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White supremacists endanger the military on the battlefield

“African Americans in Defense of Our Nation” is the subject of a permanent Pentagon exhibit that lines one of its corridors, not far from the Secretary of Defense’s office. The exhibit notes that Blacks have fought for America even before it formally came into being in 1776, and have continued to do so in all wars since the Revolution. It highlights William H. Carney, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics during the Civil War; he was the first Black to be granted America’s highest military decoration. The exhibit also focuses on African Americans who became general and flag officers, from Benjamin O. Davis Sr. through Colin Powell.

At the same time, bigotry has never been too far below the surface in America’s military. Blacks fought in separate units until Harry Truman desegregated the forces in 1948. Racism never ended at that point; it simply went underground. And sometimes it re-emerged above ground, notably during the Vietnam War, when a race riot broke out in July 1969 at Camp Lejeune and another exploded in October 1972 onboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

In the wake of these riots and other lesser incidents, the military took steps that were meant to ease tensions and eliminate racism throughout the ranks. It did not succeed. Many senior Black, Hispanic and Jewish officers can recount their confronting racial or ethnic or religious or hatred, even as they rose to the top, as did Secretary of Defense-designate Gen. Lloyd Austin and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown. White supremacy groups have found far too many followers among both those in uniform and retirees, as the Jan. 6 insurrection amply demonstrated. They have also encouraged their members to join the military specifically to gain instruction in combat arms. And veterans were far too active among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Unit cohesion is critical to winning wars; weapons alone are simply not enough to determine the outcome of a battle. With people of color constituting over 40 percent of the men and women currently in uniform, eliminating from the ranks racial, ethnic and religious hatred and the White supremacists who stoke it is not a “nice to have.” It is critical if America is to win its wars. The bigotry — and, for that matter, the sexism — that minorities and women confront, whether violent or not, and even if it is subtle, undermines their morale and, as a consequence, the cohesion of those units of which they are a vital part.

The Defense Department, with congressional support, at last has begun to accelerate its efforts to combat white supremacy among the troops. In December, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, himself a veteran, ordered a review of the department’s policies on extremist activities among service members and an update of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to address extremist behavior.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which passed in early January after Congress overrode President Trump’s veto, created a chief diversity officer for the Department of Defense and senior advisers for diversity and inclusion for each military service and the Coast Guard. It also established the new post of Deputy Inspector General for Diversity and Inclusion and Supremacist, Extremism and Criminal Gang Activity to supervise audits and investigations regarding diversity and inclusion in order to prevent and respond to supremacist, extremist and criminal gang activity by military personnel.

Finally, every one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed an extraordinary letter that addressed the events of Jan. 6 and pointedly stated that “any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.” Should Lloyd Austin be confirmed, he, too, will have the opportunity to authorize additional steps to eradicate white supremacy from the ranks of the military.

It remains to be seen whether these collective efforts will succeed, as they surely must. The United States confronts serious security challenges from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as ongoing threats from Islamic jihadists. It is, therefore, crucial that the Department of Defense, once and for all, contain — if not eliminate — the longstanding cancer that is white supremacy, which threatens to undermine troop morale, unit cohesion and military proficiency on the battlefield.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Colin Powell Department of Defense Racism US armed forces White supremacy

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