US Military Confronts Its Own Racial Reckoning

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Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. (Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. (Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

The U.S. military is one of the many institutions facing the nation's reckoning on racial injustice.

James Stavridis, retired Navy admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander, says it’s time for all branches of the military to rename bases that honor Confederate officers and ban public displays of the Confederate flag.

While he points out how far the military has come since an executive order from President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, he says there’s still a long way to go.

“I think the services are paying attention to this issue,” he says. “But we still have instances of racism. We still have pockets of concern around the military. We're gonna be working at it like everybody else for a long time to come.”

To get more Black and Latino service members to four and five-star rankings, more mentorship is needed within the organization, he says.

Stavridis believes the U.S. military can address racism while also dealing with other threats including the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have leaders who are perfectly capable of focusing on their warfighting responsibilities at the same time that they focus on taking care of the force,” he says. “We have the leaders who can do both.”

Interview Highlights

On the issue of racism in the military

“I think we have got plenty of work to do, but we've come a long way in the military. And if you go back to our period of time in the Second World War, we still had a very much segregated military, utterly segregated. We turned that corner I think a little before the rest of the country. By the ‘60s, we are a desegregated organization. Today, we have four-star African Americans. We have four-star Latinos. Within the uniformed military, we've made a lot of progress. The Navy just named its newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after an African American former cook named Doris Miller, who won the Navy Cross at the Battle of Pearl Harbor, just as an example.”

On the difficulty of banning the Confederate flag in the military

“It will not be hard at all. First of all, in my career for 35 plus years, I just can't remember seeing the stars and bars, so to speak, the flag, the Dixie flag up anywhere. So I don't think it's a big deal. But to my earlier comment of pockets of racism, I think there is a strain of white nationalism that runs through pockets of the military. You see that in polling data that the Military Times does, for example. So, again, we've got work to do, but this is a layup. This is a no-brainer to get rid of the Confederate flag. And I think you'll see not only the Navy, I think you'll see the entire Department of Defense do that in the next several months.”

On if service members are confused by military generals calling for unity while President Trump stokes racial divisions

“I think it is, and I think it's deeply unfortunate. And the one thing Americans historically have looked to the presidency for is unification is a leader who can transcend the moment. Those are the great presidents. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt leading us through the Great Depression, coming out of, by the way, the Spanish influenza into the Great Depression. And as he becomes president and through the Second World War, he brought the nation together. That's the kind of president we need.”

On whether it will be difficult to rename military bases named after Confederate generals

“Not in the least. And again, I think this is a layup. If you look at it as Gen. [David H.] Berger said it, we're in the military. Ultimately, we're an organization that values above everything else teamwork, working together. I mean, this is 1.2 million people who get up in the morning and put on the same outfit. They call them uniforms because we want to be together. We want to even look like each other.

“So in a case like this, these Confederate bases are not unifying us because significant members of our force find it offensive. And frankly, the idea that we would have bases named after generals who fought against the United States of America, we certainly don't have a base named after Gen. Erwin Rommel, who is the great Nazi general in the Second World War. He was a terrific general, an exceptional warfighter. We're not going to name a base after him because he's a great warfighter. I've heard that argument put forward in terms of having bases named after Lee or [Braxton] Bragg or Stonewall Jackson. It's a mistake and it's a mistake that we can correct. And the Congress sees it, by the way, on both sides of the aisle and has sent the president a defense bill that is going to help the military unname those bases. It's time to do that.”

On the lack of diversity among military leadership

“We need to do better. And this is something I mentioned before at moving along our minorities. It's not just African Americans. It's our Latinos who represent 15% of the United States population, more than the African American population. And we need to be looking out for our Asian population as well. All of these minorities, in my view, need to be better represented. The way to do that is to get them into the mid-career jobs that lead to those flag ranks. That has to happen as a result of mentorship, just as it does in the civilian world, just as it does in the academic setting. When I was dean at the Fletcher School, you have to work hard to get people in position in the middle of their careers so that they can then step up to those leadership roles later on. Mentorship is the key.”

On if the military has the bandwidth to address racism while also dealing with other existing threats

“Yes, the military has the ability to do this because these are fundamentally different tasks and different muscle movements, if you will. The skill sets and the work that we do in order to prepare to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations. That's what the law charges the U.S. military with doing the work to do that is a discrete set of tactics, techniques, procedures. Alongside that, we're running a big [human resources] department, if you will, 1.2 million people. But we have specialists who do that… And throughout the course of my career, I've seen so many of our best leaders are the best warfighters, but they're also the ones who take the time to mentor people and bring along others. I'll give you a practical example who you will know, and that's Gen. Colin Powell. He's someone who was a terrific combat leader, who also was an instinctive mentor. And I was lucky enough to be someone who was mentored by Colin Powell that helped me in my career.”

On the biggest threat to the U.S. right now

“I will surprise you, perhaps. But the thing that kept me awake at night when I, a supreme allied commander of NATO, was not Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, piracy, Russia, it was cyber. Just as we have been surprised at our vulnerability to this pandemic, we are quite vulnerable and not thinking enough about how vulnerable our cyber systems are. And they touch everything that we do and we are vulnerable there. I don't think we're paying enough attention exactly as we did not pay sufficient attention to the pandemic. We are not paying enough attention to the cyber threat.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 9, 2020.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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