The Navy Isn’t Too Woke—It Is America

By Bill Bray

When I attended a small Catholic high school in the early 1980s, several teachers tried to dissuade me from pursuing a military career. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, some questioned whether military service could be reconciled with the moral demands of the Catholic faith, while others simply opposed me serving on social or political grounds. A Jesuit reassured me that a military protecting a free society must be led by virtuous men and women of conscience—the type the high school endeavored to cultivate.

Today, the U.S. military’s strongest domestic critics are not on the political and social left, but the right. There is a growing chorus of voices who claim the military is too “woke,” that it has become a vehicle for progressive social experimentation at the expense of developing warfighting toughness and skills.

Historically, woke was a term used in Black communities to signify a general social consciousness. Today, when I hear or read critics of progressive policies using the term as a pejorative, it is rarely clear what they actually mean. What I do know is that there is no such thing as a coherent woke ideology, just as there is no such thing as “woke capitalism.” Opponents of change in the military—specifically, diversity and inclusion initiatives—often ascribe whatever bothers them to the term. And they often fail to realize that many of their preferred politicians are deliberately capitalizing on the acute outrage the term “woke” provokes in certain constituents, and how these politicians are purposefully repeating and cultivating the term to simply harness these constituents’ outrage for political benefit. The supercharged emotions the term “woke” incites among its critics has proven ripe for political exploitation.

It is hard to make an argument against such generalized, unspecific attacks. In fact, as an editor it is not my job to do so. But it is my job to carefully consider counterarguments to articles promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives, and we will continue to publish well-considered, thoughtful counterarguments. We will not publish fact-free rants. What we get is mostly the latter.

Social policies are always being debated across the country. In that sense, the U.S. military has always been changing. And many, if not most, changes were vigorously opposed by traditionalists, who viewed them as paths to warfighting incompetence, indiscipline, or moral destitution (or all the above). All too often, however, resistance to change rested on strawman arguments, and traditionalists wound up arguing with themselves while the country moved on. This is true of momentous changes, such as racial and gender integration, and those of less consequence and controversy (although, I assure you, plenty of mid-1800s Navy officers believed abandoning “the lash” would lead to a plague of indiscipline and mutiny). In any event, the military adapted and moved forward, responding, as it must in a representative democracy, to the demands of the public as articulated through their elected representatives.

What is important, I believe—and I make this case as a retired Navy officer and not as an editor—is to address the ostensibly growing call from many on the right to discourage young people they know from joining the military. While reliable, hard data is never presented, in recent months some commentators claim progressive social policies are at least partially responsible for the military’s recent struggles with meeting recruiting goals. In October, Meghann Myers at Military Times dug into this problem. As you can read for yourself, while the charges of a “woke” military float free of any factual basis, the myth is gathering legs.

Recently, former Navy officer J. A. Cauthen attacked the U.S. Naval Academy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and directives as “ideological (re)education” and “wokeness.” The essay is poorly supported by real data, embarrassing in its frequent digressions into partisan jeremiads, and infused throughout with absurd assumptions and well-worn exaggerations, such as that they are teaching that America is “irredeemably racist.” It also features non-sequiturs, such as how any diversity training is at the expense of warfighting training and weakens warfighting culture (while there is a multitude of other things the Navy has done that have come at the expense of its warfighting training and culture). Former naval officer and undersecretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey made a similar argument more recently in the National Review.

Since I also teach an ethics course at the Academy, I found both Cauthen and Cropsey’s description of its curriculum and culture completely unrecognizable. And they, like so many likeminded critics of the Academy, dismiss the Brigade of Midshipmen, some of the brightest college students in the nation, as incurious followers incapable of earnestly considering all sides of an issue, thinking critically about it, and making up their own minds.

The Training Sailors Actually Get

Curious about what had changed in the Navy that is triggering charges of wokeness, I looked at what a typical sailor gets in terms of formal training in his or her first two years in service. Between eight weeks of basic training, follow-on special skills training (what the Navy calls A-school, or military occupational specialty training), and one full year of mandatory general military trainings (GMTs) at their first ship or command, I could not locate anything that qualified as “woke” training beyond annual equal opportunity training (EEO training). Perhaps some would include sexual assault prevention and domestic abuse training, but I have never heard or read a complaint against those in the context of wokeness.

EEO training is one of seven mandatory GMTs (another 11 can be assigned at commanding officers’ discretion, and most are probably held annually). EEO training is a thorough review of current U.S. law, Department of Defense, and Department of the Navy policy on equal opportunity and discrimination (based on race, color, religion, gender, age, etc.). It would be hard to argue that sailors and officers should not be educated on what the rules are, and what they can and should do if they believe the rules are being violated. Perhaps the only part of EEO training that could be controversial is the final barriers section, which aims to illuminate more subtle obstacles to minority opportunity and advancement. In a rough approximation, in the first two years in the Navy, less than two percent of a sailor’s formal training could even be remotely described as progressive social training.

Then there is Task Force One Navy, established in 2020 in the wake of nation-wide social justice protests to take a comprehensive look at the Navy’s progress and continued challenges in diversity and inclusion. It is beyond the scope of this essay to comment on the entire report. It contains many recommendations along five lines of effort. Not all will be implemented, but many will have at least some effect on Navy policies and processes in the future. It should be noted that the report contains many positive findings, acknowledging much progress the Navy has made in the past 20 years. Its fiercest critics seem to anchor on implications the service still harbors systemic barriers to inclusion, as evidenced by disproportional equity outcomes in promotion demographics and the like. However, for the Navy to acknowledge these outcomes and continually examine itself seems a responsible and unavoidable approach, not one beholden to any ideology. Warfighting in defense of a free society is not just about competence, training, and technology. It is about the will and support of the population, and that requires a military in whose ranks the population is more broadly represented.

Service before Politics

Whatever one thinks of the Navy’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, attempting to equate patriotism and service with partisan politics is wrong and harmful to national security. Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common by those who should know better. Anti-woke warriors such as Cauthen give away the game when he writes the following to explain the Naval Academy’s implementation of diversity and inclusion policies and programs, “Willing collaborators all too eager to appease their political masters are accomplishing this transformation through directives, policy, training, and the creation of new offices and positions staffed to advance the agenda of wokeness.” It seems Mr. Cauthen would have no problem if the Navy’s willing collaborators appeased political masters for whom he voted and approves. In his warped understanding of civil-military relations, civilian control is conditional—it depends on the political masters’ affiliation and viewpoint.

That a Naval Academy graduate who took a commission and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution would write such a line is unfortunate. But he is one of many who cannot see, or refuse to see, the problem with such a view. My generation of Academy graduates from the 1980s has no business lecturing on this point. The shift to an all-volunteer force nearly 50 years ago always had the potential of a military gradually cultivating leaders who supported the political party that favored it more, both fiscally and culturally. This seems to have happened during the Reagan years.

Indeed, what today’s right wing seems most furious about is that they can no longer count on the military being a reliable constituency for their political positions and views. For years it counted on this, routinely trotting out claims that a socially conservative military would be weakened and possibly even destroyed if progressive policies infect it (never were such claims based on anything remotely close to real evidence). There is some truth to the view that military personnel tend to be socially conservative, but that often obscures how the views of servicemembers shift over time in step with society’s shifting views. The drastic change from the early 1990s until the 2010s of the percentage of Americans in favor of gays serving in the military is a case in point. As young Americans from different backgrounds join year after year, the military is constantly changing its makeup in many ways. The military is not some monastery insulated from society. It is society.

For those that claim wokeness is hurting recruiting, they should examine the demographic data from the 2022 midterm elections, even in the reddest states. Younger voters skew progressive, in some states more than 60 percent. Also, as Risa Brooks recently noted, 41 percent of military personnel identify as coming from a minority group. Not all minorities favor progressive policies of course, but they are statistically more likely to at least be more open to them. The notion that the military can solve its recruiting problem by renouncing wokeness and targeting red constituencies is fanciful, and a move that would harm its nonpartisan ethic.

What the Navy needs—what it has always needed—is patriotic Americans from all walks of life willing to serve with the comfort of knowing their personal political views are irrelevant. Servicemembers are free to believe what they want and vote any way they want. They are not free to cherrypick the policies and initiatives they will support.

Yet so little of what happens in the daily life of a Navy sailor can be attributed to a woke agenda. Even those with the most socially conservative views should have no trouble elevating the virtue of service above partisan politics. That many conservative commentators believe they should not (or cannot) do so speaks far more to those commentators’ fragile sensibilities than to a real problem.

It is worth reminding those who claim a woke military is a hostile place to serve the nation that at one time many Black Americans still chose to serve their nation in a segregated military, where discrimination was overt, entrenched, and legalized. Yet today, are socially conservative Americans actually going to refuse to serve because they must take EEO training or an FDA-approved vaccine, or are encouraged to use a gender-neutral pronoun as an act of respect, or must report to a ship or base no longer named for a Confederate traitor to the United States? While critics of wokeness in the military often claim they want to depoliticize the military, what they really want is to politicize it in their favor. This can even feature partisan loyalty tests, particularly for senior officers. This is inappropriate and dangerous, and military leaders have correctly resisted it.


In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was not uncommon to find critics on the left disparaging military servicemembers in terms that cast them as immoral and bloodthirsty agents of the American war machine. These attacks were unjustified and well beyond reasonable debate about the size and shape of, or even the need for, the armed forces. They fed a distorted narrative about American military life that deterred many young people from even considering service. Critics on the right who claim without evidence that the military is now corrupted by wokeness are committing the same sin. In fact, the military is full of smart, dedicated, and tough men and women. The true corruptors are those who refuse to rise above partisan politics to serve the nation and a greater cause.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: Sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in June 2021. (U.S. Navy photo)

22 thoughts on “The Navy Isn’t Too Woke—It Is America”

  1. As someone who got out in no small part because of the Navy going woke. I must disagree. I can illustrate it with ease. Name one Medal of Honor or Navy Cross recipient of Pearl Harbor…. Doris Miller will be the most common answer. Why, because we get briefed on him every February. Throughout the year we learn about every culture and gender and how they were slighted in the past in one way or another. What we don’t learn about is how we are all sailors, sure lip service is paid, usually 10secs at the end of the brief about how so and so was discriminated against in the 1940s or 1840s, or the 1970s. And since that is the message sent for 29min 30s of the brief. What message are you sending? I will tell you the message sent is not one of unity. Not one of we are all sailors.

    DEI is woke. Its roots are in Critical Theory, which is an offshoot of Marxism from the Frankfurt school. Whose intention was to divide the United States from within via culture and gender because workers vs bourgeois wasn’t working.

    Second point of the Navy is going woke. Onboard a CG we had 2 transgender sailors. They went through boot camp, came to the ship, declared they were transgender went through the hoops of proving it to medical, whatever those hoops were, and were sent up to Oregon for Gender reassignment, hormone therapies, etc. That takes about 2.5 years to complete and hundreds of thousands of dollars. By which time they are at the end of their contract and get out with little to no benefit to the Navy or the nation. Before, transgender would have been a failure to adapt and good luck. The Navy is not welfare program, it is not free medical service. It is a warfighting entity.

    The more we focus on our differences, the more divided we will become. The DEI, transgender and sexuality based will defeat the Navy in time. In ways our adversaries could never dream of. Want proof? The economy isn’t doing that great, normally that is prime time for recruiting. So about those recruiting numbers…..

    1. I don’t believe that you got out of the Navy because it was too woke for you. I believe you got out of the Navy for the same reason most people get out of the military – because you thought life in the civilian world better suited your life – whether it was a higher-paying job, a safer job or just more time with your family.

      So, you left the “woke” Navy and are now in the not-so-woke civilian world, huh? How’s that working out for you? I guess you can keep running away from a trend that has been occurring in this country for many generations. This country is getting more and more diverse. Some people calmly except that and adapt – then there’s those who fight it like a cat with its claws in the carpet. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that really appeals to those who remember the good ol’ days when America was mostly white men in charge of all the important things.

    2. Really roughing it here, but the figures in the below article would imply that the medical cost per transgender dysphoria case for the period covered is less than the average budgeted for the entire force. Obviously in the military the rate of injury being higher will be one factor that can skew the total. Also not in the cost is the impact of suicide throughout the force which has proven to be one societal problem the military has not yet successfully addressed. You will also see reassignment surgery occurred only about 13% of the time.

      You also seem to provide examples of blend issues as the article here points out, specifically diversity training and CRT. This blending has largely been created by false information spread initially by Chris Rufo and grabbed onto by the political right. To me, his resume prior to those events looked like someone needing to invent a job for themself. His documentation is poor and he refuses to provide source material to others for review. To me, that means the basis of CRT in our present political dialogue is junk to anyone who has ever had to write using source work. Learning something new about someone else has never challenged my Scots Irish upbringing. I don’t need someone to teach me we were once on the short end of the stick too. I don’t need someone to defend me when someone else crosses the line whether that person is in a superior position.

      I think one of our real problems as a society is people running away from challenges primarily because they don’t see the enormous benefit to themselves in treating other people like people.

    3. This is a terrible take on the state of the Navy and its diversity. What I find is that you were incapable of integrating with diverse cultures but you’re claiming it’s because it wasn’t “sailor” centric enough. Your incoherent thought process is one rooted in racism and xenophobia. The military isn’t for everyone and I’m glad you found that it wasn’t for you.

  2. I often find otherwise intelligent people grabbing onto news that has no primary sources provided and often after digging lacks credulity. Stop assuming and start caring. ANyone can be a reporter if they need to be.

  3. I am glad to see CIMSEC posting this article. The US military Services should reflect American society and yet remain apolitical. When the all-volunteer force was adopted the worry was that the military would end up being populated by men, and later women, from lower class backgrounds (I was one of them) and kids of the upper classes could skip serving. I don’t know what the stats are now, but for so many of us, notably including large numbers of non-whites, the military was our ticket out of otherwise bleak futures. Thus the military is structurally “woke” by being all volunteer. A few classes along the way to help unit cohesion are force multipliers. Back in the 70s we had “Upward Seminars” to help counteract racial tensions. The goal was unit effectiveness, not social change. Any EEO or gender orientation training today is likely for the same reason, which is opposite of what the critics claim.

  4. Well written Sir. It didn’t take long for one of the commenters to use the same arguments that you thoughtfully rejected in your piece.

    The only thing dividing us is the Russian and PRC disinformation campaigns that so much of our populace gobbles up faster than free popcorn at the theater. Look no further than our elected leaders who rant about “wokeness” while quoting PRC state-sponsored propaganda during congressional hearings.

    Thank you for continuing to fight the good fight. I hope that our senior military leaders have the same mentality.

  5. It is not only the political right who do not recommend military service. I am a active duty Naval officer with 15+ years of service who joined in the mid 2000’s.
    “Woke” agendas are just a slice of the increasing amount of BS I have witnessed creep into the service during my short career.
    Much more harmful are the promotion systems which reward leaders who take no risks, make no waves, and mindlessly follow a career path laid out for them.
    It is these leaders without a backbone who then allow a multitude of misguided and harmful policies to propagate and exist out of fear of rocking the boat.

  6. It’s also worth noting what military recruiters have long understood – there is a direct correlation between periods of low unemployment in the civil sector and periods of greater difficulty in meeting recruitment goals. The past two years of rising inflation and low unemployment have also resulted in a spike in salaries being commanded by people in the private sector, while military pay scales rose at a much lower rate. It’s not hard to understand why more young adults are not flocking to the military services when they can make more money working outside the government/military services. I would love to see verified data that showed how many young Americans chose not to join the military because of perceived “wokeness”. I strongly suspect that number is extremely small and just a minor contributer to the missed recruiting goals for each Service

  7. Anyone who fails to see that it is 100% improper for the US military to fund at taxpayer expense and accommodate operationally, on a mandatory basis, “gender reassignment surgery” for any active duty member who demands it, I just don’t know what to say. That is just flat out wrong, and revolting.

    The purpose of military service is not to carry out woke ideology, which is a very real political thing today no matter how much this author and commenters deny it. The military is no place for ideology of any kind but service to the United States of America, period.

    Trans people can serve now, just as can homosexuals, great. Get your gender reassigned elsewhere, before or after your military service – it is most definitely not a “right” of service members.

    1. Please define woke ideology.

      The issue of gender reassignment survey at taxpayer expense is one that can be debated, but it is not an “ideology.”

      As to the cost, as a colleague opined recently, if you and others are really concerned about excessive military medical expenses to the American taxpayer, you should be arguing for the military to ban tobacco use.

      1. This sounds like you are stating this as official USNI opinion on the very wide concept of “woke.” The article does not have the usual disclaimers that these are your opinions and not those of your employer.

      2. Bill, why not explain what the military is doing in its training programs as you have seen rather than attacking people you do not believe understand the military diversity training program? You article will likely just anger people rather than get them to do more research,

        1. I did not attack anyone. I critiqued their arguments. You should know the difference.

          I am not asking or expecting anyone to do more research. I’m sure they are busy. That’s why I did the research for the article.

          And, once again, USNI doesn’t take official positions or have official opinions on any issue concerning the Sea services. Hasn’t for 150 years. Surely you know this, so why would you be confused?

          If you want to discuss this further, why don’t you just call me at USNI at 401-295-1021? I’ll try to answer all your questions.

          1. “Anti-woke warriors such as Cauthen give away the game when he writes the following to explain the Naval Academy’s implementation of diversity and inclusion policies and programs, “Willing collaborators all too eager to appease their political masters are accomplishing this transformation through directives, policy, training, and the creation of new offices and positions staffed to advance the agenda of wokeness.” That a Naval Academy graduate who took a commission and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution would write such a line is unfortunate. But he is one of many who cannot see, or refuse to see, the problem with such a view. My generation of Academy graduates from the 1980s has no business lecturing on this point.”

            Your opinions are noted, however, they do not further the discussion intelligently.

            Ad hominem reactions – even when “mixed” with facts on the issue at hand – serve no purpose but to inflame.

  8. This article does not include the usual disclaimer that this is the author’s opinion alone and not that or their organization . Does the author represent the official USNI opinion on the term “woke?”

    1. Of course it’s my opinion. You know that and are just being snarky.

      USNI does not have official opinions on words that have no clear definition. In fact, USNI does not have official opinions on anything, except that we maintain an open forum for debate.

      Does the Navy League have an official opinion on the term “woke”? Enlighten us Steve.

      1. No I am not being snarky at all. I asked a legit question and you responded with snark. Woke is a very wide term that far exceeds diversity and inclusion training. I support that, but I’m not at all a fan of “drag queen story time.” Attacking “woke” bins everyone together.
        Anything I state here represents my opinions and not those of my employer.

  9. Thank you, Bill. Spot on.
    Thank you for working to dispel yet another fact free rumination that the right falsely pushes for malicious performative theater and Faux News clips.
    Sadly of most these horse droppings purveyors just scream woke at everything and anything they do not like and will never accept the facts or reality you so diligently and artfully lay out.

  10. The general counsel to Governor DeSantis – possibly the most vocal anti-woke person in America – defined “woke” in the case of Warren v. DeSantis as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”
    If you do not believe there are systemic injustices, I recommend reading the book The Color of The Law by Richard Rothstein.

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