The US army’s top officer defended the teaching of critical race theory at the force’s prestigious academy as he hit back at the suggestion the military has become "woke".

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not endorse the ideology, which has become a flashpoint for conservatives, but said it was vital for current and future military leaders to understand divisions within the country they represent.

"What is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?" he said during an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee.

The military chief was responding to Republican congressmen Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz, who have voiced concerns about critical race theory, which posits that racism is systemic in American society and its institutions, not isolated to individuals with prejudices.

The issue has become a focal point in the country’s culture wars in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, with critics suggesting the teaching is divisive and prejudicial.

Strong reaction from Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley on the issue of critical race theory before House Armed Services.

"I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our noncommisioned officers of being quote 'woke'"

— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) June 23, 2021

Mr Waltz, a former Army Green Beret, produced a letter from the elite US Military Academy West Point acknowledging that critical race theory was included on the syllabus.

Mr Waltz said cadets and soldiers had voiced "alarm… about how divisive this teaching is", adding it was rooted in Marxism.

In response, Gen Milley said: "I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read.

"I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a Communist."

"And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, our noncommissioned officers, of being ‘woke’ or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there."

"Woke" is a term used to describe awareness of social injustice and is frequently used by conservatives to disparage people who feign moral superiority or are easily offended.

The culture war has spawned a larger national debate over the treatment of prominent historical figures as well as how US history more broadly is taught in schools.

In recent months, Republican lawmakers have proposed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory or similar teachings around racial sensitivity.

During his appearance at the Capitol, Gen Milley suggested the January 6 attack on the building underscored the importance of understanding the driving forces behind the culture war,  including those who stormed Congress.

"I want to understand white rage, and I’m white and I want to understand it," he said.

"What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? I want to find that out."

Our military leadership denied teaching Critical Race Theory…

…right before admitting to teaching Critical Race Theory…

…and then defending Critical Race Theory.

Now, we must legislatively prohibit CRT to protect our service members from this hate.

— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 23, 2021

Earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first African American to hold the role, rebuffed a question from Mr Gaetz, who claimed that military members complain to him about critical race theory being taught during training.

"Thanks for your anecdotal input," he responded. "But I would say that I’ve gotten ten times that amount of input, 50 times that amount of input, on the other side that has said, ‘We’re glad to have had the ability to have a conversation without ourselves and our leadership.’"

“We do not embrace critical race theory and I think that’s a spurious conversation,” he continued. “We are focused on extremist behaviours, and not ideology.”  

Following the hearing, Mr Gaetz said: "we must legislatively prohibit CRT to protect our service members from this hate".