Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Defense in Washington on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Credit: Caroline Brehman / Pool via AP

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“Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” a quote often attributed to philosopher George Santayana, has taken on new relevance in the current debate over critical race theory.

Decrying the theory — which is typically taught in graduate school, not elementary and high schools — has become popular among Republicans. Several states have banned the teaching of the theory, which has incorrectly been portrayed by some, in shorthand, as rewriting history to make white people look bad.

The pushback against critical race theory, in many cases, boils down to a rejection of the idea that some of our laws and practices have been detrimental to people of color, sometimes intentionally. Black veterans, for one example, were largely denied the benefit of the GI bill, leading to a gap in homeownership and college education between white and Black Americans that persists today.

Calling for a fuller look at our country’s history — the good, bad and uncomfortable — is essential to developing policies that, going forward, undo such discrimination and its long-standing impact.

A defense of this viewpoint came from an unexpected source last week.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke passionately last week about the need to understand different viewpoints. Both he and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pushed back strongly against criticism from Republican Florida Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz that the military was teaching critical race theory and punishing personnel who spoke out against it and efforts to address extremism in the military.

“I do think it is important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open minded and to be widely read,” Milley said at the start of his response during an Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Budget last Wednesday. “And, the United States military academy is a university and it is important that we train and we understand, and I want to understand white rage – and I’m white.”

“So, what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?” he asked, pointing his finger on the witness table as he spoke. “What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here. And I do want to analyze that.”

It was an important reminder that seeking a fuller accounting and understanding of American and world history — and recent events — is not a liberal plot, it is not being “woke.” It is essential for our leaders, our military, the American people to understand what is happening in our country and why.

“I’ve read Mao Zedong, I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,” Milley added. “So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding of the country for which we are here to defend?

“And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned or non-commissioned officers of being, quote, woke or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Milley continued as Gaetz shook his head. Milley spoke about the topic when prompted by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, as he was not given time to respond to Gaetz and Waltz directly.

Milley then gave a quick recitation of laws in the United States “that led to a power differential with African-Americans that were three-quarters of a human being [we think he means three-fifths] when this country was formed,” and how it took a civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation to change this and another 100 years to get to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“So, look, I do want to know,” Milley said.

We should all want to know about policies that led to disparities among Americans so we can know how to eliminate them.

That is not radical, that is simply knowing enough to not repeat — or perpetuate — the mistakes of the past.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...