Divide and Conquer: Radicalizing Military Education

Grievance-based curricula are coming to a military academy near you.

From late 2017 to 2018, three scholars wrote and submitted to academic journals 20 fake papers focused on gender and sexual identity—what the authors call “grievance studies.” Seven journals published their submissions. The scholars’ stated objective for this experiment was to expose the farcical nature of these “disciplines” and their replacement of scholarly rigor with an overt political agenda devoid of academic seriousness.

The hoax not only damaged the reputations of the publishing journals, but it also challenged the academic integrity of identity-based “grievance studies.” Such fields may well be part of universities’ overall mission to expand areas of inquiry, study, and research. Reality, however, suggests that they are more about increasing staff and faculty diversity hires and enhancing political power than about perpetuating knowledge.

Most external observers who are numbed by the absurdities of contemporary academia likely believe that the political damage emanating from identity studies is contained to the civilian Ivory Tower. In the five years since the hoax, however, the grievance chorus has breached the walls and escaped traditional academia. Corporations, government, and even the military and military academies are now true believers, a fact embodied by ubiquitous Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs and offices.

If “grievance studies” lack academic rigor, why have the nation’s military academies embraced their arguments?If “grievance studies” lack academic rigor, and if some of their practitioners have been unmasked as charlatans rather than serious scholars, why have the nation’s military academies so enthusiastically embraced their arguments and conclusions? The overall politicization of the military, an historically conservative and apolitical institution, is one potential explanation. As a recent Heritage Foundation report on military readiness asserts, civilian and military leaders are advancing “divisive progressive social justice ideologies” across the individual services, largely by viewing “all matters through the lens of DEI.”

Purveyors of identity studies are, of course, adherents and advocates of DEI, and the success of their progressive political agenda in America’s other elite institutions—academia, media, government, and business—has renewed the objective of remaking the military in line with fashionable ideological views. Every federal military service academy, for example, has either established DEI offices or published strategic plans to expand this agenda. Increasingly, identity studies are required for some students, depending on their selected undergraduate major and minor.

For instance, a 2017 West Point memo requesting the creation of a diversity and inclusion minor (five courses and 15 credit hours) argued that the program of study would “leverage diversity and foster inclusion to prepare leaders of character … to effectively lead in a multicultural Army.” West Point established its diversity and inclusion minor in 2020, followed by the Air Force Academy in 2021. The Air Force Academy had a similar objective, asserting that the program would develop “leaders who not only understand and recognize the importance of diversity, but who actively create inclusive environments that leverage this diversity toward mission success.”

On its face, none of this rather vague language is particularly problematic. A deeper examination, however, raises legitimate questions about how the coursework in question supports the stated mission of the service academies and furthers professional military education. For example, some electives in these programs focus exclusively on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—not exactly martial concerns.

A course offered at West Point as part of the diversity and inclusion studies minor is titled “The Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality” and places an emphasis “on the inherent inequalities found within the structures, rules, and processes of the American political system.” At the Air Force Academy, a course called “Gender, Sexuality, and Society” seeks to show that one’s set of social “beliefs [can] create and enforce a system of difference and inequality.”

Some electives in these programs focus exclusively on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—not exactly martial concerns.Although a modest sample, these examples are likely the first salvo in the campaign to increase identity studies across the military educational ecosystem. While the Naval Academy does not currently have a diversity and inclusion minor, the English Department offers a 300-level course titled “Gender and Sexuality Studies,” with readings from Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the terms intersectionality and critical race theory. Given the DEI push across the military, it is almost certain that this identity “scholarship” will grow at the Naval Academy to include a focused diversity and inclusion minor.

In fact, the Naval Academy and the smaller Merchant Marine Academy have already crafted the institutional plans necessary to accomplish these ends. The Naval Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan contains the stated goal of “partner[ing] with Academic Departments in conducting a comprehensive curriculum review prioritizing the inclusion of marginalized scholarship and hidden histories within midshipmen education.” The Merchant Marine Academy has a strategic plan that sets out to further entrench DEI via a comprehensive review of offered courses that will integrate “elements of diversity, equality [sic], and inclusion into the Educational Program for Midshipmen.”

Moreover, the Naval Academy’s 2030 Strategic Plan includes an ominous pledge to “identify and address traditions, policies, and practices at USNA that support systemic bias.” It seems the administration has already decided that the Naval Academy is systemically corrupt, and the only remedy for this scourge is expanding the DEI agenda. This includes the likely expansion of identity-centric course offerings and programs.

Identity-based scholars, researchers, and advocates are promulgating their agenda beyond the confines of military undergraduate education. The U.S. Naval War College, for example, recently hosted the ninth annual Women, Peace, and Security Symposium. The theme: “Share … knowledge on warfighting and conflict resolution focusing on the gender perspective.” Sessions included “Tackling Gender in Kinetic Operations” and “Politics of Belonging: Men as Allies in the Meaningful Inclusion of Women in the Security Sector.”

Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, the founder of the Naval War College, stated in the 1880s that the college was to be “a place of original research on all questions relating to war and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.” Given the nation’s current geopolitical threats, does a gendered approach to studying tactics, operational art, strategy, and war really yield the greatest returns? Clearly, gender studies and other identity-based disciplines are about the DEI agenda, not about continued professional military education and the study of how to deter and defeat our nation’s enemies.

The paper’s authors call for self-segregation and the abandonment of colorblindness.DEI and identity-centric courses in civilian academic institutions are designed to divide and sort people into ever-expanding, aggrieved, and oppressed identity groups. We should not expect a different experience for military students and personnel. Where the military should be focusing on esprit de corps, critical thinking, tactical and strategic acumen, and developing an apolitical professional officer corps, it is instead aggressively embracing DEI and identity-based grievance studies.

The outcome of this push remains uncertain, but a 2020 policy paper crafted by nine West Point graduates and addressed to West Point leadership may serve as a useful primer of what a fractured and Balkanized military might look like. Some highlights include a demand that senior white leaders acknowledge that their “white privilege sustains systems of racism,” as well as a call for West Point to release a statement acknowledging the “existence of anti-Black racism endemic to West Point.”

Amazingly, the paper’s authors advocate for self-segregation and the abandonment of colorblindness. “There is a need for space … that is specifically dedicated to Black Cadets,” they write. “The Academy must take action to dismantle the processes that safeguard white supremacy, to stop reinforcing colorblindness, and to invest in a space that preserves Black Cadets’ identity.”

Statements like these from civilian academics and students may not be surprising. That they came from active army officers who took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution is shocking. If DEI and identity-based coursework become embedded throughout the military educational ecosystem, we should expect similar, if not more radicalized, beliefs by military members. By continuing to teach and encourage disunity, discord, and discrimination in the military ranks, our armed services may have already lost the next conflict without even firing a shot.

J.A. Cauthen, a retired naval officer, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2002 and taught in the history department from 2007 to 2010.