The U.S. military may have avoided full-scale deployments to American cities, but the recent death of George Floyd has sparked a much deeper debate about race, discrimination and inequality within the ranks and has forced the Pentagon to face head-on its own checkered past.
Top military officials in recent weeks have been unusually blunt and introspective in their conversations about the role race plays in the armed forces, drawing fresh attention to the lack of high-ranking black officers across the services and calling for investigations into how and why qualified minority service members are often passed over in favor of their white peers.
Even though the military at times has been in the vanguard of the nation’s push for equal rights and racial equality, officials acknowledge the reckoning is long overdue. Even before the Tuskegee Airmen and countless other units bravely fought in World War II but returned home to Jim Crow, the military has struggled to achieve true equality and guarantee black men and women a fair chance to climb the ladder.
Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis last month thrust that kind of stubborn racial discrimination into the spotlight once again, both inside the military and across American society as a whole.
President Trump considered using active-duty forces to quell riots that swept parts of the country after Floyd’s death, but that plan was abandoned in the face of clear opposition from the Pentagon. The military has emerged from the crisis with what appears to be an unprecedented commitment to soul-searching.
“While the military sets an example for civil society through our inclusiveness, we too have not come far enough. We all need to do better,” Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week during a speech to the graduating class at National Defense University. “We cannot afford to marginalize large portions of our potential talent pool or alienate certain demographic groups.
Of the armed forces, Gen. Milley said, “we need all the talent that American society can muster. Our responsibility as military leaders is to ensure that each and every one of our service members is treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and each of them is given equal opportunity to excel.”
Blacks constitute about 16% of the active-duty military as a whole, according to 2017 figures compiled by the Pew Research Center, and their participation has been on an upward trajectory since the turn of the century.
But their representation at the highest levels of the armed forces is far from equal. A 2018 Defense Department demographic study found that less than 9% of the officer corps is black.
In his address, Gen. Milley cited a number of statistics that should be deeply troubling to top leaders in the Pentagon: Just 7% of flag and general officers are black; the Navy and Marine Corps have no black generals above the two-star level; and the Army has just one black four-star general.
Gen. Colin Powell once served as Joint Chiefs chairman, and later as the nation’s first black secretary of state, but no military service has ever had a black chief. That, however, will soon change.
In a resounding 98-0 vote, the Senate last week confirmed Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. to serve as Air Force chief of staff. He will be sworn in this summer.
Before his confirmation, Gen. Brown spoke at length about the reaction to Floyd’s death and how it led him to reflect on his own 36-year career in the military.
“I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality,” he said. In many high-ranking meetings he attended over his career, he said, he was the only black officer in the room.
The military, like much of America, is seeking paths that move beyond simple rhetoric and toward concrete action.
Just as the Senate was confirming Gen. Brown, outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and other officials directed the Air Force inspector general to launch a sweeping review of “military discipline and developmental opportunities” for black men and women in the service.
“We are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias,” said Gen. Goldfein, echoing other service leaders who said they would undertake the tough work necessary to root out racism. “We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice. We will not shy away from this. As leaders and as Airmen, we will own our part and confront it head-on.”
Action vs. symbolism
Beyond systemic reforms, the military is moving — along with local and state governments, sports leagues such as NASCAR and other corners of society — to ban the use of the Confederate flag and images.
The Navy and Marine Corps in recent weeks have announced plans to bar the use of the flag on ships, vehicles and elsewhere across the services.
But that reform, some retired officers say, cannot become the military’s sole focus. They argue that without deeper changes, simply barring the Confederate flag will mean little.
“Throwing a statue into the water is not going to do anything different about the history of how that statue was made in the first place,” said retired Maj. Gen. Rosetta Burke, president of the National Association of Black Military Women who served in the Army Reserve for more than three decades.
“We do a lot of talking and a lot of reacting. We should think about what we’re doing and think about how we’re doing it to bring about the correct change,” she told The Washington Times in an interview last week. “There are a lot of things that need to be systemically looked at in terms of people in jobs now who want to get ahead … and to not be looked at by the color of their skin or the skirt they may wear.”
U.S. commanders in South Korea this month organized the first forum of its kind to discuss racial issues, including what some minority service men and women say is unequal treatment in military justice cases.
“I also want to be clear about this: There is zero room, zero, for racism and bigotry and hate in the military,” Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told the two-hour town hall gathering, according to a report in Stars and Stripes.
Some black participants in the forum said they were deeply affected by Floyd’s death and subsequent nationwide protests, and that the forum was the first chance they had to speak openly about their concerns while in uniform.
“I’m not an emotional person, but over the past couple weeks I’ve been a different person,” Army Lt. Col. Nick Williams told the gathering, according to the Stars and Stripes account.
“It changed me,” Col. Williams said. “I also started feeling disappointed because in the Army we’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to be a brotherhood.”
But movement on the Confederate symbolism issue has put the military on a collision course with Mr. Trump. Amid growing calls to abolish all use of Confederate symbolism, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said last week that he is open to removing the names of Confederate generals from 10 Army bases across the country. It was a change from the Army’s long-standing position.
A key Senate committee with a Republican majority last week endorsed a plan to study the issue and recommend changes, but Mr. Trump made clear that he would stand in the way.
“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter post last week. The message caught Pentagon leaders by surprise. “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. … Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Despite that clear disagreement with military leadership, the president has embraced the armed forces’ role in helping the nation find its way through the crisis and make lasting progress.
“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment,” the president said during a commencement address Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. “When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal.”
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