The Battle Against ‘Wokeness’ Is Extending to Defense Funding—But History Shows an Equitable Military Is More Effective

Staff Sgt. Joshua Spearman stands firm, gripping the metal bench and surveying the crowd through his sleek, wrap-around sunglasses. A muscular soldier, his black T-shirt showcases his dedication, and his arm adorned with tattoos adds to his formidable presence. As he observes the diverse stream of fairgoers at the Minnesota State Fair, he spots a group of young men and seizes the opportunity. With enthusiasm, he pitches his proposition, beckoning them to indulge in the tantalizing fair snacks and then work them off. Undeterred by their initial reluctance, he suggests various challenges—deadlifts, pull-ups—urging them to win a T-shirt for their significant other and create the ultimate fair story.

However, Staff Sgt. Spearman faces an uphill battle as the Army grapples with a shortage of recruits. Last year, the shortfall amounted to 15,000 soldiers, and while there has been improvement this year, the deficit still stands at approximately 10,000. Two main factors contribute to the struggle to meet recruitment targets. Firstly, the Army finds itself embroiled in a war for talent against a robust economy that offers attractive job opportunities and benefits. Secondly, the pandemic hindered recruiters from accessing high schools—a prime location for identifying prospective soldiers.  

Louella Lacson, Sgt. 1st Class, talks to fairgoers at the Army recruitment tent at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Army recruitment at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Behind Spearman is a small grass lot with a few pop-up canopy tents, a pull-up bar, and some weights for deadlifts. A Humvee has its door propped open. It's all designed to lure in prospects.

Finally, college student Andrew Magneson takes the bait. He's a hulking guy with a Minnesota T-shirt and a crown of reddish curls. He nails the deadlift 20 times and gets an Army T-shirt.

But the Army doesn't get him.

"It's not for me," he says. "I know that much. I don't know. I don't like fighting."

And his friends? They're not buying the pitch either.

"So have you guys ever thought about the Army?" asks Sgt. Robert Pederson.

"Not particularly," says one.

"When someone says 'Army' what's the first thing that pops into your head?" he asks them.

"War," says one of the young men.

Charlie Minor, Hunter Beestmen and Brayden Lytle check out the equipment at the Army recruitment tent at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 30.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Sam Stoll stops at the Army recruitment tent for a deadlift competition at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Pederon pushes on, trying to downplay the notion of war, making the Army sound like a regular job, something they can easily fit into their lives.

"There's a part-time option," he says. "You only do the Army one week a month, two weeks during the summer. But we'll pay for your college, room, and board."

But they all say, "I'll pass."

Army surveys echo their hesitation. Many don't want to join because they fear getting wounded or killed — even though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are long over — or they don't want to leave home. So the Army has come up with a new marketing technique, with an old slogan.


For those who want to join the Army, they may not make the cut

Some say they're at least thinking about the Army, including a 16-year-old high school girl named Alexis who will have to wait a year or two. A recruiter nearby overhears her and swoops in to get her information, including her Instagram handle. Keeping in touch is key.

One senior officer tells NPR the Army is embarking on what he calls a high school "blitz" to find more recruits like her, now that the pandemic is over. Still, officials expect the lagging recruiting climate will continue for some time. As a result, the Army will likely have to trim its forces in bases around the country.

And they're trying to reel in the next generation, too.

Isaiah Uy, 8, maneuvers a remote device at the Army recruitment tent at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Army recruitment at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

A young boy works a handheld remote under the guidance of a recruiter. He maneuvers a small, tracked Army robot around a series of plastic highway cones, using a monitor to simulate what it's like to control these in the field. The boy is already a pro — it's basically a video game.

It's a clever device, getting the idea in their heads early. One thing we heard repeatedly from the young people who were interested: "It's just something I've always wanted to do."

But even if you're ready to sign up, you might not make the cut. A recent Pentagon study found less than one-quarter of America's youth would qualify for military service without a waiver because they're overweight, have criminal records, or have mental or physical health problems.

So how is the military trying to make up for those lost numbers? They're increasingly turning to those who recently arrived in the United States — and hiring more immigrant recruits like Sgt. 1st Class Nouella Lacson to talk to them.

Lacson's family came from the Philippines. She's standing nearby at a card table, covered with brochures, lanyards, and dog tags.

"Most of my applicants are immigrants. I kind of relate to them," she says with a laugh. "A lot of them they just got here from Mexico or different countries."

She'll tell them her own story to put them at ease.

A portrait of Louella Lacson, Sergeant First Class, at the Army recruitment tent at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Army recruitment at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

"I got here when I was 17," she says, "joined when I was 22," and goes on to talk about how the Army got her through college.

It also helps that she's a woman. She says most of her applicants are female. "I can relate," she says. "Because a lot of people will tell you, you can't do this or that, certain stuff. So I tell them 'Are you going to let people tell what you can and can't do?'"

About 16 percent of the Army is now female, a number that keeps edging up. Women tend to be higher-quality recruits, score higher on tests, and have fewer brushes with the law.

And now all ground combat jobs are open to women, so the Army is pushing that in some of its ads, including a woman spotting a target inside an Abrams tank.


But that all leads to another hurdle in recruiting: Army surveys show some 20 percent of women questioned were wary of joining, saying they'll be discriminated against. Beyond that, sexual harassment and assault are still a persistent problem. Last year, the Army saw a nine percent drop in reports of sexual assault — but the year earlier, there was a 26 percent increase in reports involving soldiers. But Lt. Col. Kristen Grace, who commands all the recruiters, played that down.

"I've never experienced anything like that," she says.

"For me personally, I've never experienced it," says Sgt. Lacson.

But it's still a concern. One possible recruit, Harmony Cook, says her friends are worried about it when she talks about joining the military.

"They say like I'm going to be treated more differently than the guys," she says. "Or like the guys are going to be intimidating and everything and I might not be able to stand a chance."

But she wants to join and become a medic and get a $50,000 bonus.

So far Harmony is one of some 25 potential recruits here who have requested a formal interview, another 750 have asked for more information. Lt. Col. Grace thinks those numbers are pretty good.

The 'tough guy' approach isn't going away

And while the Army is plugging personal development today and service, and playing down combat to attract female recruits, that "tough guy" approach isn't totally going away.

It just depends on who's listening.

Spearman has pulled over college student Landon Arends from Iowa, who says he's leaning toward the Marines because he wants to see some combat. Sgt. Spearman brushes that aside.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Spearman talks to Harmony Cook and her mother, Tara, at the Army recruitment tent at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

Army recruitment at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn., on August 31.

Jenn Ackerman for NPR

"I've had three deployments with a Special Forces group. I've never seen a Marine out there fighting, man," Spearman says in a rapid-fire delivery. "They're a force-on-force conflict type people. Do you want to be in the fight? Our Green Berets are out there in the fight. Our Army Rangers are out there in the fight."

Arends is still reluctant. He's still in college and wrestles.

"But they don't pay you to wrestle," Spearman counters.

Arends tells him he has student loans.

"That sucks man. That sucks real bad," says Spearman, who points to college assistance for those willing to sign up. "I wrote a $214,000 check to a high school girl last year."

As Arends continues to hesitate, Spearman pulls over one of his colleagues, Capt. Tyler Owen, to seal the deal.

"He's also a paratrooper like myself. And he's also an infantryman," Spearman tells Arends. "So this could be your goal."

Spearman just might have another recruit.

"I got you on Instagram," he tells Arends. "You got my number, man. Reach out. Let's make a difference."

As Arends walks away, Spearman turns to Owen.

Once his possible new recruit is out of earshot, Spearman turns to his colleague, smiling. The Ranger insignia, with all its prestige and grit, was helpful.

"Had to flex that f****** Ranger tab off you real quick, sir."

House Conservatives have turned the usually bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the defense appropriations bill into weapons in their battle against “wokeism” in the military.

The House’s version of the NDAA included provisions against transgender healthcare policies and abortion support in the military. Numerous proposals have further sought to restrict or eliminate all DEI training. Conservatives claim to be safeguarding the military’s effectiveness from a dire threat. “Now is not the time to socially experiment with our armed forces at the expense of readiness, morale, and our national defense,” Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has declared.

These charges are hardly new—and they echo the arguments made by those who opposed racially integrating the military in the nation’s past. Conservative politicians and military leaders regularly claimed African Americans were unfit for full membership, due to their perceived lack of intelligence, courage, and moral fortitude. Their presence, it was alleged, would exacerbate racial tensions and undermine unity, thus hampering overall effectiveness. “The Army is not out to make any social reforms,” explained Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley in 1948. “It will change [segregation] policy when the nation as a whole changes it.”

Yet, history has proved that not only were these sentiments unfounded, they actually hampered military effectiveness. Indeed, the long record of African-American service suggests that when the U.S. military is at its most open and equitable, it is also at its most effective. The 19th century, thousands of Black soldiers served in the American military, primarily in integrated units. Their service generated plaudits and strong praise for their abilities. Commodore Isaac Chauncey famously told a Navy commander lamenting the number of African American soldiers under his command during the War of 1812, “I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” He added that he had “nearly 50 blacks on board of this Ship, and many of them are amongst my best men.” A half-century later, General James Blunt similarly gushed after an 1863 Civil War battle, “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment.” He concluded that, “The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”

Despite their service in the 19th century, African-American soldiers failed to earn the full citizenship that their efforts seemed to merit. Returning from service in the 1898 Spanish-American War, one group of African-American veterans was greeted in Nashville by a mob of whites who attacked them with clubs before robbing them and shredding their discharge papers. “It was the best piece of work I ever witnessed,” gloated one participant. He was a local sheriff.

More rigid segregation descended upon the military in the first half of the 20th century, reflecting the increasing stridency of the nation’s civil rights struggle. In World War I, African Americans volunteered for service at a rate significantly higher than their percentage of the population, but racist ideas and tropes limited their participation. Most soldiers, even those with combat experience, were limited to segregated service platoons since, as one military leader argued, African Americans lacked the necessary “mental stamina and moral sturdiness” to defeat the Germans. The military also wanted to avoid wading into what it saw as a larger societal problem. As Secretary of War Newton Baker explained: “There is no intention on the part of the War Department … to settle the so-called race question.”

Under growing public pressure, American leaders in 1918 sent two segregated infantry divisions to Europe to fight, but racist commanders had no interest in using them. Most of the men were instead transferred to French command, where they served as essentially borrowed soldiers for a foreign command. “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away,” recalled one of the leaders of the 93rd infantry.

The results were revealing. African American soldiers who received decent training and competent officers—most famously the 369th infantry regiment, which stood at the front longer than any other American regiment—performed well. In fact, the French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to the entire regiment. Approximately 170 men also received the medal for individual actions. By contrast, units assigned to the U.S. Army had less training and more overtly racist officers—and less success.

The lesson was obvious: when welcomed as partners in the military effort, African-American soldiers could make a significant contribution. When they were treated as second-class citizens, their performance suffered.

World War II reinforced this message. African Americans again flocked to serve their country, only to be greeted by segregated units and racist mores. The War Department argued that changing the longstanding exclusionary approach “would produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparations of national defense.” Accordingly, officials insisted that “no experiments should be tried with the organizational setup of these units at this critical time.” Integrating units was simply too risky. Instead, most African American soldiers were relegated to service units where they faced rampant discrimination and exclusion.

Tuskegee Airmen in Italy
Tuskegee Airmen in Italy, 1944.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Toward the end of the war in Europe in 1945, however, battlefield demands again forced military leaders to invite African Americans from service units to volunteer for combat platoons serving alongside white units at the front. Thousands volunteered, despite the fact that doing so meant a demotion for many of them. Army officials selected more than 2,000 and many went on to serve in rifle platoons along the European front.

A survey of white officers who served in companies that fought with these platoons offered indisputable evidence of the value provided by these African-American soldiers. Although 64 percent of the officers admitted that they were unhappy about the decision at first, 84 percent said the men did “very well” in combat, and 16 percent said they fought “fairly well.” Seventy-seven percent reported that their feelings about the race had been improved by the experience. “They're the best platoon in the regiment,” admitted one officer. “I wish I could get a presidential citation for them.”

In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military. But the services, especially the Army, dragged their heels. The Army was “not an instrument for social evolution,” insisted Army Secretary Kenneth Royall, who argued that such increased diversity would hurt recruitment and damage the morale of white soldiers.

This meant that at the outset of the Korean War, many units remained segregated. Again, however, they performed fairly well—the segregated 24th Infantry Division won one of the first battles of the war, capturing the strategically important town of Yecheon. General Douglas MacArthur even publicly praised the men, noting that they had “fought a splendid delaying action against overwhelming odds . . . [and] is making every yard the Red Army gains increasingly more costly."

Yet, once again a lack of training and equipment, combined with poor morale that stemmed from racist treatment by their officers and the structural racism endemic in the Army, meant that future fighting went poorly for the 24th.

The court-martial system spoke volumes about the disparity of their treatment. African American troops were 28% of the membership of the 24th Division, for example. Even so, they made up 88% of those charged with offenses and received 97% of the convictions. Of the 32 African Americans in the division who were convicted, four had trials lasting 50 minutes or less, with each receiving a sentence of life imprisonment, despite the fact that, in most cases, the soldiers’ military-appointed lawyers offered virtually no defense for their clients. Growing public outrage, combined with the battlefield necessities in Korea and the emergence of more open-minded military leaders, finally forced the Army to abandon its segregationist policies in the middle of the war, thus opening the long-closed door to more equitable service opportunities. This step produced positive results. More welcoming policies have helped with recruiting efforts, brought valuable new perspectives to the effort to solve complex problems, and enhanced the nation’s image when it interacts with the diverse and interconnected world of the modern era. A commitment to diversity has thus proved to be a critical strength, not a weakness of the American military.

Once again, however, right-wing politicians are sounding the alarm over policies designed to make the military more diverse and welcoming. Their complaints sound similar to those put forward by military leaders and policymakers who fought against integrating the army—and whose concerns proved misguided and counterproductive. If history is a guide, their resistance to diversity efforts will damage military effectiveness and weaken the country’s armed forces.

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