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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Defense in Washington on Thursday, June 17, 2021.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Defense in Washington on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/AP)

The Pentagon’s top leaders on Wednesday offered full-throated defenses of their handling of extremism and diversity issues amid challenges from House Republicans skeptical of efforts to root out radicals and racists in the military force.

The Pentagon is not looking to punish troops for their political beliefs or mandate service members be taught so-called critical race theory, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Services Committee. The typically stoic Pentagon leader grew emotional at times as several Republican lawmakers questioned the stand-down that he ordered in February to discuss extremism and accused the military of embracing critical race theory.

“I don't know what the issue of critical race theory is, and what the relevance is here with the [Defense] Department,” Austin told Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who questioned the military’s use of critical race theory. “We don’t teach critical race theory, we don’t embrace critical race theory, and I think that’s a spurious conversation.”

Austin testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee alongside Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in defense of the Pentagon’s $715 billion fiscal 2022 budget request.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., challenged Austin on the inclusion of a critical race theory book in at least one class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a seminar attended by some 100 West Point cadets titled “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage.”

“We need to understand our past, I want to be very clear, but can you agree at least that ‘Understand Whiteness and White Rage’ … probably is something that we shouldn't be teaching our future leaders of the United States Army?” Waltz, a retired Green Beret, asked Austin.

Austin, a West Point graduate and the first-ever Black defense secretary, agreed that what Waltz described was likely inappropriate, but he added he would need more specifics to reach a conclusion.

Milley offered a different reaction.

The general admitted he didn’t have a full understanding of the issue of critical race theory, which is described by Harvard University as an area of academic study that examines racism as systemic. But, he said, troops should be exposed to many ways of thinking, especially as the military works to improve equity within the ranks.

Troops should be “open-minded and well-read,” the general said. Then he went further, citing the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, which was, in part, the basis for Austin’s stand-down to discuss extremism.

“I want to understand white rage, and I'm white, and I want to understand it,” Milley said forcefully. “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.”

Milley said he has read works by noted communists Mao Zedong, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

“That doesn’t make me communist,” the general said to Waltz. “So, what is wrong with 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 … of being quote ‘woke,’ because we’re studying some theories.

“So look, I do want to know [about white rage,] and I respect your service, and you and I both Green Berets, but I want to know, and it matters to our military and the discipline and the cohesion of this military.”

Gaetz also questioned Austin’s extremism-focused stand-down and whether the Pentagon could define what constituted extremism within its ranks. Austin has charged a task force with officially defining what constitutes extremist behavior among troops, but he did not reveal Wednesday where that effort stands.

The defense secretary told lawmakers that troops would not be punished for political or religious beliefs and the Defense Department was not looking to purge the ranks of Trump supporters, which Gaetz and others have accused the Pentagon of attempting to do.

While Gaetz asserted that several military officials had privately complained to him that the stand-downs had “hurt the military” and harmed unit cohesion, Austin said he had heard “50 times that amount of input” that outcomes were largely positive.

“It may be that you're receiving that input in the ratios you describe, because it was your directive,” Gaetz said. “It may be that people are concerned about criticizing your decision.”

Austin, visibly frustrated by the assertion, said he believed the responses that he received from his subordinates.

“I trust … from the top to the bottom that they will give me fair and balanced and unvarnished input,” the retired four-star general said. “And, for you to say that people are telling me what I want to hear — you know, maybe, [people] are telling you what you want to hear.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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