For decades, the U.S. Republican Party had an effective claim of ownership over its country’s military affairs. The Republican President Ronald Reagan took a hard line against the Soviet Union and helped end the Cold War in the 1980s, while his successor George H.W. Bush presided over the first Gulf War in 1991, when the rapid and decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait restored much of the confidence that the U.S. military had lost in Vietnam. If a Democrat wanted to be president, they had more or less to emulate their opposition when it came to national security. Bill Clinton, elected in 1992 as the first Democratic president since 1980, even made the Republican William Cohen his Defense Secretary. By the mid-2000s, an American public disillusioned by seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had soured on military adventurism, but public opinion on the military and its leadership appeared unaffected. That all began to change with the fractious presidency of Donald Trump, and today, the sanctity of the U.S. military—much like that of the U.S. Supreme Court—is under political attack: With recruitment numbers down, right-wing critics attribute the problem to “woke” social-engineering policies that they see as having weakened America’s most trusted institution. High-profile commentators on the right, such as Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro—along with some of the more conservative members of the U.S. House and Senate—are escalating their criticism of the military and threaten to fracture public perceptions of the Armed Forces for years to come. ​​What’s driving these attacks?

Katherine Kuzminski is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, an independent, bipartisan policy-research organization based in Washington, and the director of its Military, Veterans, and Society Program. Before joining CNAS, Kuzminksi worked at the RAND Corporation, researching military-personnel policy. In 2016, she was a signatory to a letter signed by 122 Republican national-security leaders arguing that Trump’s personal behavior and views on national security made him unfit for the presidency. Kuzminski says that Trump’s ongoing denunciations of the U.S. military’s leadership have been influential, but they’ve also tapped into an underlying current of populist resentment that will likely continue moving on the American right. To her, these rebukes fundamentally misunderstand the power dynamics at play between enlisted officers and civilian policymakers. Still, if the right’s disenchantment with the U.S. military and its leadership grows, it could find common ground with the elements of the left, in its own populist wing, transforming a once-fringe political tendency into something that destabilizes a long-standing bipartisan consensus on American military policy.

Eric Pfeiffer: How would you summarize the growing criticism of military leadership on the American right?

Katherine Kuzminski: It fits with a pattern you’ll see across the U.S. political spectrum—an idea that, though the general officer corps is supposed to be non-political, non-partisan, and focus on its responsibilities as specified in the United States Code, the general officer corps nevertheless somehow embodies the beliefs of whomever the critic is opposed to.

Today, Donald Trump’s variations on this theme have resonated especially with populist elements of the American public—emphasizing the idea that the military has “gone woke” and lost its sense of purpose. Now, that isn’t actually how things work in the military. Policy changes come from the civilians in the chain of command, and the military leadership is charged with executing those changes. There can be certain conflation in the minds of critics, I think, when they see the implementation of a policy and assume that the generals must therefore have wanted it. But fundamentally, the generals don’t set policy; they implement policy that’s set down by the president as the commander in chief.

Jeffrey F. Lin

Pfeiffer: While Republicans have previously criticized Democratic administrations over issues of military readiness, the new objections are primarily focussed on this idea of wokeness, as you put it—on the idea that the military is now engaging in progressive social engineering in its recruitment strategy. What policy transformations, if any, are actually coming down from the civilian leadership?

Kuzminski: The civilian leadership has made new efforts focused on the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the military services. The uniform leadership has been charged with executing and implementing what the civilian leadership has taken from those efforts and turned into policy. We saw quite a bit of panic over one particular recruitment ad last year that represented a young Air Defense Artillery officer, a woman who was raised in a household with two moms. When we look at the outcomes related to military recruitment, and how those ads played to the younger generation, they actually perform very well. So in a way, the military has become a microcosm of some of the larger tensions we see between the ends of the American political spectrum.

The biggest change affecting the military and American attitudes about it, though, is the lack of an existential threat today. During the Cold War, we had such a clear, existential threat from a clear enemy. The last 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan were a lot less black-and-white, and I think there’s now some question about what role the U.S. military plays in the world. We certainly saw this with the drawdown in Afghanistan.

During the Cold War, we had such a clear, existential threat from a clear enemy. The last 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan were a lot less black-and-white, and I think there’s now some question about what role the U.S. military plays in the world.

But there have also been more recent challenges related to perceptions of the Covid vaccine and the implementation of the vaccine requirements—and to the number of people serving in the military who chose not to get the vaccine, and who therefore needed to be separated from service. We’ve seen similar challenges in the National Guard. Whether or not you agree with the vaccine mandates, it was a lawful order that needed to be followed. And the military relies on obedience to orders, because we frequently put military-service members in harm’s way, unlike we do people in any civilian role.

Pfeiffer: While the debate over recruitment videos got a lot of American media attention, the divisions over the vaccine mandate seem to have caused more actual harm, both to morale within the military and to its reputation outside it. That seems possibly tied to a larger cultural shift in the United States, across the political left and right, that’s embraced a kind of casual disobedience—while, as you said, the military is distinctive in its reliance on conformity. Have there been other broad social initiatives in the past that were met with similar resistance in the military?

Dave Lowe

Kuzminski: The last time we saw that level of noncompliance with a lawful order was Vietnam. And even that’s even a different case, because the people refusing to follow the order were people who were refusing to be drafted, not people who had already signed on the dotted line. So it is a very unusual circumstance. In fact, I think it’s led to some real challenges for the U.S. military’s leadership when you consider what happens when you have such a large group of people who refuse to follow through on an order—and you’re considering the effects on readiness, on the training of individual units, and so on.

Pfeiffer: Do you see recruitment shortfalls and retention challenges as being linked to the resistance to DEI initiatives and vaccine mandates?

Kuzminski: Yes and no. There’s a lot of discussion right now coming from the right, essentially saying that the reason why there’s a recruitment crisis is that the military has become too woke. That’s certainly having an impact, but I think there’s also something completely different happening.

Throughout the United States, it’s been almost three years that recruiters haven’t been in high schools or on college campuses, which is where a lot of American military recruits come from. It’s also been a time when young people have been putting off major decisions generally, not just in relation to the military; an estimated 1.4 million high-school seniors delayed going to college for a year because of Covid. So the criticism from the right, saying the reason why we’re facing this recruiting shortfall right now has to do with the military being “too woke”—I think this is a misrepresentation of two things that are happening simultaneously as being one thing.

Whether or not you agree with the vaccine mandates, it was a lawful order that needed to be followed. And the military relies on obedience to orders, because we frequently put military-service members in harm’s way, unlike we do people in any civilian role.

Pfeiffer: Has there been any evidence supporting the idea that there’s been an impact on retention at the officer level or recruitment for highly-skilled positions?

Kuzminski: We do see retention challenges, although the services have been experimenting for some time with different retention models. For example, in the Air Force, pilot retention is always a challenge. In a good economy when the airlines are hiring, those highly, technically trained people represent a significant investment for the service.

The Army is trying to align people with specific jobs where they’d be a good fit, and where they’d prefer to go, which is a new concept in the military-assignment process. Ultimately, the needs of the Army will always drive decision-making—but today, there’s more information shared, by both units that are effectively hiring new officers and the officers themselves.

Pfeiffer: How long do you think this new tension between the military and the American political right will last? Do you see it passing when, for example, there’s a new head of the Republican Party, or is it becoming more of a permanent feature?

Kuzminski: It’s more an issue of populism than necessarily one of the political right—the two are related when we think of Trump’s first presidential campaign—and it extends to criticism of Trump, as well.

Josh Wilburne

There’s a longstanding ethical barrier to general officers’ or any service members’ involvement in political campaigning. They’re not allowed to wear their uniform, they're not allowed to speak on behalf of the service, and typically they wouldn’t invoke their rank in the political arena. Where it became very challenging during the Trump administration was in the number of retired general officers speaking in support or on behalf of a presidential candidate. We saw this continue through the inauguration of Joe Biden. There were public letters with numbers of retired general officers signing with their rank who were critical of Trump, which doesn’t just go against policy; it goes against the traditional ethos of military service in the officer corps. The way this norm broke in 2016, I think, indicated that there was already a structural problem—and that regardless of who the next Republican nominee is, that break in norms and that structural reality are still with us.

Pfeiffer: Do you see any potential upsides to this new criticism of the U.S. military leadership from the political right? Could it, for instance, have an unintentional effect of increasing recruitment in segments of the population who previously resisted joining the military, seeing it as an inherently “conservative” institution?

Kuzminski: It’s an enduring misconception that the U.S. military is full of conservatives. Jason Dempsey wrote a book in 2009 called Our Army, which basically found that the military is more reflective of the outside population than you might think—on a number of metrics, including the diversity of political leanings it represents.

There’s long been a misconception that the U.S. military is full of conservatives. … the military is more reflective of the outside population than you might think—on a number of metrics, including the diversity of political leanings it represents.

We saw this with the criticism of General Mark Milley being called in front of Congress and asked to explain why cadets at West Point [the United States Military Academy] are reading about critical race theory. The justification was that military officers need to be prepared to lead a tremendously diverse set of students—and that to do so, military officers need to be knowledgeable on all the philosophies of the day. Those students are reading everything from the Federalist Papers to Karl Marx. Teaching any of these, including critical race theory, doesn’t necessarily mean that the military is advocating for a theory or belief. This didn’t play well with the Republican Senators Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley, but it has led to the formation of an officer corps that’s informed about ideas, and it results in better leadership at the unit level.

When we see recruiting campaigns, including of people who help the military more accurately reflect American society as a whole, that really matters. The military tends to recruit up to the age of 27, which is within the Generation Z cohort that tends to say they don’t want to serve an organization they see as bigoted or racist. We’ve seen some of that aversion come out in the aftermath of January 6, with the attention the media has paid to service members who participated in the events of the day.

Dave Lowe

Pfeiffer: Where do you see remaining, or any emerging, areas of bipartisan consensus for national security?

Kuzminski: The area where both sides of the American political divide most align is a fear of conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater. There’s been quite a lot of bipartisan alignment there. In fact, one of the interesting trends I’ve seen is that even those members of Congress or those political leaders who’re critical of U.S. support for Ukraine, part of their argument is, Don’t let this distract us from the potential for conflict with China or in the Indo-Pacific.

Pfeiffer: Politically, do you see the U.S. military as "the next Supreme Court”—a once essentially sacred institution whose trust from the American public has now rapidly deteriorated—or potentially close to a point where lawmakers, or even entire parties, might start declaring the military a “failed institution”?

Kuminksi: We already see it in public polling. On the one hand, the military has always been and remains the most trusted institution in the United States of America. But on the other hand, a November 2021 survey from the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington found that only 36 percent of Americans say that they have a great deal of trust in the military as an institution. That’s down 20 points from what we’ve seen historically.