The U.S. military and veteran communities are under attack. This attack was not launched by foreign adversaries like Russia or China but by American politicians and the extreme far-right who are targeting the military as part of their political fight to restrict LGBTQ rights across society. 

Members of Congress should support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts in order to combat these far right attacks, as bias and extremism weaken America’s military and increase the risks of domestic violent extremism.

While bigotry remains in the ranks of the armed forces, there have long been efforts to support inclusion. For example, in 1948, President Harry Truman integrated the nation’s military.

In the last two years, leaders in the Department of Defense have instituted DEI efforts, created programs to address and prevent extremism in the military, and repeatedly defended its LGBTQ servicemembers. DOD has taken other steps to address discrimination, including allowing trans members to openly serve. These efforts enhance recruitment and retention efforts and force readiness.  

With over 40 percent of servicemembers identifying as minorities, diversity is one of the military’s strengths. At a March 23 Armed Services Committee hearing, top officials in the Army, Air Force, and Navy stated unequivocally that diversity made the armed forces stronger. Assistant Air Force Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Alex Wagner added on June 6 that diversity and inclusion are “core” to U.S. national security, and was quoted as saying that “diverse groups always outperform ‘carefully selected teams of homogenous individuals.’” 

Far-right extremists and the mainstream politicians who court them are targeting these thoughtful first steps from DOD. They push policies and legislation that target the military’s LGBTQ community and those who support inclusion. 

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been especially active on this front. Last year, Rubio and Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) issued a 17-page report featuring a combat helmet with a cache of rainbow-colored bullets on its cover. It was filled with ad hominem attacks on public servants, far-right anti-trans talking points, and implications that only men should serve in the armed forces. The report also claimed that racism is a non-issue in the military, and that any attempt to address systemic racism must itself be racist.

Rubio last year ridiculed recruitment efforts that featured the narrative of a service member who grew up in an LGBTQ family, and in April mocked the Navy and a non-binary service member who shared an experience of acceptance during a naval deployment. Rubio and Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced the Ensuring Military Readiness Act of 2023, which would go so far as to end trans members’ ability to openly serve in the military.  

Rubio is not alone. Politicians and pundits like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tucker Carlson, and others on the extreme right say that diversity initiatives, which they often call part of the “woke agenda,” weaken the military. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), advancing an explicitly racist agenda, supports white supremacists serving in the military and minimizes the threat they pose. DeSantis argues against integrating trans servicemembers, and on Memorial Day announced his plan to dismantle many of the military’s pro-LGBTQ policies should he be elected president. 

This hateful rhetoric provides tacit support for white supremacism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ hate within the ranks. The hostile culture these campaigns create impacts the communities they target, and the broader force.

The consequences of allowing this hate to fester are severe. Members of the military community play an outsized role in extremist activity, and veterans remain a leading target for recruitment by far-right extremists.  

Attacks on DEI in the military also impact the military’s ability to address racism and sexism. Black service members continue to face discrimination within the ranks, and DEI programs are necessary to address these issues. The DOD’s Board on Diversity and Inclusion – empanelled by the Trump administration – notes that attacks on DEI endanger efforts to recruit and retain diverse members.  

Anti-DEI campaigns also create an environment that seeds internal discord, and undermine unit cohesion and force readiness, leaving the United States less secure in part because such campaigns embolden extremists. 

One recent example is Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old Air National Guardsman recently arrested for leaking classified documents, one of the gravest crimes in decades against U.S. national security. His actions imperiled the NATO alliance, threatened Ukraine’s position against Russia, and undermined American diplomacy with non-NATO partners across the globe. 

Teixeira, who was recorded screaming racist and antisemitic language, shared hate-inspired memes, supported the murders in 2019 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and expressed interest in undertaking his own mass shooting, illustrates the larger danger inherent in anti-DEI political theater. 

By positioning diversity and inclusion initiatives as mortal threats, propagandists and politicians embolden extremists like Teixeira to take action into their own hands. These same political leaders ignore the real threat such extremists present to national security and to the safety of our servicemembers. While more robust DEI programs would not stop someone dedicated to harming U.S. national security, they could create a culture that challenges the hateful views and prevent someone from serving in the military or acting as Teixiera did.

Today, Congress is writing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the major funding bill for the armed forces. As the NDAA works its way through both houses of Congress, Representatives and Senators must support – not eliminate or reduce – DEI and anti-extremism programs within DOD. It is critical for elected leaders to understand that DEI programs buttress the U.S. military against bias, racism, white supremacy, misogyny, and other forms of extremism; they strengthen force cohesion and readiness; and they undergird our national security. 

Broader solutions require courage from political leaders across the country. They must step up and call out far-right antidemocratic extremists who use the idea of a “woke” military as a wedge, stirring up hate for their own ends. Only when leaders reject extremist rhetoric will its threat to the country begin to dissipate.   

The United States must ensure that the military has the tools to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. That means building a more equitable and fully representative fighting force by instituting DEI policies that make U.S. armed forces stronger. If the United States fails to support diversity and equity among all of our servicemembers, we threaten who we are as a nation – our ideals of equality, democracy, and commitment to human rights – and put at risk our national security.

IMAGE: Airmen and families run through the starting line of the Pride Month color run at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., June 24, 2022. (Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Breanna Klemm/USAF)