COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — The “woke wars” that have been raging in U.S. culture for the past few years have now arrived full force in military academies, as evidenced by the recent controversy over a diversity and inclusion briefing at the Air Force Academy — and the academy’s defense of the program.
Academy officials say such diversity training is long overdue and will build better leaders, while critics worry about what appears to be a changing culture and focus in the military and its institutions that will be to the detriment of the nation’s defenses.
One slide presented as part of the training program bore language that encouraged cadets to “recognize diverse family formation” by using broad terminology that avoided gendered references. The academy said the slide was taken out of context; cadets aren’t prohibited from using the terms “mom” and “dad,” as some news reports claimed, and the information presented as part of the training was “not intended to stand alone.”
But the academy’s response has only served to fuel ongoing controversy about so-called wokeism in the military, a debate that was re-stirred after images of the AFA training slides were shared beyond the campus north of Colorado Springs last month, reported on by Fox News Digital and then a slew of other outlets.
The slides , visual aids used in a moderated presentation at the academy — and the only elements of the presentation subsequently leaked to the media — made their points in a series of bullet points. One slide encouraged cadets to use “person-centered” and “inclusive language” that doesn’t imply presumptions about others’ situations, preferred pronouns or family life.
So, “parents/caregivers/guardians” instead of “mom and dad.”
And “ya’ll/team/squaddies/everyone/folks,” instead of “you guys.”
It also discouraged cadets from using terms such as “colorblind.”
A second slide explained that diversity and inclusion are key to developing warfighters who are prepared to lead the Air Force and Space Force “with character.”
“How can we Lift Others (motivate our teams) if we don’t know our people?” it asked, citing a 2016 study that found “Diverse teams outperform other teams.”
Some who oppose the language on the slides do so amid what they believe is a groundswell aimed at fundamentally changing military culture.
Some also now say their beef isn’t only with the language and training but the academy’s response to those who cried foul.
“The issue to us grads is, we belong to an institution that prides itself on an honor code,” said retired Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop, a 1974 academy grad and chairman of the board for Stand Together Against Racism and Radicalism in the Services (STARRS). The organization of retired military officers is involved in a lawsuit against the Defense Department, which it accuses of promoting “critical race theory” at the Air Force Academy and of stonewalling veterans’ requests for information that could help in the legal fight.
Bishop said he believes the academy’s response to public reaction to its diversity and inclusion training is similarly disingenuous.
“I don’t want to call anyone a liar, but they’re trying to mislead the public by saying that these slides were taken out of context,” Bishop said. “The slides speak for themselves.”
What the slides say, however, depends on who’s listening — and what they’re listening for.
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen Richard M. Clark addressed the controversy in a letter last week to members of the U.S. Air Force Academy Association of Graduates.
“The intent behind having this briefing was to help cadets in their quest to become leaders of character for our Air Force and Space Force, which will always be our prime directive at USAFA,” Clark wrote. “Our cadets will be charged to lead teams of people composed of Americans that don’t necessarily look alike, think alike, or speak like they do, but are unified by our common purpose to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
He went on to call America’s diversity a source of its strength, opening the door to “creative and innovative solutions, which will give us the strategic edge our country needs in the future.”
The AFA’s diversity and inclusion training programs were developed in partnership with a team of cadets who wanted to offer “tools and techniques to build effective, inclusive teams made up of diverse members.” The portion of the briefing that drew immediate and emotional outcry was the slide entitled “inclusive language,” said Clark, explaining that the presentation was meant to give cadets “an idea of the kinds of words that are effective when respectful leaders build strong, inclusive teams.”
“Throughout my Air Force Career, I’ve been taught that words matter, and this slide highlights that adage. It was NOT intended to prohibit the use of any words,” he said. “The words ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ are absolutely NOT prohibited words at USAFA. I highlight that because if I did prohibit the use of the word ‘mom,’ my mom and my wife would probably never speak to me again.”
Clark’s message had almost 400 comments within days of its posting last week on the graduate association’s Facebook page. Only a fraction of commenters had good, or even benign things, to say; one commenter had a theory as to why:
“The number of people on here parroting … Fox News ‘talking points’ while pretending otherwise is humorous. Leave off with politics. … Let the USAFA leadership do their jobs please.”
Those who take issue with how academy leadership are doing those jobs say their concerns run deeper than political agendas and woke wording.
Touchy-feely simply doesn’t work in a military setting, they argue, and can only serve to compromise a system based on conformity, cohesion and merit, that had been running just fine.
“I understand that in a Diversity and Inclusion briefing that all USAFA cadets received at the beginning of this school year cadets were instructed to tell each other personal, confidential details about themselves and share their ‘pronouns,’ with briefers being instructed to encourage vulnerability ‘for best effect,’” wrote Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, in a Sept. 20 letter to Superintendent Clark. “Presumably the motivation behind these required briefings is to introduce the Academy’s new minor in Diversity and Inclusion.”
The minor debuted at the academy last year, following similar moves by institutions including U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Such a course of study may be a recent addition at the Air Force Academy, but diversity and inclusion programs in the military are far from new.
Opponents are now fighting a modern battle on multiple fronts — one that began during the civil rights movement and advanced in bounds during the Obama administration, with federal programs that stressed diversity and, perhaps most notably, the 2011 end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s official counsel to enlisted personnel who were non-heterosexual.
Elaine Donnelly, founder and president of the nonprofit Center for Military Readiness, is among those who believe the new trends aren’t for the best.
“What we support, and what the academy should continue to support, is nondiscrimination and equal opportunity for everyone,” said Donnelly, who in 1992 served on a presidential commission that studied women in combat and the idea of “cohesion” in the military. “The entire military as an institution is being forced into these kinds of instructions.”
The Air Force Academy isn’t the only institution to feel the sting of the blowback, either. The Navy was ridiculed earlier this year after a diversity training video, presented like a kids’ TV show, appeared online. A new “Diversity Peer Educator” initiative at the Navy’s Annapolis-based training academy has also drawn the ire of the anti-woke movement.
Any program that encourages cadets to be constantly aware of what separates, rather than what binds them together, erodes one of the military’s core strengths, Donnelly said.
“In the military, people are part of a unit. That’s why they wear a uniform. You can’t wear your hair any old way, you can’t dress as you please. You are subject to orders,” she said.
Essentially, everyone’s the same. Telling cadets to think otherwise, even obliquely, is “a big mistake.”
“It seems like there’s this movement to try to make the military world more like the civilian world,” Donnelly said. “That is not going to work for our military culture, which is very, very different from civilian culture … and needs to be.”
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