Best Defense

Don’t blame my Army for the lack of black officers in combat commands

By Petronius Arbiter Best Defense guest columnist It is a well-known fact that the Army has struggled for decades trying to get more black officers to reach the highest ranks of the Army and especially the combat arms. This should be a surprise to no one. But don’t go blaming the Army for the inability ...

via Flickr/DoD
via Flickr/DoD

By Petronius Arbiter

Best Defense guest columnist

It is a well-known fact that the Army has struggled for decades trying to get more black officers to reach the highest ranks of the Army and especially the combat arms. This should be a surprise to no one.

But don’t go blaming the Army for the inability to solve this issue. This is a multi-faceted problem and one which must be solved involving all aspects of American society: Army, academia, family, and community leadership.

In trying to resolve this issue the Army has gone through excruciating efforts to recruit more black officers into the combat arms. The Army has not failed, but has not made much progress. Previously, while I was in a position to observe the branch assignments of one of the Army’s largest commissioning sources, it was apparent to me that there was little interest from the majority of minority men in going into the combat arms. In particular, black me were significantly underrepresented in the infantry, armor and field artillery branches. Correspondingly, the ADA, signal and logistics branches were overrepresented. As for explanations, none could be found.

In a previous life I was in a position to observe the intake of initial-entry soldiers into the Army. It became apparent rapidly that minorities of all types and black soldiers, in particular, were underrepresented in combat arms. We instituted an analysis of why and obtained no cogent results. Often we asked members of high-school academia how we could get more black men to enlist for the combat arms. They had no answer. We asked them why they thought young black men were not coming into the combat arms and their best guess, and only a guess, was that the community was sending them to where they could best obtain a skill transferrable to civilian life. Being a member of rifle squad, an M1 tank gunner, or a gunner on an M198 crew did not transfer well to civilian life, according to them.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) (circa 2009-2011) was tasked to examine this issue. You would have thought that this commission, made up mostly of active and retired black flag officers, other minorities, and women, would have taken it on. They seemed much more concerned with the issue of how to make more women four-star flag officers. They addressed the issue, scrutinized it, but admitted they had no solution. They also acknowledged that despite a higher attrition rate on black junior officers in the Army, there was no institutional bias that could account for the higher attrition. The MLDC actually just left this issue hanging like a chad in an election and continued to pursue their main purpose; finding a way to make more women senior flag officers.

Now, if you think the Army is the only service with this issue, think again. The Marine Corps has a similar issue with its combat arms, and the Air Force and Navy have the same difficulty, but within their own organizational structure.

But the issue of a lack of black senior leaders is probably greatest in the U.S. Special Forces. It is rare to see a black NCO or officer in the U.S. Army’s Ranger Regiment. It is rarer to see them in the U.S. Army Special Forces. I can only remember one black senior officer in U.S. Army Special Forces at colonel or higher. There may have been more, but it is doubtful there have been many. I can’t speak to the SEAL community with any real credibility, but I would be willing to bet they have at least as great a void of black representation as do the Army’s Special Forces, and I would bet this is a similar area of concern for AFSOC and MARSOC.

As for solutions, I doubt there are many, if any, or the Army would have solved this 40 years ago. For sure, forced appointment to the combat arms of black junior officers will only be counterproductive. Such an action will probably result in dissatisfied officers who will either attrite themselves by going into another branch, the Acquisition Corps, or leave the Army — or even worse, be forced to leave the Army. Being a professional and good combat arms leader is a choosing and a calling, not a result of a draft.

Over the years I have observed that the opportunity for black officers who obtain the rank of colonel in the combat arms to make general officer is significantly higher than that of their peers. So, maybe the approach to be made by the Army should be: If you want to be a field marshal, go into the combat arms. However, it is doubtful that approach will be productive in terms of increased unit effectiveness or combat readiness.

My take on this is that the Army is just going to have to endure with whatever happens. It is highly doubtful anything can be done to produce more black or other minority officers in combat arms. And guess what? The same issue, but probably on a greater scale, is going to occur with women, should the decision be made to go that direction.

"Petronius Arbiter" is a retired soldier who wore the uniform for over 34 years.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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