.
“There’s not good evidence that either of those conditions is pervasive in the military,” Feaver said. “The particular issue of far-right extremism is pretty limited in the military, very limited.”
“The most rigorous tests that the Biden administration did, with the surveys that they did to try to track it down, a very few number [far right extremists],” Feaver added. “Now any number might be concerning. No one wants Nazis in the U.S. military. So, zero is the ideal number, but the number is very low.”
Feaver argued that it was important for politicians and the public to be careful with their rhetoric about the armed forces.
“We got to give the military non-combatant immunity … give them non-combatant immunity in the culture wars,” Feaver said, adding that both Republicans and Democrats can reform how they speak about the military and make an attempt to “drain some of this partisan poison that is hurting the military on the margins.”
“I think that will help recruitment,” Feaver said.
However, Feaver also warned such a shift will not entirely fix the recruiting issues.
“The big driver is the economy … the difficulty of persuading young people to go into the military and make a lot of sacrifices,” Feaver said. “They could get the same job and benefits in the civilian world and make fewer sacrifices, so that’s a tough market to recruit from. But we’re not helping when we politicize the military in this way.”
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