Michael Gilday FILE
Washington CNN  — 

The US Navy’s highest-ranking officer pushed back strongly against what he called efforts by two Republican congressmen to portray the US military as “weak” and “woke” in a hearing on Tuesday.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday’s comments came during a House Armed Services budget hearing as Reps. Doug Lamborn and Jim Banks questioned his recommendation of the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi on a voluntary reading list for Navy sailors, which Gilday tied directly to efforts to combat misinformation by adversaries such as Russia and China.

Kendi argues in the book that people must actively be antiracist – instead of being “not racist” – to progress toward racial equality.

“Inwardly, we have to understand ourselves. And we have to understand critically that we value diversity,” said Gilday, defending his recommendation of the book, even as he acknowledged he does not agree with everything in it.

Gilday’s comments come as military officials have faced a chorus of GOP voices questioning the Defense Department’s efforts to promote diversity and combat extremism in the ranks. He took a similar stance to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who stressed the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion when he came under a similar attack from Republican Senators at a hearing last week.

Banks, a Navy reservist who deployed to Afghanistan, said he believes Kendi, a Boston University professor and National Book Award winner, is an “extremist” and questioned Gilday about whether sailors reading his book would adversely affect morale.

“This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and in this case, the United States Navy as weak, as woke,” Gilday fired back. “We are not weak.”

Asked by Lamborn how sailors reading the book would “improve our Navy’s readiness and lethality for great power competition,” Gilday said the conversation about racism and diversity in the military is necessary to fight against misinformation by US adversaries.

“Everybody has to be in a position to weigh fact from fiction, even our sailors. They’re bombarded every day by misinformation – much of it comes from China and Russia – on this issue that’s getting at our national psyche,” said Gilday. “I’m trying to get after it in the Navy.”

The efforts by Republican congressman to question the military’s efforts to promote diversity come amid a nationwide GOP push against promoting “critical race theory,” a decades-old academic concept which recognizes systemic racism as part of American society, and which the Trump administration attempted to turn into a political talking point.

“Initially you mentioned critical race theory. I’m not a theorist. I’m the Chief of Naval Operations,” Gilday responded to Lamborn. “What I can tell you is factually, based on a substantial amount of time talking to sailors in the fleet, there’s racism in the Navy just like there’s racism in our country. And the way we’re going to get after it is to be honest about it, not to sweep it under the rug, and to talk about it.”

Gilday said he has read the book and praised it for how “Kendi is self-critical about his own journey as an African-American in this country.”

‘We’re going to make sure that our military looks like America’

Austin faced similar questions on Thursday in a Senate Armed Services hearing from Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who read him a list of alleged whistleblower complaints from military members on anti-extremism and diversity training initiatives that Cotton called “anti-American indoctrination.”

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion is important to this military now, and it will be important in the future,” Austin responded. “And so we’re going to make sure that our military looks like America, and that our leadership looks like what’s in the ranks of the military.”

Cotton, criticizing military training on systemic racism, had asked Austin to respond to a series of yes or no questions about whether the US military is racist, after each of which Austin said that the answers required more context before Cotton cut him off.

“I think we need to do a bit better in terms of making sure that we’re absolutely inclusive, and making sure that we create pathways, or pathways are available, for everybody that’s in the ranks to achieve, to realize their full potential,” said Austin when allowed to add more context to his answers by Sen. Tim Kaine.

While the military has become more diverse since World War II, minorities in the armed forces still face issues of inequality. For instance, black service members are less likely to become officers and, as a result, are more likely to be seriously injured serving their country than their white colleagues.

Republican members of Congress such as Sen. Ted Cruz have gone as far as unfavorably comparing the US military to Russia’s to disparage diversity efforts by the Defense Department.

“We’re seeing Democratic politicians and these woke lefty bureaucrats and lefty media reporters trying to destroy the American military, trying to turn it in, into frankly a bunch of pansies,” Cruz told Fox News.

Last month Austin told CNN’s Barbara Starr that the US military will never be “soft,” adding adversaries like China and Russia, “would like to capitalize on talking points like that.”

“We’re seeing more the politics of division and using the military as a place in which to fight political battles,” said CNN military analyst Col. Cedric Leighton (ret.) after Cruz’s comments. “It’s something that should not be done.”

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.