A Military Success Story

A Military Success Story

It is hardly surprising, we think, that in a society overwhelmed by victimhood culture and recency bias people would have the tendency to forget why certain characteristics or behaviors are considered wicked and unacceptable.  Racism, for example, is not a negative attribute because it makes people feel bad or because it could damage self-esteem or even because it causes individuals to “feel” that they have been harmed or subjected to emotional/metaphorical violence.  Rather, racism is depraved because it can and does cause real, tangible harm to specific segments of the broader population.  When we forget this, when we focus on the therapeutic and emotive rather than the concrete, not only do we lose perspective and focus, but we also tend to engage in behaviors that would otherwise be understood as imprudent and dangerous.

The Vietnam War marked the first American military effort in which troops were fully racially integrated.  President Truman technically ended segregation in the military with Executive Order 9981 in 1948, but because of institutional inertia, entrenched behaviors and beliefs, etc. it took until Vietnam for reality to catch up with official policy.

As any schoolboy could tell you – or at least any schoolboy with a rudimentary understanding of the United States during the 1960s – desegregation didn’t exactly benefit black soldiers as much as one might have hoped.  Indeed, black men suffered the deleterious effects of Vietnam at disproportionately high rates:

Between 1966 and 1971, Robert McNamara’s “Project 100,000” sent more than 400,000 American men to combat units in Vietnam.  Roughly 40% of them were black.  Black men made up some 16.3% of the men conscripted into military service.  Black men constituted 23% of the combat troops over the course of the war.  They also made up roughly 50% of the men jailed in military prisons in Vietnam, suffered from disproportionately high rates of PTSD, and had much greater difficulty reintegrating into society.  Additionally – and perhaps most notably, black men were killed at a higher rate than white men in Vietnam, constituting 25% of combat deaths in 1965 alone and nearly 13% in war overall.  All of this despite constituting a mere 11% of the military-eligible population.

In short, while the decade of the 1960s marked tremendous progress for black Americans at home, it was far less “progressive” for black men in the military.

It is difficult to quantify these things, but the presumption is that the disparate fates of young black men and young white men during the Vietnam War were the result of residual operational and extant racism.  That is to say that on the one hand, society as a whole continued to treat blacks differently than whites, which resulted in overtly racist behaviors and decisions causing greater black participation in and death from combat roles in the war.  On the other hand, decades of racially biased housing policies as well as discrepancies in education and wealth put more young black men than white men in harm’s way and unable to benefit from deferments and other escape routes from service in Vietnam.  Whatever the case, as traumatic and destructive as Vietnam was for American society broadly, it was even more so for black America, whose sons suffered disproportionately, specifically because of racism.

By way of contrast, black soldiers, sailors, and Marines constituted roughly 8% of combat death in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and 10% of deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while constituting roughly 13% of the total population.  The difference here reflects not only ongoing societal integration and cohesion in the 55+ years since Vietnam but also a concerted effort on the part of the United States military to ensure that all military personnel are treated fairly and equitably, regardless of race, creed, or color.  The U.S. armed services constitute a significant, if immeasurably incomplete victory for race relations.

Despite this, the question of institutional racism in the military is still of the utmost importance to some observers in the public space.  This is due in part to the fact that racism is always of the utmost importance to some observers in the public space, in part to the fact that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is the first black man to hold that position and has emphasized racial equity ideas goals, and in part because Alabama Senator (and former football coach) Tommy Tuberville said something mind-bogglingly stupid recently, suggesting that he believes Democrats are wrongfully trying to weed out fine, American “white nationalists” from military service.

Facts, of course, are stubborn things and they tell a remarkably positive story in this case.  As of July 2020, “Black people make up 22.7% of enlisted soldiers, 16.5% of warrant officers and 11% of officers on active duty….”   Again, out of a population of roughly 13% these are solid numbers and represent victory (again, albeit incomplete).  The one area in which the black population lags significantly behind the rest of the population is in senior officer levels, where they account for only 6.5% of generals and a significantly lower percentage of 3 and 4-star generals.  There are many reasons for this discrepancy, most notably the military’s relative failure to retain black enlistees and officers as well and for as long as they do whites.  This may or may not be a racial issue, but it is not obviously so.

The other day, Colonel Mark Wooten of the USAF Civil Air Patrol earned his 15 minutes of Warholian fame by saying in a TikTok video that his only bit of advice (presumably to other military officials) would be to “stop hiring middle-aged white people” and insisting that it’s time to “make the rhetoric meet the reality” with respect to diversity and inclusion.  Granted, the clip is out of context and reflects the exact thoughts of one Civil Air Patrol Colonel.  Nevertheless, some observers believe that his thoughts reflect the military’s overarching recruitment policy and its overemphasis on “diversity.”

Although they may be hyperbolic in this reaction, they are not exactly wrong.  The military, for a variety of reasons, is often viewed – by itself, among others – as too white, too straight, too…whatever.  This is, by and large, false.  The numbers cited above show that the American armed services are, almost inarguably, an amazing success story.  They may not reflect the nation’s racial makeup perfectly, but they come pretty darned close.  And certainly, the progress made over the last six decades has been remarkable.

Racism is not a “feeling.”  It is, rather, something more serious and more tangible.  It is considered wicked and undesirable not because of how it makes people feel but because of what it does to them.  And the U.S. military can and should be proud of what it has done to and with the nation’s awesomely diverse population.

Settle down, Colonel Wooten.  Hire the best person for the job – white, black, straight, gay, whatever.  In the military, at least, we’re winning this fight.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.