Document created: 24 August 04
Air University Review, September-October 1970

A Look at Racial Polarity in the Armed Forces

Major George M. Boyd

At present, many problems confront the military establishment and the nation. In my view, the most pressing national problems are the defense of the nation the feeding of the poor, and the upgrading of minority citizens. Note the order of priority, national defense being first. While it is obvious that we have defended the nation in the past and shall always continue to do so, we have not always applied a commensurate effort to feeding the poor and upgrading minority groups. These latter two problems are compounded by the great number of people involved: statistics indicate that there are more poor people in the United States today than ever before.

Where does the military stand on these subjects? First, the Department of Defense has the most equitable policy of any agency within the government. Remaining vestiges of discrimination are rapidly being eliminated. But the Defense Department has primary responsibilities that prevent its taking a more active role in general social improvement. As a consumer of national resources itself, it is hard pressed to contribute substantially to poverty programs, civil rights moves, or other internal civic actions. There is one notable exception: law and order. The Department of Defense is called upon to assist municipal and state governments in the maintenance and restoration of law and order. This is a proper role for the military and includes helping in rescue operations, disasters, and other emergencies.

Its good record and past achievements aside, the military is directly involved with existing problems facing the nation. In fact, some aspects of those problems exist within the services. In a recent statement, L. Howard Bennett, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Rights, said:

There are problems within the military that we must tackle . . . but there is a new dimension to the recent troubles. They represent a spill-over from the problems of the civilian community. . . .1

As a direct result of the national urban crisis, the military is faced with the problems of racial conflict or, to be more specific, the polarity of races. The most serious aspect is that of black versus white. The blacks have been promised equality for many years; now they demand more positive action toward fulfillment of these promises. Their cry is not without justification. Growing unrest has been evident in the military among the younger troops, not all of them black. This is important to note, since it indicates that many people are aware of social injustices to both black and white.

basic minority problem

Some idea of the magnitude of the problem facing the minority group may be gained from the accompanying comparison of incomes of the minority and majority groups based on education levels (Figure 1). It is apparent that the minority group in the United States is far behind. Knowing the problem should be an incentive to find an equitable solution. This is not to suggest that we in the service should compromise our responsibility to our mission. However, just as we need intelligence to carry out a combat operation, we need to know the problems of the minority group if we are to cope with them in terms of compatible military environmental conditions.

Figure 1. Statistics on median family incomes in 1966, by years of school completed and color. (From Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1968)

Figure 1. Statistics on median family incomes in 1966, by years of school completed and color. (From Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1968)

There is one thing “going for us” in the military. It may not seem important, but persons of equal grade receive equal pay. This is not necessarily true in civilian life. With an “edge” like that, our problems are not nearly as acute as those in the civilian community. Because of this edge, the military has traditionally been an attractive vocation for minority group members. The income, combined with the fair play and integration within the armed forces, has long made the military uniform a status symbol for members of the minority.

new attitudes

In recent years, however, there has been a decided change in attitudes of the minority groups toward the military services. For example, one black officer is reported to be resigning his commission because of alleged discriminatory policies and practices. This is a serious matter. The cost of his West Point training is one obvious consideration; but the fact that racial polarity has caused an officer of the minority group to take such a drastic step cannot be ignored. The following is an extract from a newspaper interview:

. . . the Air Force has been unfair to me personally and to Negroes in general . . . it will be up to the Air Force whether it accepts or rejects my resignation . . . I don’t expect any complications, I think they will be glad to get rid of me . . . the Air Force is not sensitive to the problems of Negro officers and men . . . I have decided to give up 14 years of service which I began as a cadet at West Point . . . I felt that I could overcome the bigotry of rating officers by my hard work . . . my record indicates that I haven’t gotten credit for what I should have gotten credit for.2

Obviously, now is the time for the Department of Defense to look at its personnel policies in light of the problems in our contemporary society. The Secretary of Defense, The Honorable Melvin R. Laird, stated it quite simply when he issued a plea to military men to “reject divisive and fragmenting forces and influences in our society which seek to diminish the integrity, unity and strength of our armed forces. We must not permit any irrelevancies of race and color, nor any other factor, to divide and weaken us.”3

The Secretary’s remarks are timely. He was speaking of the racial polarity in the armed forces. He called upon on every commander “to provide the leadership that will continue to translate the policy of equal opportunity into living and meaningful reality for every man and woman serving in our nation in the uniforms of the armed forces.”

The Navy has taken a big step in its appointment of flag officers. Navy Secretary John H. Chafee wants admiral selectees to be honest enough to tell the whole truth, the bad as well as the good. In a letter to the flag board, he called for leaders “possessed of especially wide-ranging, innovative, perhaps even radical-thinking minds.” It appears that Secretary Chafee wants officers who will recognize the problems of people as well as those of hardware. It takes courage to promote innovations that cope with problems of racial polarity and national defense in the same environment.

In a lecture to the Naval War College on 4 March 1969, Howard T Robinson, a Foreign Service officer, asked the question, “Are our institutions flexible enough?”

Can our military establishment meet the challenge of how to attract young men into the services? Can we inspire our servicemen, black and white, to behave better at home and particularly overseas? Or will it be necessary to dismantle the existing institutions and replace them with something else? At this point we can bring into sharp focus the question, “Are our institutions flexible enough? . . . Until recently we thought of poverty, student unrest and violent demonstrations as a product of undeveloped societies. We now witness that our young people, students, the Blacks, and the poor are stridently confronting our society and our institutions . . . Foreign nations, both our friends and our adversaries, will continue for some time to think “Why haven’t you made your constitution live as you said you would?”. . . I do not think any of these nations doubt our military or economic powers. Our adversaries see our disturbances as a desirable weakness, one to be exploited.4

responsibility of the military

As military commanders and staff officers, ours is an all-encompassing task. The challenge before us was stated by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on 31 July 1969:

Last October we asked all of our major commands to submit ideas for things the Air Force could do to help solve the problems that confront our society . . . The outcome was a comprehensive report to the Secretary of Defense and the subsequent establishment of a DOD Domestic Action Council in April 1969 . . . Whereas the Council can develop major programs for DOD-wide implementation, we in the Air Force must exercise initiative to help solve domestic problems at the community level where we live and work . . . We must continue to seek ways to improve environments in which Air Force people live and work; we must strive to assure equal opportunity within the Air Force; and we must seek to influence the changes affecting our nation so that they may be constructive . . . With encouragement and leadership, our people will respond. Their initiatives and enthusiasm are essential to success of the Domestic Action Program. I ask that you provide that leadership and your personal support.5

This challenge requires a total commitment in thoughts, words, and actions. It is obvious that if our men have confidence in our judgment and sense of fair play, our military job, regardless of what it is, will be easier. If for no other reason than that, a little understanding goes a long way.

Achieving this understanding is within a commander’s role. After all, part of the leadership responsibility of the officer corps is to know and understand all American people. It is to the advantage of all officers to learn as much as possible about the minority people under their jurisdiction. Commanders, whether black or white, must consider the viewpoint of all the ethnic groups represented among their men. In essence, they must communicate.

Moreover, each officer must realize that he react to his personal feelings, prejudices, and political environment. I am not suggesting that our commanders and other officers are unfair or that they make decisions detrimental to the military system. I am suggesting that they are human beings subjected to the same mass-media projections as other American citizens. To be fair and honest with each man is more difficult when all of a man’s background and rearing are dictating courses favoring emotional bias. This dilemma makes it necessary that there be a system to minimize this agonizing personal reaction and to promote fair decisions.

What can be done?

What can the individual officer or noncommissioned officer do while accomplishing his mission as a military man? Is there a program of constructive contribution that will help solve these problems? Past experience indicates that much can be done. I would like to propose several actions that have been quite successful in promoting understanding. It is noted that aggressive programs will engender some additional effort and possibly some criticism. The very existence of this kind of uninformed adverse reaction indicates the need for such a program. Accomplishments in this area require courage, careful planning, and a dedicated attitude.

To begin with, a commander himself must be attuned to constructive change. As General Jack J. Catton, Commander, Military Airlift Command, has said:

In future years you’re going to be associated with a society totally integrated which actually does measure people by ability, regardless of race, color and creed. That’s new, even though the Constitution was written many years ago. If you’re not attuned to changes like that, you’re not going to properly and effectively lead the young people who are the product of contemporary America.6

Commanders and most other officers and supervisors have ready access to many people and officers capable of assisting them.

The first step a commander or supervisor might take is to find out just what the rights of military personnel are. The legal officer is more than willing to keep people informed of these rights. A commander must divorce his political convictions from his military management. The job he has is an incredible responsibility to citizens of 50 united states and does not permit mental reservations about any of these citizens. An officer who knows the law will find that many decisions have already been made for him. To a busy commander this is a welcome respite.

A commander must advise his people of their rights. I have found that if our people know they can go to Congress for help and if we as their commanders tell them of this right, there will be less tendency for them to do so. We must be sincere, for lip service is easily detected.

Another key man in combating the racial polarity problem is the information officer. Through his contacts with civic leaders, news media, community organizations, etc., he has an opportunity to know the prevailing attitudes of the community. He serves as a valuable link in the chain of communications between the military and the public.

There are many other agencies capable of providing assistance. For example, each military installation has an equal opportunity employment officer for both military and civilian personnel. The military personnel officer and the civilian personnel officer are experts in their fields and can also help. The manpower and management engineering officer is helpful. He can prevent manipulation of authorizations intended to circumvent the equal opportunities guaranteed to minority group members or to serve other special interests. The inspector general can advise on specific questions and clarify the do’s and don’ts of the DOD equal opportunity program.

base-community relations

The Base-Community Council is the best two-way street available for establishing goodwill. I suggest that at least one member of the staff representing the commander on the council be from a minority group. He should be someone who is a good contact in the minority community. If I were a base commander, I would want to know what is going on there. It is possible that there might be confrontations with local citizens in which military forces would be brought into play. A good contact in the neighborhood can be of immeasurable value. If adverse attitudes are known, it is easier to make contributions to the positive aspects of community life. One good gesture might make the difference between a peaceful confrontation and a riot. We must keep in mind that what affects one side of town affects the entire town.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Roger T. Kelley has said:

I think we have to admit that some of the same racial tensions that explode in the civilian sector also explode in the military when people aren’t busy doing a common job. . . I don’t think we know the scope and the seriousness of this problem in the services today. . . We’ve been firefighting . . . Firefighters go down and hear what people want them to hear. . . Yes, we have a problem, but we’ll solve it . . . . [Kelley believes he has to get people of all races and backgrounds together to “eyeball” it and find out what the real problems are. He wants to assemble teams of people, white, black, Spanish-American, and Indian]. . . people who have insight into the racial problem to discuss it.7

the chamber of commerce

The chamber of commerce is one of the military’s best friends. After all, a local military installation represents a sizable income to most cities and almost the total income to several. Commanders should work with the neighboring communities and seek their cooperation; it may be needed. Some federal laws are in conflict with state or local customs affecting race relations. When this is the case, commanders must insist that federal law be upheld. Failure to do so condones the divisiveness that Secretary Laird mentioned. To stand up and be counted is an occupational hazard. Most commanders have been in combat, yet some of them back down when asked to fight racial injustice at home.

If racial polarity in the services is to be truly eliminated, we, as commanders and officers, must make a critical self-appraisal of our actions in several important areas: military discipline, effectiveness reporting, etc.

military discipline

What kind of military program prevails on base? Are members of minority groups allowed to do pretty much as they please, while strict discipline is required of members of the majority? If so, divisiveness is once again encouraged. It should be obvious that each service member’s obligation is the same. He must present a proper military appearance and meet his obligations until he is separated from the service. Are members of minority groups rewarded for doing outstanding or superior work? In several instances, minorities have been told that they have to work twice as hard as their white equivalents because they are black or of other minority racial origin. If we let this type of situation continue, we are again encouraging divisiveness between the races.

effectiveness reporting

What are the promotion opportunities for black servicemen? The fact that more young black officers are entering the service is good, but what does the future hold for these men? While 9.4 percent of the total military personnel are black, there is not a proportionate number of black officers and NCO’S on active duty spread throughout all grades. The blame for this situation cannot be placed entirely on the poorer quality of education received by black servicemen. The case of the West Point graduate referred to earlier demonstrates this. No matter what the reasons for this disproportionate spread may be, the method of achieving it is clear: comparatively low effectiveness reports.

How are minority group members rated on APR’S and OER’S? Do we give them truly objective ratings, while giving our friends and other favored persons inflated superior ratings? If so, we are defeating many of the objectives set for us as leaders. Failure to recognize outstanding accomplishments and capability is poor leadership. Although each officer in a command position would emphatically deny that he was a party to such actions, what cannot be denied is the scarcity of minority group members in the field-grade and general-officer ranks of the military. Unless raters and commanders insure that objectivity is applied to everyone in the rating system, more drastic corrective measures may be necessary. If the military is to be a place where equal opportunity is a fact of life, a quota system to insure a proper and equitable mix by rank according to military population ratio may have to be established. As objectionable as quotas are, they do insure opportunity.

Certainly, education is one of the keys to solving the entire problem of racial polarity. Again, as commanders and officers, we must appraise our own behavior in this area. Do we take full advantage of our education program? Do we read extensively? Have we read of black contributions to American history? Can we look at our black officers and men and relate them to the glorious American heritage which history accords them? What about Mexican Americans? Do we know about Indians who fought on the side of America? If we haven’t done at least some reading in these areas, we are not living up to our responsibilities as commanders. Each commander should direct his officers to read about minority Americans so that they will be able to lead the men who are descendents of those who have contributed to the defense of our nation. (I have proposed a Historical Reference Agency for the Department of Defense to help lead the way to interracial understanding. I have been informed that the implementation of the agency is not feasible; however, the Department is putting more emphasis on the accomplishments of minority members of the military establishment as they continue to make their contributions to our heritage.)

Minority troops should be encouraged to get all the education they can while in the service. This will have the far-reaching effect of presenting more capable individuals to society upon completion of their military obligation.

In an article published in the February 1909 issue of Air Force and Space Digest, I indicated that part of the polarity problem involves the “heritage gap.”8 Basically I believe that much of the misunderstanding in the military services stems from lack of knowledge. Whites do not know enough about blacks; therefore, it is difficult to dispel stereotype images and cultivate true respect. Furthermore, blacks do not know enough about themselves, since most of their orientation is toward white America. In this climate it is difficult to exercise command and provide effective leadership. It is one of the most serious challenges facing our nation.

Each commander should find out what minority personnel, especially officers, of his command have to say on the subject. Minority group members should be asked for proposed solutions to the various problems. Naturally, solutions should be solicited from other personnel as well, to insure that the final solution is the best possible remedy to the problem.

If a commander has senior black officers in his command, he should seek their counsel. They have lived through much in the past three decades, and, if asked, they can assist in many ways. For example, I know of a Defense Department project concerning housing to which a senior black officer offered policy assistance, based on his many years of service. His letter was unanswered, his offer disregarded. The project proved unsatisfactory, though it could have succeeded. Another instance demonstrates how many good points can be made for the armed forces by asking minority group members for assistance. Here is a letter written from a small midwestern town:

I just wanted to express the thanks for our Chamber of Commerce again for your most interesting talk to our Ladies night dinner. How well you handled the gal at the dinner whd felt that her son, who joined the reserves to avoid actual duty if possible, should be receiving more pay. I suspect that she secretly felt that a white Private should receive more than a Negro [officer].

Because this community has no Negro residents, I was doubly delighted when I received your picture. There is much ignorance and bigotry to be overcome in all communities, and this one is no exception. Certainly your presence here with your lovely wife helped dispel a small part of this blight upon our land.

It is the efforts of men like you who will make our country really great, and we who hide in our security appreciate your courage more than you know.

principles of war

The war on poverty, divisiveness, racial polarity, and national instability requires our attention just as much as our military obligations. Even though the military mind has been attacked in recent years, I am convinced that it has a lot to offer our confused society. This will probably be a thankless effort, but many people will applaud our attempts to improve our nation. As military men, we have the capability to make a unique and effective contribution to this war: the application of the traditional principles of war to this new war on poverty, divisiveness, and racial polarity. Textbooks say that a principle of war is a fundamental truth governing the prosecution of war. We can gain more insight into the solutions I have recommended by approaching them with the principles of war in mind.

Objective. The principle of the objective states that “all efforts must be directed toward a clearly defined decisive and attainable goal.” Obviously the objective in the current war is to make a contribution to the improvement of our national welfare without jeopardizing or compromising our military mission. Within our capability to exist in the various communities and ethnic groups influenced by the probability of military activities, there must be definite parameters established within which we may contribute effectively. In essence, our objectivity must be considered in terms of what we are capable of doing.

Offensive. The principle of the offensive states that “offensive action is necessary to achieve decisive results and maintain freedom of action.” Our war on contemporary social problems requires that we take the initiative. This can be construed as enlightened self-interest. If we improve the social climate of our military area of influence, we improve the environmental conditions necessary to our military operations. We are in a position to select the place, the time, and the means for our contribution to the improvement of contemporary society.

Simplicity. Simplicity is “a quality or state of being clear and uncomplicated.” If we organize our staffs and determine what lines of communication--including the language and the symbols--will best serve our purposes, we will have achieved the simplicity characteristic of an efficient operation. To attain this simplicity, it may be necessary to solicit the assistance of those staff members who are experts in their fields, as previously discussed.

Unity of Command. The principle of unity of command states that “the decisive application of full combat power requires unity of effort under one responsible commander.” Contributions to our contemporary society will reflect the administrative policies, procedures, and techniques of the individual commander. It will be possible to measure his image by how effectively he leads in the fight against social unrest, disruption, and other problems confronting both military and civilian citizens.

Mass. The principle of mass requires “the achievement of superiority of combat power at the critical place and time for decisive purpose.” The critical time and place occur with every instance of divisiveness revealed to us as military men. This principle requires much more of us than halfhearted actions taken on the pretense that because we are doing something we are doing enough. All available facilities, service support, skill, resolution, discipline, courage, administration, and leadership must be devoted to what apparently will be a long-contested engagement.

Economy of Force. The principle of economy of force requires “the allocation of available combat power in such a manner that all tasks together achieve results effectively.” Now this means that we must concentrate our efforts in sufficient strength and in such a manner that all of our actions are cohesive. It implies that we must carefully consider the apportionment of military forces and other resources available for this purpose so that accomplishment of our primary military mission will not be impaired.

Maneuver. The principle of maneuver states that “one’s military resources must be positioned to favor the accomplishment of the mission.” The advantageous position of the military in American society has already been noted. To further upgrade the quality of the military community, the community mix must be examined and clear-cut objectives sincerely communicated, to place the "enemy" (the fighters for status quo) at a relative disadvantage. Thus we can achieve results that would otherwise be more costly in men and material.

Surprise. Surprise connotes “striking the enemy when, where, and in a manner for which he is unprepared.” Obviously we must be prepared to implement bold and innovative plans which are within our capability and which will best serve our purposes in our respective spheres of influence. Surprise in this struggle may include some of the principles of psychological warfare and may very well be daring. It appears that the timing of our campaign to eliminate divisiveness should be appropriate to the local situation.

Security. Security is “essential to the preservation of combat power, and through security we retain freedom of action.” Again, this suggests that we must maintain our vigil to prevent compromise of our first order of business, which is the defense of the nation. Within the framework of this principle, our efforts to upgrade contemporary society must not interfere with freedom of military action.

Mere knowledge and understanding of the principles of war or principles of management or any other principles will not provide the solution to every problem. In the final analysis, sound judgment and common sense are of vital importance to the successful accomplishment of our objectives.

It should be obvious that the unfortunate business of racial polarity is part and parcel of our society. There are solutions to the problem. Our obligation as members of the Department of Defense and as citizens of the United States demands that we do all in our power to combat anything that would weaken our national welfare. In the words of Secretary Laird:

We must maintain harmonious, cooperative working relationships among military personnel so as to maintain high morale, military effectiveness, and combat readiness. . . . Much remains to be done, and it is to this task of removing every vestige of discrimination that I give my personal commitment.9

The challenge, as I see it, is to meet the problem head on. We must not be hesitant about healing the wounds of divisiveness between the races. If our nation suffers internal strife, everybody suffers. We of the military must unite; we must work together―all of us: black, white, yellow, red, tan, or brown. We must communicate, talk about our mutual problems, and find solutions. We must--before it’s too late.

McConnell AFB, Kansas

Notes

1. “Military Weighs Racial Friction,” Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, 18 August 1969.

2. “Negro Officer Submits Air Force Resignation,” Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, 8 October 1968.

3. Melvin R. Laird, “Plea to Military Men,” Air Force Times, 21 May 1969.

4. Howard T. Robinson, “Are Our Institutions Flexible Enough?” Naval War College Review, XXI, 9 (May 1969), 62-67.

5. Letter to Major Air Commands from Chief of Staff, USAF, “Support of Department of Defense Domestic Action Program,” 31 July 1969.

6. Jack J. Catton,  General, USAF, “A Personal Concept of Command,” Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, AFRP 190-2, Number 3-1969, p. 22.

7. “Racial Strife Probed,” Air Force Times, 27 August 1969.

8. George M. Boyd, Major, USAF, “Filling the Military’s Heritage Gap,” Air Force and Space Digest, Vol. 52, No. 2 (February 1969), pp. 49-51.

9. Laird, “Plea . . .”

Acknowledgment

For this article’s lead-in photograph the Review is indebted to Technical Sergeant Francois B. Rolling.


Contributor

Major George M. Boyd (B.A., Park College) is Commander of Manpower and Management Engineering Detachment 19, McConnell AFB, Kansas. He has served in Southeast Asia, Greenland, and Japan and is a graduate of the Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and Air War College. His articles have appeared in Air Force Magazine and in service journals.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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