The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, responded sharply to questions from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on Wednesday about the examination of critical race theory in the U.S. military.
"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?" Milley said.
He continued brusquely: "And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, 'woke' or something else, because we're studying some theories that are out there."
C-SPAN captured Gaetz shaking his head while the Joint Chiefs chair spoke.
The exchange came at a House Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the 2022 Defense Department budget.
Until recently, critical race theory was anything but a household phrase. Rather, it was used to describe an approach to studying institutional racism, as NPR's Barbara Sprunt has reported. But it has become a culture war issue, and the phrase has been stretched well beyond its initial meaning, as conservatives in particular have used the phrase to raise concerns about race in venues including state legislatures and local school boards.
Gaetz originally posed his questions on the theory to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation's first Black defense secretary. Gaetz cited unnamed military members criticizing the military's recent "stand down" to deal with extremism and then asked about how the Defense Department should "think about critical race theory."
Austin was less terse than Milley but also dismissed Gaetz's concerns.
"We do not teach critical race theory. We don't embrace critical race theory, and I think that's a spurious conversation," he said. "We are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology — not people's thoughts, not people's political orientation. Behaviors is what we're focused on."
Austin also pushed back on the basis of Gaetz's concerns: "Thanks for your anecdotal input, but I would say that I have gotten 10 times that amount of input, 50 times that amount of input on the other side that have said, 'Hey, we're glad to have had the ability to have a conversation with ourselves and with our leadership.' "
Gaetz wasn't the only member who asked about the military's approach to addressing race. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., cited a letter he received from West Point's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, which states that one course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point teaches about critical race theory (Waltz's office provided a copy of this letter to NPR). Waltz also referenced a seminar at West Point where an instructor reportedly taught about "understanding whiteness and white rage."
In his response to Gaetz, Milley referenced Waltz's concerns as well, saying that such education could be useful in understanding the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
"I want to understand white rage, and I'm white, and I want to understand it," he said. "So 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."
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