On this Veterans Day, the nation would do well to heed retired military leaders who are alarmed by the Supreme Court’s apparent willingness to jeopardize U.S. national security in its eagerness to trample decades of precedent. Just last week the Supreme Court’s conservative majority indicated openness to banning any consideration of race in college admissions as a means to achieving a diverse student body.
“I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means,” said Justice Clarence Thomas, a longtime critic of affirmative action, during oral arguments on a pair of challenges to race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Putting aside the apparent cluelessness of just the second Black Justice to sit on the Supreme Court, an extraordinary friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case by former senior military leaders aptly described the meaning of diversity by noting its former absence in the U.S. officer corps.
“History has shown that placing a diverse Armed Forces under the command of a homogenous leadership is a recipe for internal resentment, discord and violence,” wrote the group, which includes four former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, six former superintendents of the service academies, and 17 retired four-star flag officers. Because most uniformed officers come from ROTC and the service academies that use race as one consideration in admissions, they noted, “the diversity of these institutions and programs directly impacts the diversity of our military’s leadership.”
The history of internal discord and violence that the group references, which many of them can remember firsthand, is the Vietnam War and its dismal aftermath. That history includes a young Army lieutenant and recent graduate of a de facto segregated West Point (where Black enrollment was less than one percent) who took command of a platoon in Pleiku province, South Vietnam, in 1971. As the incident was described to me by the late Lt. Gen. William McCaffrey, the second-in-command of troops in Vietnam at the time who investigated the incident, the green officer ordered some of his recalcitrant troops to join a unit on patrol, or else spend time in the stockade. Instead, four Black enlisted soldiers shouldered their weapons and gunned the lieutenant down in front of the entire platoon.
Such “fraggings” were just one insidious side effect of the acute racial tensions, drug use, and insubordination that beset the U.S. military in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. As the U.S. military began its gradual withdrawal from a losing war in Vietnam in the years between 1968 and 1972, the incidence of enlisted men trying to murder their officers with “fragmentation” grenades or other means increased dramatically. In all there were an estimated 830 actual and suspected such “fraggings” in Vietnam, with the number peaking at 333 in 1971. Scores of officers were murdered.
The costs of having an overwhelmingly white officer corps commanding troops in which African Americans were disproportionately fighting and dying had come due. During the Vietnam-era draft, Blacks made up more than 25 percent of some high-risk elite Army units and frontline Marine companies. According to the amicus brief recently filed by the retired senior military leaders, in 1969 and 1970 the Army catalogued more than 300 race-related disturbances, resulting in the deaths of 71 American troops. Racial tensions reached such a fever pitch that some bases were all but separated into armed camps of “bloods” and “whites.” Many white officers at the time have told me that they were afraid to inspect their own barracks without carrying a sidearm.
One notable officer who lived through the Army’s racial crisis was the late general Colin Powell, who would advance to become the nation’s first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position in the U.S. military. The son of Jamaican immigrants and a child of Harlem and the South Bronx, Powell was no stranger to racism and institutional bias. In an interview, he once told me of being turned away at a hamburger joint in Columbus, Georgia, back in the early 1960s, when he was stationed at Fort Benning. Negroes, he was told, had to use the back door.
While Powell was in Vietnam on his first tour in 1963, his wife and baby daughter had stayed with his in-laws in Birmingham, Alabama, where white supremacist Bull Connor was turning cattle-prod-wielding cops and attack dogs loose on civil rights marchers. Powell was on his second tour in Vietnam in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, unleashing a tide of frustration and racial rage in the enlisted ranks. In South Korea in the early 1970s, he commanded a battalion in a division nearly paralyzed by racial tensions. At the time Powell was approached by anxious white counterparts asking him what to do, as if the only Black officer in their midst somehow had an easy answer to the plague of institutional racism.
The U.S. military has always held up a mirror to the society it serves, reflecting America’s strengths but also revealing its blemishes. In response to the racial crisis of the Vietnam era, the armed services concluded that they must embrace diversity in their officer corps as a national-security imperative, and they committed to race-conscious affirmative action in the service academies and ROTC programs as a key tool in trying to achieve that objective.
Even with affirmative action, the U.S. military’s record is far from perfect. In 2021, for instance, only two of the U.S. military’s 41 four-star flag officers were Black. However, the fact that the current entering West Point class of cadets is 12 percent African American, and the officer corps is now 9 percent Black, represents unmistakable and hard-won progress.
As did Powell’s ascendance to the highest echelons of the U.S. government, including becoming the first-ever Black Secretary of State and garnering the kind of respect due to the George Catlett Marshall of his generation of officers. It thus carried weight in 2003 when then-Secretary of State Powell broke ranks with the White House and his boss, former President George W. Bush, by coming to the defense of affirmative action in the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case in which the Supreme Court reinforced the precedent that race could be considered in college admissions.
“I’m a strong believer in affirmative action,” Powell said at the time, noting that he had benefited from it. “I wish it was possible for everything to be race-neutral in this country, but I’m afraid we’re not yet at that point where things are race neutral.”
Nor are we a “race-neutral” country today. Ironically, with the U.S. military once again coping with the repercussions of a chaotic withdrawal from another losing war, and racial tensions spiked by the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the Supreme Court has chosen this moment to seriously consider overturning the precedent confirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger.
Before the justices reach their fateful decision and risk repeating historic folly, they would do well to at least consider the words of one Lila Holley, a Black former Army chief warrant officer, who noted that virtually all of the portraits of leaders of the armed forces over the past century displayed on the walls of the Pentagon’s E-ring are of white men.
“I walk their halls, and nobody on their wall looks like me,” Holley told New York Times defense reporter Helene Cooper last year. Until she gets to the one portrait that stands out. “I exhale when I see Colin Powell.”
That’s a clue, Justice Thomas, to the power of diversity.
James Kitfield is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a three-time recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He is author of “Prodigal Soldiers: How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War”(Simon & Schuster).