Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was repeatedly interrupted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday as the retired four-star general attempted to provide context about the racial issues in the armed forces during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense budget.
Amid the Pentagon’s efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the military, Cotton took the opportunity derail the purpose of the hearing to complain that anti-bias initiative have caused some members of the military to leave.
He and Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, previously launched a web portal where “whistleblowers” can report instances of “woke ideology” in the military.
According to Cotton, a Marine reported that a military history training session was replaced with “mandatory training on police brutality, white privilege and systemic racism” which prompted multiple officers to leave the unit.
Cotton claimed in another unit service members claimed the were required to read “White Fragility,” which from which Cotton quoted “white people raised in western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview.”
Other service members on the portal alleged they were being taught that the U.S. special operations community is racist, while another reported he had been told by a general that the entire Army is racist.
In other cases, soldiers performed activities related to privilege where service members were separated based on race and gender, while some said they were force to watch videos that “rewrite America’s history as a fundamentally racist and evil nation.”
“Mr. secretary, we’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago and unexpected retirements and separations based on these trainings alone. … These are the words of the your own troops,” Cotton said, directing his comments to Austin.
Austin, the first Black secretary of defense, was appointed to run the Pentagon by President Joe Biden in December.
“If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” Austin said at his January confirmation hearing. In February, he announced the U.S. armed forces would be conducting stand-downs over 60 days to tackle right-wing extremism in the ranks.
“Mr. Secretary do you believe that our military is a fundamentally racist organization?” Yes or no, please,” Cotton asked Austin on Thursday.
“Well, I won’t give you a yes or no answer on that, senator, because it deserves more than a yes or no,” Austin said. “The military, like any organization, will have its challenges, but I do not believe it is a fundamentally racist organization.”
Austin appeared to be continuing to elaborate on his response when Cotton interjected, cutting the secretary off.
“I’m sorry to cut you off, because our time is limited,” Cotton said. “I think it is a pretty simple question, I’m glad that you agree it is not fundamentally racist. Do you believe any member of the military should be treated differently base on their skin color and sex?” Cotton asked. “Again, yes or no will do.”
“Again, this question deserves more than a yes or no answer,” Austin said before Cotton interrupted again, citing limited time.
Austin replied that service members shouldn’t be treated differently based on race or sex, explaining that that’s the very reason why there is an emphasis on diversity training in the military.
After Cotton questioned Austin further about his views on the work of writers like Ibram Kendi, who wrote the book “How to Be Anti-Racist,” and asked whether qualifications or factors like race and gender should determine how people are selected to military senior positions, the secretary doubled down on his convictions.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion is important to this military now and it will be important in the future. We’re going to make sure that our military looks like America and that our leadership looks like what’s in the ranks of the military.”
Before his time expired, Cotton said his concerns aren’t about diversity, but about a “specific kind of anti-American indoctrination that is seeping into some parts of our military.”
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine gave Austin the opportunity to elaborate on what his experience in the military has been like after he was unable to provide context on his thoughts when Cotton interrupted him earlier.
Austin responded by explaining that the military could do a better job of being “absolutely inclusive” and making sure that there are pathways for everyone fit to serve to reach their full potential in the ranks.
“And so that’s what diversity, equity and inclusion is all about. It’s about cohesion. It’s about making sure that we remain the most effective and lethal fighting force in the world and we have been in the past and we will be in the future,” Austin said.