When considering the fuss that Ted Cruz and other right wingers are raising over the supposedly “woke emasculation” of the US military, it is important to remind oneself that this is not about military effectiveness. It is about the right wing fear of losing control of what they believe to be the ultimate arbiter of power in a society — the people with guns.
This is nothing new or surprising. Throughout history, across every part of the world, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon, control of the armed forces has been seen as the “Trump Card” (pun intended). This control was essential to imposing one’s will, whether for good or bad purposes. The US Framers, driven not only by experience in the recent war with the British Empire and Parliament overreach, but also by US slave-holder fears of a US standing army backed by a centralized federal government that could pose a threat to the Peculiar Institution, took the course of limiting US federal military power. Hence, US state militias and volunteers formed the bulk of American military power for the first century of our existence as a nation, not only in conquering the West, but in the limited wars fought against foreign nations. These forces were intentionally dominated almost exclusively by whites.
The US Civil War, a desperate and bloody struggle that was our first total war, was an inflection point. The federal government moved to enlist African Americans and by the end of the war, they composed about 10 percent of the ranks, although their officers were required to be white. Once the guns fell silent, however, the experiment was rolled back for the most part, although segregated black units persisted to a degree (e.g. 10th US Cavalry) and the US Navy continued to have blacks (albeit usually in service type jobs). Whites north and south continued to unite in opposition to a desegregated US military, even as Reconstruction failed and Jim Crow took over. But the genie was out of the bottle, as black military veterans pondered the injustice of fighting for freedom when they were still treated as less than fully human.
The US was not alone in promoting white control of the military. It was also a rule in the European colonial empires. While France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Germany and others all used “native” troops to enforce their will overseas, again they carefully ensured the officers were white. There was no subterfuge about this. Having dark skilled people seen as leaders, much less as able to command whites, would upend entire economic and social systems.
The dynamic was tragic in many cases. For example, during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, the British Empire ended up enlisting tens of thousands of Africans to help them achieve victory. But as soon as the victory was won, and South Africa safely incorporated into the Empire, the African veterans were handed back to the tender mercies of the emerging apartheid system.
The trend lines were emerging however. As warfare moved more and more towards massive merciless struggles involving whole populations, even nations committed to white supremacy found they needed to find a way to mobilize the “lesser races” to win. But each time the guns fell silent, those “lessers” were less and less willing to accept a return to the status quo.
The First and Second World Wars supercharged the dynamic. All the warring states, including Nazi Germany in the Second World War, mobilized “lesser races” to fill their ranks. WW1 fighting in Africa was almost entirely carried out by African soldiers officered by whites. Britain used millions of Indian soldiers to fight both wars. Some of the most elite French units were composed of Algerian and Moroccan colonial subjects. And of course, if we want to talk about gender (a whole other subject deserving of its own treatment), the world wars also brought women massively into the workforce, and in many cases the fighting units themselves. The more desperate the fighting, the more likely the white dominated power structure was willing to look the other way. When the US Army, still officially segregated, fought its way into Germany at the end of WW2, the need to replace the losses in US infantry platoons was so great that black soldiers were quietly fed into what became the first de-facto integrated units.
After each world war, there were efforts to return to the status quo. French Army units, under orders of De Gaulle, sought to “whiten” French forces as they advanced into France at the end of WW2, sending the veteran North African troops home. But by the end of the Second World War, there was no going back.
Liberation movements across the world that brought an end to the European empires, from Kenya to Indonesia, were in many cases driven by WW2 veterans. This wasn’t always a happy ending, as many a newly “liberated” country ended up under the boot of these veterans, who founded authoritarian regimes. But again, that is another tale.
In the US, black veterans formed an important part of the US Civil Rights movement that ultimately rolled back de jure Jim Crow (although the battle isn’t by any means over, especially considering de facto discrimination’s persistence).
Which brings us to today and the conservative cries of a “woke” US military that won’t be able to defend the country as it has supposedly been hollowed out by “critical race theory” and “cancel culture.” This is an interesting claim, given the reports of the danger of white supremacist extremism in the ranks, and the fact that the January 6 insurrection included many white US military veterans. These cries go back a ways however, as noted above. The right wing has periodically freaked out at certain points, such as when Truman officially desegregated the US Army (leading to right wing attacks on the US Army during the McCarthy era) and when women were allowed into more fully participate in the military. What on earth is going on now?
Bear these facts in mind. Right now, the US armed forces are about 65-35 white/non-white (let’s not parse categories, e.g. multi-racial, and just talk about the broad picture). White officer percentages are a bit higher, but you see progress in having a US military open to all, e.g. the Secretary of Defense is now black and it is becoming more common to see black generals, colonels and majors.
The impact of this diversification is enormous. And fair-minded and patriotic white officers and servicemen, having bled and fought alongside minorities for decades, have helped bring about the ongoing sea change.
When President Trump tried to maneuver the US military to be a tool of his political purposes, he met blowback. The DC church march ended up backfiring, as the US military realized they had been used for a photo op and to crush domestic protestors. The US military pushed back against Trump’s demand for a Pinochet-style military parade. And ultimately, when push came to shove on January 6, they declared in advance they would not be part of any Trump plot to take over the country.
This has conservatives and right wingers terrified, although they will never admit it and may not even consciously consider what has happened. But the US military is no longer to be relied upon to maintain “conservative” polices and values. It is no longer the bulwark against the “uppity darkies.”
This didn’t happen overnight. Right wing reactions were similarly hysterical when Eisenhower send the US Airborne to empower Supreme Court desegregation orders. But if you track the “militia movement” you can see that modern right wing anti-federal attitudes and pro-militia sentiments historically track events that struck a blow to white supremacy. Obama’s election in 2008 and the “spectre” of a Kamala Harris Presidency are driving a new right wing panic.
It is typical of oppressors to fear that, if they lose control, the oppressed will do to them the same injustices they formerly dealt out. The Ted Cruz charge against the “wokeness” of the US military should be seen as part of the march of history.
It is amusing US conservatives think Russia and China will walk over America because we are supposedly now defended by weaklings. Interestingly, this reveals once more US right wingers not-so-hidden admiration of foreign despots and authoritarian. But it is based not on those fears, but of an America they see as changing.
Trump remains their God-Emperor, for now (go-go NY State AG and Manhattan DA). But the arc of history bends still towards justice, if we but keep the faith, vote like our lives depend on it (they do) and remember that progress, although often halting and incomplete, is still a step forward.