Lawmakers, Pentagon spar over ‘woke’ promotion policies

In the face of open skepticism from congressional critics, senior Pentagon officials insisted this week that promotions in the U.S. military were based on merit and skill and that the Biden administration’s push for greater diversity and inclusion in the ranks was not undermining the traditional system.

But Republican members complained at a Wednesday House Armed Services subcommittee hearing that the same progressive social justice agenda that often holds sway on college campuses and even some corporate boardrooms is now infiltrating the military as well.

“There is one place we simply can’t afford to trade equal opportunity for radical ideology — the United States military,” said Rep. Jim Banks, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Armed Services’ personnel subcommittee. “If these policies continue, we are placing military readiness and our national security at risk.”

A witnesses’ table filled with military personnel chiefs told lawmakers that their promotion systems operate under Defense Department policies and legal statutes, and only the most qualified and eligible candidates are selected for advancement.

“As a standards-based organization, promotion board members consider each soldier’s file and select only those best qualified based upon merit,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. “The Army does not use demographic goals or quotas in its promotion system.”

Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican, said there may not be explicit orders in the books pushing a “diversity, equity and inclusion” — DEI — agenda at the Pentagon, but that a mere suggestion from a senior commander can sometimes do the trick.

“You may not call it a ‘quota.’ You may call it a ‘goal,’” he said. “It may not be a directive, but ‘guidance’ is often taken as such.”

Vice Admiral Richard Cheeseman, chief of naval personnel, said the Navy’s primary goal is the greater good and effectiveness of the service.

“Our process of accessions, promotions, and command selections are … solidly founded on merit,” Vice Adm. Cheeseman said. “In everything we do, our primary objective is taking care of our people.”

The hearing was the latest skirmish in a larger war over the mix of military and social policy under President Biden.

The new House Republican majority has taken dead aim at the Defense Department’s longstanding DEI efforts to “promote a cohesive and inclusive force.”

Mr. Banks in June added an amendment to the still pending annual defense authorization act mandating the Defense Department issue rules by September 2024 clarifying that “any effort to recruit an individual to serve in a covered Armed Force may not take into account the race or gender of such individual.”

The policy rider also restricts the Pentagon to using a merit-based system for promotions and assignment, considering only such factors as a candidate’s “qualifications, performance, integrity, fitness, training and conduct.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his senior military aides have argued forcefully that legislation that reduces the Pentagon’s ability to create a positive and diverse work environment puts the Defense Department at a strategic disadvantage.

The Defense Department’s “strategic advantage in a complex global security environment is the diverse and dynamic talent pool from which we draw,” the White House said in a statement released by the Office of Management and Budget.

The Pentagon officials testifying this week admitted they didn’t have data on hand that could demonstrate the benefits of diversity in a combat environment.

“We don’t have any specific data right now that talks about any DEI efforts and how it relates to combat effectiveness,” Vice Admiral Cheeseman said. “We do have an ongoing study at the Naval Postgraduate School.”

The Navy study should be ready in January 2024, the admiral said.

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