When Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo., declared his intentions in June to eradicate what he called “wokeness” in the U.S. military, he set his sights on abolishing a federal watchdog that investigates the Pentagon’s programs for diversity, anti-extremism and sexual harassment prevention.
The first-term congressman wants to cease the flow of federal dollars to the deputy inspector general for diversity and inclusion and extremism in the military, a job created by Congress only two years ago within the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. Alford introduced an amendment to the 2024 defense policy bill to eliminate the position. It failed its first vote – and even if passed, it’s not likely to survive negotiations with the Democratically controlled Senate – but he’s not done pursuing it.
Since the position was established at the start of 2021, Theresa Hull, who holds the job, has built a 22-person team that oversees the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies and tracks how the Defense Department handles cases of sexual harassment and assault. Her office also analyzes the department’s actions to prevent and respond to extremist and criminal gang activity in the ranks.
“I absolutely believe in the value of our work and that it should continue,” Hull said in an interview with Military Times.
Alford’s measure is part of a push by conservatives to target the military’s anti-extremism and diversity, equity and inclusion policies, which they argue are driving out some service members and hampering recruitment. Anti-extremism experts and advocates for diversity initiatives met the effort with ire, and Alford’s measure in particular startled some who saw it as a political attack and an attempt to undo recent progress to improve military culture.
“It’s thinly veiled bigotry,” said Wendy Via, a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “I can’t think of a place more than our armed services where we need to do all we can to create a safe and trusting environment. These people are putting their lives on the line to defend our country, and they have to trust the person next to them.”
A step ‘too far’
Alford, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to attach the measure to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, a legislative package that sets the department’s annual budget and includes a multitude of Pentagon policies.
The amendment failed to garner enough support June 22 when the committee approved its version of the defense policy bill after 14 hours of debate. Two Republicans joined Democrats to block the measure. One of those Republicans, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said the amendment “went too far” in stamping out military training regarding diversity, equal opportunity, racism and sexual harassment.
Bacon, an Air Force veteran, supported another amendment offered by Alford to prohibit federal funds from going toward the Pentagon’s Countering Extremism Work Group, which was stood up in 2021 to root out extremism in the ranks. That amendment remains part of the committee’s defense bill, as do measures prohibiting defense officials from sponsoring drag shows on military bases and banning “critical race theory” at service academies, among other conservative priorities.
“I supported multiple amendments that reduced [diversity, equity and inclusion] and [critical race theory] training in the military. But I thought two measures, to include this one, went too far,” Bacon said of Alford’s measure to eliminate the deputy inspector general position. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Let’s get rid of the extreme training, but we must preserve the basic standards of the military.”
Both the House and Senate armed services committees advanced their versions of the defense policy bill at the end of June, and work on the measures is expected to continue this week. Once the House and Senate have each approved their bills, a conference committee will convene to reconcile the differences.
Though Alford’s amendment failed to make it into the House bill, his office is still working on next steps for the idea. The congressman is “not done working to weed out these types of programs and ideologies,” said Austin Higginbotham, Alford’s deputy chief of staff.
“In order to properly defend our country, we must eliminate all woke ideologies from our military,” Alford said. The Associated Press defines “woke” as “a slang term that originally described enlightenment or awakening about issues of racial and other forms of social justice. Some people and groups, especially conservatives, now use it in a derogatory sense implying what they see as overreactions.”
“We should not be wasting man hours and taxpayer dollars on programs that do nothing to benefit our military but rather hamper recruitment and retention efforts,” Alford added. “It is absolutely essential that we prioritize readiness, innovation, and the welfare of our service members over any divisive, non-military focused ideologies.”
Tackling a recruiting crisis
The military is experiencing a recruiting crisis, with the Army missing its fiscal 2022 goal by 15,000 soldiers, a shortfall expected to worsen this year. Elected officials and military leaders are blaming myriad factors, from public health, a booming civilian jobs market and negative perceptions of military service. Recruiters told Military Times they fault the military’s new medical records platform, which ended a longstanding practice of applicants glossing over their medical issues when applying to join.
Alford is among a group of Republican lawmakers who have repeatedly blamed the recruiting problems on President Joe Biden’s administration and the Pentagon’s work under his leadership to ramp up diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. They also point to a military-wide “stand down” against extremism in 2021 as having tarnished the military’s reputation.
Republican frustrations with the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies were on display Tuesday during a Senate confirmation hearing for Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., Biden’s choice to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., took issue with diversity goals for recruitment that were described in a 2022 memorandum signed by Brown and other Air Force leaders, accusing them of “cultural Marxism.”
“This administration has infused... [diversity, equity and inclusion] politics into our military,” Schmitt said. “It is a cancer on the best military in the history of the world.”
In response, Brown underscored that merit would still determine entry into the Air Force and explained that the recruitment goals were aimed at better reflecting the demographics of the nation. The memo noted that, “these goals are aspirational … and will not be used in any manner that undermines our merit-based processes.”
Despite assertions that focusing on diversity and extremism prevention harms recruitment, advocates argue those policies actually help. Cutting the deputy inspector general for diversity and inclusion and extremism in the military – the watchdog for those programs – would only worsen recruitment, argued Allison Jaslow, CEO for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“The idea that we should eliminate a position that’s important to ensuring that our military has the best culture possible for our troops would be ridiculous on any day. But in the midst of a recruiting crisis, it’s senseless,” Jaslow said.
The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General highlights every year the major challenges facing the Pentagon. For fiscal 2023, the IG reported that recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce was one of those obstacles, citing the increased competition with the private sector and a shrinking pool of eligible recruits. Given that problem, one of Hull’s plans for her office is to shed light on how the Pentagon could better recruit and retain a diverse force.
“When potential recruits can’t identify with their military, they’re less likely to join. They need to be able to see that diversity to know that they would feel included and belong,” Hull said. “Without focused oversight, we’re missing opportunities there.”
Uncovering and reporting extremism
Congress created Hull’s office through the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved in 2020. At the time, the issue of ideological extremism in the ranks was becoming more visible. The FBI notified the Pentagon that it had opened criminal investigations into 143 current or former service members in 2020, 68 of those cases involving domestic extremism.
The issue of veterans and service members engaging in extremist violence has been studied more closely in the few years since. Researchers at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism analyzed three decades of extremist attacks and reported in June that a military background is the most commonly shared characteristic among extremists who committed or plotted mass casualty attacks from 1990 through 2022, more so than criminal histories or mental health problems.
And since the law creating Hull’s position went into effect in early 2021, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General stood up an entire component around diversity, equity and extremism that she now leads. Her office has so far launched investigations into the medical waiver process for military recruiting and how the military supports dual-military spouses, among other issues. One continual task for the office is oversight of the Pentagon’s anti-extremism efforts.
When creating Hull’s position, Congress mandated that the office submit an annual report to lawmakers about the effectiveness of the military’s programs to prevent and respond to extremism. The office has so far issued two of those reports, and in both urged the Pentagon to establish standard policies across the services to track and report instances of extremist activities in real time.
Hull said that military leaders are working to implement those policies, but it remains uncertain whether they’ll be in place before it’s time to issue the office’s 2023 update this December. It will be difficult to compare the number of extremist activities by year or discern whether the Pentagon’s prevention efforts are working until a standardized reporting system is created, Hull said.
“Because there are different services and different offices that retain this information, there wasn’t a central database that was being maintained,” she said. “Not having a centralized system has been an issue.”
Amy Cooter, a research fellow with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, is an expert on domestic militia groups and has initiated a study into how those groups recruit veterans and service members. Based on her study so far, Cooter believes the military should increase diversity efforts, rather than do away with them. A more diverse force means more opportunity to challenge the stereotypes some troops may have learned in homogeneous communities and stop them from being radicalized against other races, she said.
Cooter described Alford’s attempt to abolish Hull’s position as “politically motivated,” adding, “unfortunately it’s the opposite of what we should be doing, both for unit cohesion and long term risks of radicalization.”
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.