“We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Martin Luther King, Jr

Yesterday was Memorial Day.  I am a veteran.  I never deployed, but I retired after 20 years.  Hopefully that establishes some personal credibility with those of you who like personal attacks.  Or maybe its ammunition—I don’t know and I don’t care. 

Given the occasion, let’s talk about racism in the military.

We have a pretty good military.  Our self-discipline is the envy of nations across the globe.  Our integrity is unimpeachable.  Our minds are tough, our bodies tougher.  We have the nation’s respect and we earn it, over and over again, day in and day out.

We are proud of our diversity.  We integrated well before the public at large, and we did it right.  We did it by fiat.  We did not ask permission.  We simply said it will be done and it was done.  People who did not like answering to Black men had to get out, no discussion, no debate.

The military is a wonderful example of the benefits of diversity.  It accepts every healthy volunteer, regardless of ethnicity, national origin, or even immigration status.  It is stronger because of it.  Colin Powell is only one example of how strong the military can be when it ignores things that don’t matter (such as race) and focuses on promoting those that exhibit the things that really matter (personal integrity, leadership, scholarship, vision). 

But the military is still a part of society.  It can be just as ignorant, just as racist. 

Every quarter of every year, for twenty years, I saw a slide show required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  It showed discipline trends across the service.  How many courts-martial.  How many non-judicial punishments.  By installation.  By mid-level headquarters.  By type.  By race.

And there were two revelatory things about the slides on race.  First, without fail, they showed a disproportionate number of charges and convictions against Black men.  Second, without fail, the response from the audience was, “Next slide.”  No discussion, no comment.  Next slide.

What does this mean?  Do the statistics lie?  Does the military expect Black men to commit more crimes than others?  Does the military think Black men are more dangerous than others?  That they deserve greater punishment?  That nothing can be done about this?  That this is a bigger problem than even our military can solve?  Or that it just doesn’t matter? 

Here’s one possibility.  Follow me here:  The military hates dissent.  Hates it.  It is the antithesis of a disciplined military.  If I am in command and I tell you to take that hill, you take it.  You must take it even if you know you will die taking it.  You are not to stand around and debate it.  The hill is there. You’ve been trained to take it.  That training did not allow for debate.  The training told you when I said to take the hill you were to take it.  You are not to think of the pros and cons, weigh the costs and benefits or analyze the alternatives.  You were born only to do this thing I am telling you to do right now.  You must take the hill.  The hill was created only for you to take it.  It is before you now for the sole purpose of being taken.

This sort of thinking worked wonderfully for the initial stages of integration.  The military integrated and never looked back.  But it failed to look forward into the following stages of integration.  It failed to provide itself with any means for assessing progress beyond that initial stage. 

And that’s where it slipped.  That’s where it allowed incarceration to become the next form of suppression.  It fails to question itself.  There is a hill that needs to be taken.  It is begging to be taken.  They know how to take it—they’ve taken it before.  It’s higher than the one they just crossed.  It will give them the same rewards they got with the last hill—they’ll be a stronger military.  They’ll be examples to the rest of society. 

And yet for the same reasons integration succeeded it has stalled.  Because no one was allowed to question integration.  And now no one is allowed to question the leader who says, “Next slide.”

Well, I’m questioning it.  Military, examine the problem.  See that commanders and others will look at the Black man who used cocaine and the White man who used heroin and decide that cocaine is a more dangerous substance, the Black man deserving of greater punishment.  The Black man will get jail time.  The White man will get treatment or correctional custody, with some chance at rehabilitation. 

You know this is a problem.  Let’s talk about it.  You’ve seen that Black men contribute a great deal to the success of the military—they’ve done this since the Revolutionary War.  You know they are worth saving.  You’ve seen it.  Now address the problem.  See the hill in front of you.  Do some recon on it, and then take it.  You have experts.  Give them voice.  There are those outside the military, too, who would be willing to help.  Turn to them. 

Show us real change.  The solution is within your grasp.  You are closer than any other organization in the nation.  You have the tools to do it.  Lead by example.

Suggested Reading:

It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell

20th Century Guide to the Tuskegee Airmen, Air Force Integration, Blacks in the Army Air Forces in World War II, Racial Segregation and Discrimination, … Race Relations in the Air Force by Air University Press


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