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Q&A

‘He Just Couldn’t See Past My Color’

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard reflects on a long career battling the institutional racism that infects the military as well as police departments in the United States.

Then-Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard in Iraq
Alongside Iraqi border enforcement, then-head of Iraq Assistance Group Dana Pittard, center, inspects the Iraq-Iran border crossing point of Bashmakh in Kurdistan province on March 3, 2007. THIBAULD MALTERRE/AFP via Getty Images

During a more than three-decade-long military career, Dana J.H. Pittard, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, rose rapidly through the ranks of the Army to become one of the few African Americans to reach the level of two-star general or higher. He fought in Iraq and was awarded four Bronze Stars, one for valor, along with many other decorations, and was deployed in Kosovo. Pittard served as a military aide to President Bill Clinton, carrying the so-called nuclear football, the briefcase that contains codes for launching a nuclear attack, and he was a winner of the Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. As deputy commander for operations in the Middle East, Pittard also oversaw the training of Iraqi forces. And as commander of a 1st Infantry Division brigade in Diyala province, Iraq, he served as the senior officer to Capt. Humayun Khan—the Muslim American officer who was killed by a car bomb in June 2004 and who was later dragged into the spotlight during the 2016 presidential campaign when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked his parents for appearing at the Democratic National Convention.

After President Trump threatened to send the U.S. military into American cities this week, Pittard spoke with Foreign Policy about the protests against the killing of an African American man, for which a Minneapolis police officer now faces murder charges; the perils of politicizing the military; and the racism that dogged his entire military career and, he says, still contaminates many other areas of American life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: After Trump threatened the use of the U.S. military in U.S. cities, and then had demonstrators forcibly removed from around Lafayette Park so he could do a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church along with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, a number of senior retired officers criticized both Trump and Esper, who had referred to the areas of demonstration and rioting as a “battlespace.” Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey wrote on Twitter that “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” And another former chairman, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote that he was “sickened” by the spectacle at the church and that Trump “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.” Do you agree?

Retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard: I think he’s right-on. It really is something when two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—both of whom I’ve worked with—feel a need to speak out that way. We’re at a tough time in our country right now, between the pandemic, the unprecedented unemployment, as well as this bubbling up of something that’s been under the surface for quite a while.

I was watching TV when it happened. I’m not sure if it was tear gas or smoke bombs, but the protesters really appeared to be peaceful. They were moved out of the way for what was a photo-op. Talking about it from the perspective of Secretary Esper, I gather he was there for the initial press conference, but he and Gen. Milley could have stayed back and not crossed the street. I have faith in Secretary Esper and Gen. Milley. I think when they crossed the street, they probably didn’t know. But at some point when they realized it was a photo-op they should have crossed back over the street. It made the military look like a political tool. I believe, however, it’s still apolitical and we haven’t gone down that slippery slope yet.

FP: What about Esper’s statement on Wednesday that he would not invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the U.S. military to be used in domestic crises, after all?

DP: I concur with his statement, he tried to walk back what occurred. There are occasions when we have used it [the Insurrection Act] in consultation with state governors. I don’t believe we’re at that point yet. At this point it is something that law enforcement can handle—and the National Guard, by the way, is trained for civil unrest.

FP: As you just alluded to, there is a long history of police abuse against minorities, especially African American communities. What are your feelings about seeing this issue erupt again now, more than five years after the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri?

DP: I was watching Ferguson from Baghdad while I was leading the initial fight against ISIS back in the summer of 2014. Where do you start when speaking about racism in America? The military is no more than a reflection of the American society that we serve—it’s no better or worse as far as racism. You look at the police, you look at corporate America. We have to do something about institutional racism, period. How we as a nation value people. I think the answer is not only that it shows black lives matter. It’s bigger than police brutality. When I was serving at Fort Monroe, Virginia, the headquarters of TRADOC [U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command], l used to pass a historical marker at Fort Monroe that showed where the first slave ship landed in 1619. … I would run past that almost daily in the morning, and sometimes I would just stop to think about that: This is an issue we Americans have dealt with from the start over 400 years ago.

FP: Indeed, the issue of African Americans facing racism in the military ranks goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when Gen. George Washington hedged over freeing black soldiers. It arose again when blacks fought in the Civil War only to be treated with lesser rights and pay, and after World War II when African American soldiers who had fought fascism returned home to face Jim Crow segregation once again. What kind of racism did you have to face when you were rising in the ranks in the Army?

DP: From a young second lieutenant through the rank of lieutenant colonel I experienced some level of racism that I and so many of my African American peers had to deal with. I remember being in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a great unit in the 1980s. There was this feeling that an African American armored cavalry officer would really not be able to command a complex armored cavalry troop (made up of Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and mortars). It was considered too complex! It was almost like what they used to say about black quarterbacks decades ago in the NFL.

I was the second person of color chosen to command an armored cavalry troop in the 11th ACR in that era … and back then you had to fight for it. I arrived at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport at the same time as a Caucasian classmate of mine from West Point. We were both captains with four years of experience. On the three-hour bus ride to our initial duty station in Bad Kissingen, Germany, my classmate told me that his first assignment as a lieutenant was as an air defense officer and he was concerned that he had very little experience with tanks. I told him that as an armor officer with four years of experience I would assist him in learning about tanks after our arrival.

When we arrived, my Caucasian classmate was the first to meet our new squadron commander, who invited him into his office. I quietly waited outside the office. After about 30 minutes, our squadron commander came out of his office with my Caucasian classmate and told him he would be taking command of a tank company within the next couple of weeks. I thought, that is great, with my experience I will be taking command of a unit soon too! The squadron commander went back into his office. The secretary outside looked at me in shock and embarrassment. She then went into the commander’s office and said, “Sir, there’s another one outside, and he’s a captain.” The squadron commander came to his door, he didn’t ask me into his office, and he said dismissively, “Uh, you will be my new logistics officer. You’ll understudy under the current S4 [the officer managing a battalion’s logistics], and we’ll see how you do there.” … As a captain, I did have enough gumption to say, “Sir, isn’t the current S4 a lieutenant?” He then quickly shot back, “He’s a damn good lieutenant, you can learn a lot from him, Capt. Pittard!” That was October 1985. I eventually watched a series of Caucasian captains come to the unit and get selected for commands. It was clear that I was never going to get a command under this racist commander. It wasn’t until well after he left command in 1986 that with a new squadron commander and regimental commander, Col. Thomas E. White, that I was slated to take command of an armored cavalry troop unit. I would end up commanding three straight company level commands with distinction.

Roll the tape forward to February 1990. I’m receiving the Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award as the most outstanding junior officer out of 300,000 soldiers in Europe from the commander for all of Europe, Gen. John Shalikashvili. As he was pinning a medal on my chest in front of the entire senior American leadership in Europe, he said, “Capt. Pittard, do you have anything to say?” I said, “Yes, I do. I wish my former squadron commander from 1985 could see this.” In some ways I feel sorry for him and other leaders who have this filter where they are not able to use all the talent on their teams. He just couldn’t see past my color.

Then when I was in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment for about a year there was another example. I got on a bus, from headquarters, at night to go to a formal affair with my wife and all the other officers and their spouses. It was dark, and someone said, “Oh, Dana, smile so they could see you.” It was an obvious racial slur, and people on the bus laughed. It was a major in the unit. He outranked me. But after the bus arrived at its destination, I got off and took him to the side and confronted him, along with the squadron commander. I said, “You said that in front of my wife and all the officers in our unit.” He gave a lame apology. Nothing ever happened to him until I filed a formal complaint. He ended up being moved out of the unit.

Then there was the brigade commander who had a painting of Nathan Bedford Forrest in his living room during a dinner with all of our fellow commanders and our spouses at his home. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general in the Civil War who normally ordered his troops to kill all surrendering black Union soldiers. After the war, he was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. I privately pointed this out to my brigade commander. He was enraged that I would even mention it to him. This was in 2000 at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was a full colonel; I was a lieutenant colonel. He eventually took the painting down. I knew that I would probably pay for what I said, but I was lucky that it didn’t appear to hurt my career.

FP: So it is an issue you’ve always had to live with?

DP: Almost every member of my family has served in the military. I realized it was always there. As I got promoted to higher ranks, it was less direct at that point. I don’t remember experiencing racism as a colonel and brigade commander. My time as a colonel was really busy. When deployed I really didn’t see it. As a general officer it was probably there, it was more under-the-table, but I didn’t notice it as much.

But today, I’m aware that when I go into a local grocery store, Kroger’s or wherever you go, there’s sometimes a difference in how you are treated. I’m always concerned about the lives of my two sons being seen as less valuable because they are black men.

FP: What were your thoughts when you learned about the killing of George Floyd and the Minneapolis police officer who is accused of suffocating him?

DP: That was murder. But this is much bigger than police brutality at this point. It is really about institutional racism in our country. It is time for a change. It’s time to stop talking about it. It’s time to do something, perhaps with legislation, but it will take leadership at the national, state, and local levels. Legislation like a revamped Voting Rights Act. Every citizen must have the unimpeded right to vote. We still have issues with voting. Is it right to have corporations with 50 to 100 senior executives and zero people of color? I’m not looking for quotas, but can you incentivize corporate America to ensure that there’s diversity and inclusion in senior management and on boards of directors? Perhaps tax credits can be used. And education must improve in underserved areas of our country. So many things must be done. However, it starts with leaders at all levels and professions who care and have empathy.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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