Culture Warriors: GOP Hypocrisy and Lies About the Armed Forces
Republicans insist that service members who defied COVID vax orders should be reinstated—yet those arguments are flipped when it comes to demanding that transgender personnel be discharged.
OVER THE PAST DECADE, the Republican party has turned its back on everything it once claimed to stand for. The party of “law and order” has smeared prosecutors, attacked the justice system, and called for defunding federal law enforcement. The party of “limited government” has tried to use state power to punish companies for their political views. The party of American leadership is increasingly leaning toward abandoning Europe to a Russian invasion. The party of “family values” is backing a rapist for president.
To that list, add one more betrayal: The party of “national security” is subordinating military readiness to snowflake cultural sensitivities. Specifically, Republicans are demanding that military personnel who refused orders to get vaccinated against COVID during the pandemic—and were discharged for their defiance—should be reinstated with back pay.
At the same time, many of these politicians are calling for a ban on transgender service members. They’re pretending that the “woke mind virus” is a threat to military preparedness, but an actual virus isn’t. These Republicans aren’t serious about preparing for a real war. To them, the armed forces are just another battleground in the culture war.
Consider a few scenes from the 2024 presidential race.
On March 18, speaking in Iowa, Mike Pence lamented the “woke politics making its way into the Pentagon.” He said the armed forces should be “focused on the core mission” of “defending our freedom and being prepared every single day.” Then, without skipping a beat, Pence segued to vaccine refusal, which he insisted must “always be a personal choice”:
And the very idea that we have expelled men and women from the United States military because they were unwilling to submit to a mandate to take a vaccine, I think was unconscionable. . . . The time is now to reinstate every member of our armed forces that was discharged because they were unwilling to take the COVID [vaccine] and give them 100 percent back pay.
Pence doesn’t extend this “personal choice” philosophy to gender identity, however. On July 28, he called for “reinstituting a ban on transgender personnel in the United States military.”
On June 24, in a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Donald Trump declared: “On Day One, I will reinstate the Trump ban on transgenders in the military.” He explained: “Our warriors should be focused on crushing American enemies, on being strong, on having the image of being strong . . . not catering to radical gender ideology.”
On Aug. 8, speaking in New Hampshire, the former president repeated his pledge to “restore the Trump ban on transgender in the military.” But two minutes later, he demanded that the military cater to vaccine refusers. He vowed: “We will abolish every Biden COVID mandate and rehire every patriot who was fired from our military with an apology and with back pay.”
On July 18, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he would revoke President Joe Biden’s executive order that “allows transgender personnel to serve in the military in their preferred sex.” Speaking in South Carolina, DeSantis complained that the military “has been ordered by civilian officials to pursue political ideology,” becoming “yet another institution in American life that gets infected with the woke mind virus.” He concluded: “We need a military that is focused on being lethal, being ready, and being capable. And if there’s anybody’s agenda that gets in the way [of] that, that agenda needs to take a hike.”
But two minutes later, DeSantis imposed his own agenda. He protested that COVID vaccine objectors had been discharged for refusing to “take something that they don’t want to take,” and he promised to reinstate them with back pay. In his military reform plan, DeSantis promised to “disallow the Pentagon from punishing troops based solely on their Covid-19 vaccination status.”
On July 6, Sen. Tim Scott launched a $6 million ad campaign in Iowa. His featured TV commercial devoted 5 of its 30 seconds to images of Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer. In the ad, Scott decried “transgender ideology” and pledged to “fight back.”
Scott continued this theme on Aug. 15, when he was asked about his plans to fortify the military. The first thing he would do, he replied, was “stop all social experimenting on our troops. . . . We would only focus on [building] the fiercest fighting machine.” Scott complained that the Department of Defense and its generals were too distracted by “gender issues.”
Then, like Trump and DeSantis, Scott pivoted to service members who had refused COVID shots. “When you kick people out for not having the vaccine,” he fretted, “you’re making a critical mistake.”
This coddling of vaccine refusers permeates the GOP. Last November, thirteen Republican senators threatened to block the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military funding bill. In a letter, they opposed allowing the Senate to pass the NDAA unless they were granted a floor vote on ending the vaccine mandate and reinstating vaccine refusers with back pay.
The letter portrayed vaccine refusers as an oppressed minority. It said the mandate had “ruined the livelihoods of men and women who have honorably served our country. . . . The United States simply cannot afford to discharge our brave men and women in uniform and lose the investments we have made into each and every one of them.”
A month later, to save the NDAA, Biden agreed to end the vaccine mandate. But that wasn’t enough for Republican senators. In January and February, twenty of them cosponsored another bill, which 1) prohibited “any COVID–19 vaccine mandate” in the military, 2) barred “any adverse action” against a vaccine refuser, and 3) required DOD to “compensate such member for any pay and benefits lost as a result of such adverse action.” The bill also required DOD to “make every effort to retain” vaccine refusers and give them “professional development, promotion and leadership opportunities, and consideration equal to that of their peers.”
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Then, on Feb. 15—just three weeks after cosponsoring that bill—Sen. Marco Rubio, a signer of the November letter, introduced the “Ensuring Military Readiness Act,” which focused entirely on expelling transgender service members. The bill declared that “Persons who identify as transgender who seek or have undergone gender transition are disqualified from military service.”
Now that the discussion had turned from vaccination to gender, Rubio showed no interest in “the livelihoods of men and women who have honorably served our country” or “the investments we have made” in them. All he cared about was invoking physical standards he had ignored in the case of vaccine refusers. “The military has strict standards for who can and cannot qualify to serve,” said Rubio, explaining why transgender service members should be kicked out. “Under President Biden, you can’t serve with a peanut allergy.” (Actually, policies on serving in the armed forces with severe food allergies were in place long before Biden.)
This discrepancy between Republican treatment of gender identity in the military and Republican treatment of vaccination in the military isn’t just hypocritical. It’s scientifically baseless.
The “readiness” argument for barring transgender people from the armed forces, as formulated by the Heritage Foundation, is that they’re far more likely than other service members to suffer anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal inclinations. Statistically, that’s true. But the statistics don’t clarify to what extent this might be due to anti-transgender policies themselves. An analysis of the data, which were collected in a DOD-funded study during the Trump administration, cited reasons to suspect that such policies might have skewed the numbers:
The policies that dictate whether transgender people can serve openly in the U.S. military have been in flux for several years. This rapidly shifting policy environment makes the military context particularly stressful for transgender people and may contribute to disparities in mental health. . . . Scholars have demonstrated the link between structural factors, such as policy environments, and mental health among LGBT people. Hostile policies toward transgender people serving in the U.S. military may be contributing to mental health disparities in this population.
No such argument can be made for vaccine refusers. The burden they imposed on their colleagues wasn’t their stress level. It was their role as carriers or potential carriers of a virus. This was a direct physical threat to unit performance. It was purely voluntary, and it defied orders that were issued to protect the armed forces from a rampant disease.
By August 2021, when DOD announced its mandate, COVID had infected more than 200,000 service members, with more than 2,000 hospitalizations and nearly 50 deaths. A study of people who were treated at military medical facilities in 2020 for COVID-related issues (infection, exposure, or COVID-like symptoms) found that more than three-quarters had missed work or daily activities. Within this group, more than 30 percent had missed more than a month of work or normal activities. In another study, 39 percent of COVID-infected active-duty service members reported declines in their physical fitness test scores, and 34 percent said their scores were still impaired a year after infection.
These effects on health and performance, combined with vaccination rules in host countries, prompted DOD to issue its mandate. When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the mandate, he pointed out—amid the Delta wave—that “infection rates . . . are on the rise” and that “to defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force.” He explained to service members that the vaccines “will protect your unit, your ship, and your co-workers.”
To counter this argument, Republican politicians have lied about the vaccines, pretending that they don’t work. Last November, at a Senate GOP press conference, Sen. Rand Paul asserted: “The CDC acknowledges the COVID vaccine does not stop transmission. So the argument that the mandate will stop incapacitating spread in the close quarters of the military is not applicable.” Sen. Ron Johnson added: “We now know that it doesn’t prevent transmission at all. It doesn’t prevent infection.” In his speech on July 18, DeSantis echoed that claim: “The mRNA shots were shown not to prevent the infection and transmission of COVID.”
These are lies. A massive review of studies, published earlier this year in the Lancet, found that COVID vaccines initially reduced infections by 83 percent, hospitalizations by 92 percent, and deaths by 91 percent. Protection against infection waned over time, but protection against serious harm remained substantial, with reductions of 79 percent in hospitalizations and 86 percent in deaths.
In the military, a study of more than 400,000 personnel found that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines reduced hospitalizations by 88 percent in both the Delta and pre-Delta COVID waves. Against infection, the shots were almost 95 percent effective in the pre-Delta period and were still potent in the Delta period, though the reduction fell to about 80 percent for Moderna and 70 percent for Pfizer.
It’s true that the initial COVID vaccines aren’t as effective against Omicron. But in the Lancet review, they still yielded an initial reduction of 61 percent in infections and 71 percent in hospitalizations. Furthermore, the military vaccine mandate was in the context of the Delta wave, not the later Omicron wave. Updated vaccines to counter new COVID variants are on the way and are expected to be available by late September.
As the virus evolves, thereby evading protection from previous infections and vaccinations, it’s that much more important to administer updated vaccines to our armed forces.
You can argue on libertarian grounds that COVID shots, no matter how effective they are, shouldn’t be mandated for civilians. But that argument makes little sense in the military. When Austin issued the DOD mandate in 2021, he noted: “Mandatory vaccinations are familiar to all of our Service members, and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself.” John Kirby, who was then the Pentagon spokesman, added: “We fully anticipate that our troops are going to follow lawful orders. And when you raise your right hand and you take that oath, that’s what you agree to do.”
The Republican senators who threatened to block the NDAA last fall rejected this commonsense view of military obligation. At their November press conference, they insisted on deferring to the “medical autonomy” of service members:
“Our young men and women put their lives forward for us. We should respect and allow them to make some of their own medical decisions,” said Rand Paul.
“It ought to be your body and your choice whether you get the vaccine,” said Ted Cruz.
“The people who are reluctant . . . have a reason to want to defend their own personal freedom, their own personal health autonomy, and decide not to do this. And the Biden administration, our military, should not be forcing this on them,” said Ron Johnson.
“We’ve got to acknowledge that our military men and women have rights, not just our commander-in-chief,” said Rick Scott.
But when it comes to transgender service members, these politicians express no interest in medical autonomy. Suddenly, it’s all about conformity. When DeSantis spoke with CNN’s Jake Tapper on July 18, the day he announced his military reform plan, he demanded compliance:
Tapper: Your new policy that you announced today about the military would ban transgender Americans from serving in the military regardless of their ability. . . .
DeSantis: Look, in the military, it’s all about the mission first. So there’s a whole bunch of reasons why you focus on mission first. People’s individuality, it does take—you do have to check that at the door.
This hypocrisy has two ugly consequences. One is that some people in the armed forces are being incapacitated, often for more than a month at a time, because they refused vaccination or because they got infected by a colleague who refused vaccination.
The other consequence is that if Republicans recapture the White House next year, service members who are vaccinated and fully fit, both physically and mentally, could be expelled because they’re transgender.
In my view, it’s wrong to ban transgender people from the armed forces based on a statistical risk of mental health problems that may not be present in an individual case or, if it’s present, may have been caused by anti-transgender policies themselves.
If you disagree, you’re welcome to argue that the military can’t afford that risk. But you can’t then plead that when it comes to vaccine refusers, “medical autonomy” is more important than readiness. That’s just dishonest.