WASHINGTON - Pentagon leaders spoke on combating extremism within the U.S. military’s ranks and critical race theory on Wednesday in response to questioning from Florida representatives during a heated House Armed Services Committee budget hearing.
Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz said the U.S. Military Academy at West Point offers instruction in critical race theory and on "understanding whiteness and White rage." Waltz called the offerings at the academy "destructive."
Critical race theory is a set of ideas that centers on the assertion that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions and that they function to maintain White dominance in society.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fired back at Waltz and earlier comments by Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, defending the military's approach to addressing racism and extremism within its ranks.
"I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read," Milley said. "And the United States Military Academy is a university. And it is important that we train and we understand – and I want to understand White rage. And I’m White… 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."
Several former or active military members have been charged with taking part in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Milley went on to say that future military leaders need to understand what is happening in the country and how society might be influenced by various ways of thinking.
Milley continued, "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? And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military – our general officers, our commissioned and noncommissioned officers – of being ‘woke’ because we’re studying some theories that are out there."
During Milley’s response, Gaetz was seen shaking his head and has been criticized online by some for his reaction.
Gaetz said he had been told by members of the military who participated in group discussions about extremism that the conversations were harmful and counterproductive.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded angrily, saying that he had received perhaps 50 times as much feedback as Gaetz and that most had expressed appreciation for the opportunity to discuss extremism with colleagues and superiors. When Gaetz suggested that Austin was only being told what service members thought he wanted to hear, Austin fired back: "Maybe they're telling you what you want to hear."
Austin, the nation's first Black defense chief, told Gaetz that the issue of critical race theory was not relevant in connection with the Pentagon. "We do not teach critical race theory. We do not embrace critical race theory, and I think that's a spurious conversation. We are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology, not people's thoughts, not people's political orientation."
Austin also clashed with Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., over the department’s effort to combat extremism in the ranks. Hartzler pressed him on his definition of extremism and how the military is screening applicants to weed out those considered extremist. Austin repeatedly explained that the military is focused on rooting out extremist behavior, not political ideas or religious beliefs.
Hartzler demanded to know if "a person says they are for President Trump, would that be viewed as extremism?"
"As I said earlier, this is not about politics," Austin said, with an edge of frustration in his voice. "I want our troops to participate in our political system. That’s what they’re fighting to defend."
This story was reported from Los Angeles. Storyful and the Associated Press contributed.