Like every major institution in American society, the US military has been profoundly shaken by the outpouring of grief and anger precipitated by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In fact, the military has experienced greater disarray than most, given its uncomfortable entanglement in President Donald Trump’s imperious efforts to crush public protests through sheer force. The sight of uniformed military officials accompanying Trump on his now-infamous walk across Lafayette Park for a photo op in front of Saint John’s Church on June 1—preceded by a police and National Guard attack on nonviolent protesters—outraged former generals and admirals who insist on preserving the armed services’ apolitical, nonpartisan status. But the institutional crisis provoked by Floyd’s death reaches much deeper than issues of propriety; it extends to racial divisions within the military itself and the Pentagon’s now endangered efforts to rally Western nations against the supposedly more autocratic regimes in China and Russia.
It did not take long for the internal distress over the military’s involvement in Trump’s authoritarian behavior to make itself heard. On June 2, prominent voices within the Pentagon and among the ranks of retired senior officers chastised Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley for joining the president on that much-maligned walk across Lafayette Park. By their mere presence alongside Trump, it was claimed, Esper and Milley appeared to endorse the brutal use of force against nonviolent protesters as well as his call for the use of active-duty troops to quell urban demonstrations.
As top commanders grappled with the this tumult over the military’s role in curbing domestic disturbances, a second, more fundamental discussion erupted over issues of race and racism within the armed services. Sparking this extraordinary development was an emotional statement posted on Facebook by CMSgt. Kaleth Wright, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in the US Air Force and an African American man.
“I am George Floyd,” he wrote on June 1. “I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice. Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks…I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes.” After expressing his own fears of being slain by white police officers, Wright turned to the heart of his plea: the persistence of racism within the Air Force. “I believe that we have not made much progress in this area of racial injustice and diversity among our ranks,” he claimed. In particular, we must contend “with the Air Force’s own demons,” especially “the racial disparities in military justice and discipline among our youngest Black male Airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks.”
Wright’s statement, coming at a time of a heated national conversation over race and the military’s internal ferment over the possible deployment of active-duty troops in American cities, sent a shock wave through the senior leadership. More than 40 percent of the military’s active-duty and Reserve personnel are people of color, with that percentage noticeably higher in lower ranks and declining as one moves up to senior officer positions. This poses quandaries for the leadership, raises racial tensions within the ranks, causes resentment over the preponderance of white people at senior levels, and increases the likelihood that any black soldiers (and their comrades) sent to subdue riots in black majority cities may feel greater sympathy for the protesters than the police and government officials they’ve been sent to assist.
Scarcely had Wright posted his indictment when his ultimate superior, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, issued a statement of his own, acknowledging the need to combat racism both in society at large and within the military itself. “Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias,” he declared on June 2. In a virtual town hall convened with Wright the next day, Goldfein pledged to address these challenges, focusing in particular on a promotion system that systematically and unfairly denied people of color access to higher ranks.
Prompted by Goldfein’s initiatives, all the other service chiefs and many of their highest-ranking enlisted officers issued similar statements, promising action to ensure greater equity. “Over the past week, the country has suffered an explosion of frustration over the racial divisions that still plague us as Americans,” the Army’s top brass declared on June 3. “And because your Army is a reflection of American society, those divisions live in the Army as well”—as revealing a statement one is likely to find about the military’s long-term dilemma. The other service chiefs made similar comments, and all, like Goldfein, promised to address institutionalized racism within their organizations. On Monday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he was “open” to renaming key Army bases now honoring Confederate generals, including such major installations at Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Hood, Texas.
Just how far these initiatives will lead is anyone’s guess. If the outrage over George Floyd’s slaying continues to roil civil society, it will probably have a significant impact within the armed forces as well. But the US military, it should be noted, has other reasons for continuing to address issues of racism and civil rights: As Washington steps up its efforts to isolate China and Russia in what’s being dubbed a new Cold War, Pentagon officials are speaking ever more forcefully of what they describe as a vast ideological divide between those two countries on one side and the United States and its allies on the other.
At the Munich Security Conference in Germany this past February, for example, Secretary Esper sought to make a sharp distinction between the authoritarian impulses of China’s Communist Party and the liberal values of Western democracies. Speaking of the former, he noted, “History has proven…that authoritarianism breeds corruption, promotes conformity, smothers free thinking, and suppresses freedom.” In contrast, he blithely asserted, “are our values, sense of fairness, and culture of opportunity, which encourage disruption and unleash the very best of human intellect, spirit, and innovation.”
Variations of this claim figure in virtually every statement issued by the Department of the Defense regarding America’s military competition with China and Russia. But how do you convince potential allies of the legitimacy of this cause when people around the world can watch the police in this country attacking American citizens who have been denied exactly those rights?
This is the strategic dilemma posed by the current upheaval in the United States. Until the protesters’ demands are somehow met and US officials can truly claim that this country is committed to the preservation of liberal values, it could prove very difficult to persuade other nations to embrace an American-led drive to contain authoritarian regimes. Indeed, this is the unspoken concern in many of the statements issued by senior military officials in recent days. “Only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality, and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our values,” said Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, on June 3.
Just as the whole of America now faces months and years of reckoning with the consequences of Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the passions it released in American society, so, too, will the US military be forced to confront similar issues. Whether this will result in sweeping institutional reform within the armed forces remains to be seen, but it will surely complicate US efforts to rally a new ideological crusade against Beijing and Moscow.