G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry rattled off an open letter to Chief Justice John Roberts in which she asserts that ending affirmative action makes America less secure.
According to their brief, between 1967 and 1991, as a result of an aggressive policy of affirmative action, the Pentagon nearly quadrupled minority representation among its commissioned officers. Compared to the private sector where less than 2% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are African American, the U.S. Army can boast that 8% of active duty officers are black. But the success of military affirmative action isn’t just cosmetic. It is critical. Mission-critical.
The brief points out that any ruling in the University of Texas case could have an impact beyond academia–and that without affirmative action–the military could struggle to develop a diverse officer corps, saying “a highly qualified and racially diverse officer corps is not a lofty ideal. It is a mission-critical national security interest.” Mr. Chief Justice, 27 United States military generals and admirals are trying to tell you something essential about affirmative action–it makes us safer.
And what is the mechanism whereby diversity improves national security? From a 2003 edition of the Christian Science Monitor:
“In the 1960s and 1970s, the stark disparity between the racial composition of the rank and file and that of the officer corps fueled a breakdown of order that endangered the military’s ability to fulfill its missions.”
Among those who signed the brief were: three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (Gen. John Shalikashvili, Gen. Henry Shelton, and Adm. William Crowe), former superintendents of the US military and Air Force academies, and 11 retired four-star generals (including Norman Schwarzkopf and Anthony Zinni).
They witnessed the effect that an overwhelmingly white officer corps has on rank-and-file morale – and they consider it a threat to the military’s ability to defend the nation.
Because of the success of affirmative action in the military, it is easy to forget just how segregated the officer corps once was. In 1968, African-American enrollment at West Point and Annapolis was less than 1 percent; as late as 1973, just 2.8 percent of all military officers were African-American. By contrast, during that period, African-Americans constituted as much as 17 percent of the rank and file.
In Vietnam, the consequences of this de facto segregation were devastating. Affirmative action was the only solution. Beginning in the late 1960s, the military aggressively moved to integrate its officer corps. As one Pentagon official cited in the brief put it, “Doing affirmative action the right way is deadly serious for us – people’s lives depend on it.”
Comparing Vietnam to the modern military seems wrong-headed, and it still has little to do with academic affirmative action unless you want to argue that granting more BAs to blacks will stave off a Django Unchained episode. First and foremost was the resentment at being forced to fight a war in the first place. That compounded, a la Ali, on the racial element – brown and black Americans fighting brown strangers.
But just playing the same game as Harris-Perry and the various friend-of-the-court filers, it is OK to admit that tribalistic preferences are important whenever it is black rank-and-file who feel animosity towards whites at the top. Otherwise tribalism is known by the name granted by the clerisy: “racism”.
Another issue here is that the military is moving away from brawn and towards brains. Perhaps affirmative action won’t have a meaningful impact on the ability to marshal brain power for the purposes of national security, but an affirmative action policy will decrease the overall IQ of the pool of military commanders. Perhaps we can afford that deadweight loss. Our huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and tactical systems allows us lots of room for error.