April 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Republicans are vandalizing civilian control of the military

The goal is a rogue army loyal to the GOP.

United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

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I don’t follow what every Democrat says. No one can. There’s no way for me to know whether the tenor and tone of their collective rhetoric changed last week. But it felt like it was stronger, sharper and angrier. Consider Brian Schatz. 

The Hawaii senator took to the Senate floor to scorch his colleague Josh Hawley of Missouri. He’s been holding up appointments to the Department of Defense that are necessary to America’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before he signs off, he said, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin must resign for his “failures” in Afghanistan. 


The point is cleaving the ranks. The point is creating conditions in which military personnel feel inspired to take action, on their own and in defiance of the constitutional order, that’s favorable to the Republicans’ (perhaps the former president’s) return to power.


Schatz said that’s rich coming from the guy who raised his fist in solidarity with the J6 insurrectionists and who voted to acquit the former president for the high crime of extorting Ukraine’s president. 

“This comes from a guy who before the Russian invasion suggested that maybe it would be wise for [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to make a few concessions about Ukraine and their willingness to join NATO.”

He added: 

“They withheld lethal aid until, unless Zelenskyy released false smears against Joe Biden’s son. Then [Hawley] voted to exonerate President Trump for this. So spare me the new solidarity with the Ukrainians and with the free world, because this man’s record is exactly the opposite.”

His tirade amazed those of us longing for the Democrats to take a stronger stand against the Republicans’ lies and bad faith. Perhaps we’ll see more now that Greg Sargent put a brighter light on it. 

The Post columnist interviewed Brian Schatz on Friday. “Democrats need to make more noise,” the senator conceded. “We have to scream from the rooftops, because this is a battle for the free world now.”

Let’s not forget what Schatz said, however. 

He said Hawley is “doing a very specific thing.”

“He is damaging the Department of Defense.”

So far, Schatz is the only Democrat seeing what needs seeing.

Though he says he’s outraged by the US pullout from Afghanistan, Josh Hawley is also attacking, directly, the military leadership itself. (He won’t move on appointments until the secretary of defense resigns.) Demanding Austin’s resignation is not a “reasonable request,” Schatz said. It can’t be. The point is sabotaging civilian control of the military. 

You read that right.

The point is cleaving the ranks. The point is creating conditions in which military personnel feel inspired to take action, on their own and in defiance of the constitutional order, that’s favorable to the Republicans’ (perhaps the former president’s) return to power.

They are picking up where the J6 insurrection left off. But next time, it won’t be a mob of schlubs. It will be an army of highly-trained insurgents bent on restoring whiteness to the center of the republic. 

At gunpoint.

Everyone should see what Schatz sees.


“A standing army can’t be a tool of a political party. Under the Trump years, it became more partisan. Now Matt Gaetz and his peers in the Republican Party are directly undermining the apolitical and nonpolitical nature of the military by dividing troops from leaders.”


So I interviewed Fred Wellman, founder of Beer Hall Project and a 20-year Army veteran who served when Secretary Austin was General Austin. I called Fred after US Rep. Matt Gaetz failed to humiliate the secretary in testimony before the House Arms Services Committee.

Fred said: “A standing army can’t be a tool of a political party. Under the Trump years, it became more partisan. Now Matt Gaetz and his peers in the Republican Party are directly undermining the apolitical and nonpolitical nature of the military by dividing troops from leaders.”


Matt Gaetz and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Thoughts?

My main frustration has always been with the “performance wing” of the Republican Party. They don’t want to govern. They want to act. 

In this case, Matt Gaetz tried convincing people that “wokeism,” or trying to get a more diverse American military force, is hurting our ability to fight wars. It’s shows how monumentally stupid he is. 

He’s dragging culture wars into national defense. That he does so while sitting on the House Armed Service Committee is outrageous. 

It’s a committee responsible for oversight of the men and women in uniform, but it’s oversight partially provided by someone as monumentally asinine as Matt Gaetz – that’s just disgusting to me. 

Good point. When a country sends people overseas, the presumption should be that leaders will take that responsibility deadly seriously. Deadly serious responsibility is the opposite of Matt Gaetz.

I’m a 20-year Army veteran. I rose through the ranks to be a lieutenant colonel. I retired after Desert Storm and three Iraq tours. I’m the son of a World War II Marine veteran. My son is an Army veteran. My son-in-law continues to serve in the national guard. 

But not everybody can serve. 

Less than 7 percent of our nation is veterans. Less than 1 percent serve at all. Less than one-third of the eligible population is capable of serving. I’m talking about fitness, criminal record, mental health, etc. This is the reality of maintaining and growing an all-volunteer force.

That’s the point of trying to increase the diversity of the officer corps. That’s the point of trying to increase the diversity of the pilot corps. That’s the point of welcoming all races and creeds. As Secretary Austin said, anybody who’s eligible, who has the capability to serve, should be welcomed even if they’re non-binary, gay, straight, whatever. 


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If they’re capable of serving, of meeting the physical and mental requirements we need in our military, we’ve got to open our arms. 

There are just not enough white dudes left.

When you have someone like the Florida congressman directly attacking that, that turns away possible recruits. Gaetz is literally undermining those who serve and who may serve in the future. 

Sounds like you’re angry?

I am angry.

The Matt Gaetzs and Marsha Blackburns of the world are openly undermining good order and military discipline with a culture war for political effect. A representative sitting on the Armed Services Committee should understand the challenges of an all-volunteer force.

Civilian oversight of the military matters even though those civilians may never have served, may not have been qualified to serve. People like me, people like Secretary Austin – we understand that. Someone who rose to the rank of four star understands he’s going to answer to some 25-year-old kid on the Armed Services Committee. 

That’s the nature of it. 

But what frustrates me is the lack of respect for the office and a lack of respect for the military as an apolitical and non-political entity. 

One of the biggest fears of our founding fathers was a standing army. They didn’t want one and that undermined efforts early on in the republic because of rebellions. We had no army to address them. 

Even Washington was like, man, we need an army. 

A standing army can’t be a tool of a political party. Under the Trump years, it became more partisan. Now Matt Gaetz and his peers in the Republican Party are directly undermining the apolitical and nonpolitical nature of the military by dividing troops from leaders.

The troops love Trump, they believe, but the troops are being failed by “woke” leaders. Where the fuck do you think the leaders are? You don’t just magically make a general. Secretary Austin started as a fucking second lieutenant. He rose through the ranks. This is dangerous. 

I do not say this lightly. 

This is incredibly dangerous. 

They attack the military leadership as “woke” because they’re trying to cause a break in the ranks. They’re literally undermining good order and military discipline deliberately to break the chain of command.

I’ve never seen that in my lifetime.

You’re describing national security risk. Is that overstating it?

No, I don’t think so.

The very nature of our republic relies on an apolitical military every American knows serves them, no matter their race, creed, religion, color, region, political party, whatever. Our republic depends on everyone knowing a standing army is not a threat to the country.

Many in the Republican Party are super-fans of Putin, let’s be honest. They’re having CPAC in Hungary, for God’s sake, a country led by a rightwing dictator, a Putin fan. Imagine a scenario in which they’re in power and we can’t fight because they’ve undermined the military. 


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It’s terrifying to think where this could go.

I’ve seen reports of white nationalism gaining traction in the ranks of the military. There’s an effort from above to deal with that.

I learned in military science 101 at West Point that an all-volunteer force is a direct reflection of our society. You raised your children for 18 years before they get to the military. I give them 12 weeks of basic training. That won’t overcome 18 years of raising them as racists. 

All I can do is ensure they don’t act on those beliefs and undermine good order and military discipline. If they do behave inappropriately, we use the separate military system to discipline them appropriately and remove them from the military as they’re no longer a threat. 

But we do know white nationalist and patriot front-type groups have been actively sending “their troops,” if you will, into the military for military training. Rightwing nationalist groups are infiltrating the ranks and recruiting veterans after they get out of the military.

At one point, 10 percent of J6 cases were United States military and veterans. One of them is an active-duty Marine Corps major!

How horrifying that is.

Talk about the fundamental tension between universal values, like honor, and individual interest, like investment in whiteness. 

Some really extreme right wing politicians say universal values are an attack on conservative thought. It’s not against conservative thought.

Conservative thought should mean taxes and “pulling up my boot straps and raising myself up by going into the military” – that’s fine. 

Saying Black people are inferior soldiers, assaulting the ranks, inciting homophobia and transphobia and attacking fellow service members – That’s not conservative. That’s extremism, white nationalism.

That needs to be stomped out. 

There have been several surveys of service members saying the biggest threat they face isn’t Muslim terrorist. It’s extremism in the ranks.

We can’t end without acknowledging the role of racism. A Black man earned everything in his life on his own. The president honored his achievements by picking him to be the secretary of defense. Then a white Republican disrespects him, seemingly for the purpose of humiliating him. It’s not hard to imagine Fox viewers cheering.

The reality of a very accomplishment extremely intelligent Black man who has risen to the highest ranks of the military, then risen to the highest political ranks of an administration, being so disrespected by a trust-fund baby who has been bailed out by Daddy, including paying off a DUI, someone so disreputable as to be credibly accused of sex trafficking minors – well, that’s disgusting human being.

But more important is that soldiers are watching. Black soldiers, who disproportionately represent the military’s lower ranks, are watching.

So are Black children.

They are watching a punk from Florida, who’s earned nothing in life, who’s been handed everything, disrespecting an accomplished man of honor like Secretary Austin. It goes back to where we began this conversation: Gaetz is a clown, but a very dangerous clown.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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