Diversity in the Military

"From this country’s inception, the military has created effective and cohesive fighting units from a fractious and heterogeneous population. Successive large waves of European immigrants resulted in military units with mixed English proficiency; the loyalty of immigrants from enemy nations during times of war has repeatedly been a source of considerable anxiety; and the inclusion of racial and religious minorities in the military has occurred against a wider social backdrop of ethnic hostility, harassment and violence. From a more expansive historical perspective, the U.S. military has repeatedly been able to attenuate the divisions, antagonisms and distrust that have troubled American culture more broadly. Despite repeated resistance, the U.S. military has throughout its history created cohesive and effective fighting units out of a fractious and diverse collection of civilians, integrating service members with vast differences in cultural background, religious practices, language and belief systems."- Dr. Nathaniel Frank cited a study by Evans (Palmcemter.org - retrieved July 20, 2013)

The US Army has helped to advance the progress of diversity and integration for the whole nation over the centuries. Historically, it was the first government institution to integrate racial minorities, women and people of various nationalities into its workforce at almost every level of the establishment, eventually. At present it faces further challenges which include the repealing of the ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, the recognition of same sex relationships, women in combat, and the matter of attitudes towards people practicing the Muslim religion.

The U.S. Army has been at the forefront of pioneering diversity in the nation because it created an atmosphere of acceptance and mutual respect. For example, army.mil noted, "Women have served our country throughout many wars in history, to include the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and both World Wars." Since its administrative structure is hierarchical based on rank, it lends itself easily to ’command and control’ leadership style. This often created an environment in which diversity had been imposed upon its members who accepted the situation reluctantly at first. In most cases however, members of the Army eventually realized value in the underlying philosophy and consequently adapted to the new interactions. Numerous healthy relationships were born out of different peoples interacting in the same organization in close quarters, resulting in better understanding and simply getting to know each other as individuals.

Historical leadings in diversity

None can forget the achievements and impact of the Tuskegee Airmen at a time when the pervasive popular belief was that African-Americans were not suited for combat and were not capable of being pilots. In 1925 the Army War College conducted a study that purportedly supported such opinions. In 1941, Roosevelt ignored the study and established the Tuskegee Experiment and a unit now known as the Montford Marines to incorporate people of color in the US military. From there, the progress (though sometimes bumpy) continued and today people representing all races, gender, class and more than 75 countries serve in our armed forces and defend our national sovereignty with their very lives.

With a record of such achievements, it is the future of the military to which we turn for answers as a nation and as a ’tossed salad’ community in which each person retains his/her identity. Those who maintained a mono-cultural approach may have hoped for what would become a melting pot community; but fortunately or unfortunately, the pot would not melt. For example, in spite of a long held resistance to women serving in combat roles, the beginning of 2013 saw a new policy instituted by Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary, who removed any ban on women serving in combat. In January he declared, "Today Gen. Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the ground combat exclusion rule for women and moving forward with a plan to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service. Our purpose is to ensure the mission is carried out by the best qualified and most capable service members, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs."

Training Military has in place for recent changes

As we move into the 21st Century, the US Military faces many challenges of technological advances, societal upheaval, political shifts and psychological warfare. No challenge seems more salient than the one that utilizes the diversity in the human asset to address the rest of the problems. In recognition of this truism, on February 8, 2008, the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Army established the Army Diversity Task Force designed to bring together the diverse groups in the Army to work together with mutual respect for the benefit of all. For a successful diversity initiative, the army articulated five objectives- leader commitment, comprehensive talent management processes, structure and resources, education and training, and sustainment through institutionalized inclusive practices.

In addition, within the military, the removal of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy and the recent decision by the federal government to accord equal rights to same sex unions within the military community still needs time to catch up with traditional views within the Army that hold contrary attitudes. Starting September 3, 2013, the original ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy’ will give way to a new policy that benefits LGBT military members and afford them equal benefits. According to some myopic individuals, this marks the dismantling of the traditional ways of the Army and will seriously affect effectiveness in combat. If this is an experiment in the integration of diverse populations within the same community, the nation will be watching to see the outcome. Chaplains are in the process of receiving new instructions on how to manage the changing demographics of the population they serve.

Many issues are still related to culture and understanding. Openly heterosexual individuals would probably have been offended (and likely confused) if they were not allowed to serve their country unless they kept their husband or wife a secret. Though, this is clearly a progressive policy change, the newly enlisted still bring the morals and beliefs of the societies they come from. Though to be fair, it is normally homosexuals who have to hide who they are.

Unfortunately, the path to integration was not always easy, even in the military. Ft. Bragg Chaplain, Maj. David Curlin opined, "For Blacks and women, initial integration was tough. Fortunately, the broader culture and the military have recognized the error of those times and have moved to correct and eliminate open racism and gender discrimination… The military has been a context that has offered minorities a real chance to excel" (personal interview, July 31, 2013).

Even though the removal of gender discrimination, such as inclusion of women in combat, is now officially instituted within the US military, the Secretary of defense still leaves some room for officers to show specific incidents where a woman may not serve. Even though no known case has been published, some militaries around the world still hold some reservations. For example, Israel initially prohibited women for being in combat, but in the mid-1990’s, involved them in limited combat roles. These roles included being fighter pilots and serving in border patrol units that required moving short distances with limited baggage. The US originally started to restrict women in combat in the Middle East, mainly because of the unpredictability of the enemy attacks, the long distances of travel, and often the very confined space in which the unit operated. Having co-ed combat units often created a certain amount of discomfort for both sexes, but had advantages for Special Forces who needed to communicate with the women in a very sexist society. Still, it’s likely that men from many cultures would find it offensive to be told they are not capable, would be a burden, or simply not permitted to serve their countries on the front lines in times of war. Though, to be fair, men are as often not excluded from holding professional positions.

Not only is the issue of sexuality of significance, but there is the question of acceptance of people of various religious beliefs in the military. Consistent with national trends, there is growing concern with being in close quarters and putting one’s life on the line literally with Muslims who serve in the US Army as brothers-in-arms. The burning of Qurans by religious zealots such as Terry Jones from Florida and the demonstrations by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church at military funerals have not helped to diminish the hatred and animosity towards people of other religious beliefs. The fatal shooting of 13 people on November 5, 2009 by former Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Ft. Hood, Texas have not helped either and the tension is still sometimes apparent within individual units.

Therefore the integration of peoples of various racial, sexual, cultural, religious, ethnic and other differences within the Army has not occurred without its concomitant challenges. Most of these challenges generally reflect the concerns of the society at large and consequently, among the issues the military needs to address is the realization that not all the people of a particular religion act the same way, or even hold the same beliefs. Many Christians would be misrepresented and possibly offended if all were to be judged by the actions of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church or by the actions of Terry Jones. Most of them see a clear difference between Westboro Christianity and the Christian faith they embrace and practice. Muslims are similarly offended if they are all stereotyped as Nidal Hasan’s. But again these issues are not created through entering the military; the military, like other large, complex organizations looking to increase the cultural sensitivity and tolerance of their workforce, will start with real people who bring their own beliefs and values, and beliefs and values are not easily changed though lecture or policy.

In addition, an erudite and more intelligent approach will be to distinguish between matters of values and matters of policy. I have my personal values, but will not even think of making my values policy; however, I will support policies that protect my values. Let us for a moment speculate that I have very strong religious values; it will be unethical for me to impose such values on the world through policy. It will be much more reasonable and sensible for me to advocate policies that will respect all religious beliefs as long that they do no harm to others and do not restrict the rights of others. This is not to say that I suddenly shrug off my beliefs (if that would be possible). There is a place to respect policies that protect the rights of others while at the same time retaining and protecting my personal values. President John F. Kennedy proved that a Catholic president can govern a nation without imposing his church values in national policies.

Palmer in his book, Healing the heart of Democracy (2011), noted, "When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us… As they suffer, so does our democracy." He noted that at a time when America was plagued with racism and prejudice that it precipitated an actual civil war, Abraham Lincoln issued a clarion call for ’malice toward none’ and ’charity for all’. If we are to survive as a democracy, we must approach our differences and divisions with love and compassion. If we are to demonstrate the military might that we are, we as a people must have the courage to have dialogue with each other as equals on the basis of love and respect. Especially in the military, members need to listen mindfully to others and seek to protect their rights also. This is both when interacting with one another and when representing ourselves, our military, and our country abroad.

Maybe the main reason for discrimination is ignorance and beliefs based on ill-informed propositions. For example, at one time slavery was based on the notion that man was created in the image of God, but slaves evolved from monkeys. Those myths have long been debunked, but the point is that such irrationality existed then and similar irrational approaches exist today in some environments. For example, only a few still believe that sexual preference is something you can "catch" from being around those who are different, as opposed to something we all understand about ourselves.

Moreover, no research has ever shown that homosexuality impairs military readiness. The way to combat ignorance is undoubtedly through education. The US military spends a great deal of time and money on education. One study claimed that if a high level commander of an ethnically diverse organization ignored the problems related to diversity, inevitably such an attitude will permeate the organization as a whole and will provide a model of how people who are different should be treated. For some time, some sections of the military adopted a model known as ’the consideration for others program to support equal opportunity and cultural diversity. Another model which became an experiment is the ’Rainbow Rule’ which purported that personnel should "treat others the way they would have us treat them." It continued, "Christians must understand Muslims in order to treat Muslims the way they want to be treated. Men must understand women, and majorities must understand ethnic minorities." But knowledge is not sufficient unless it is put into practice in the same way that hearing is not enough unless there is mindful listening. Knowledge must be followed by concomitant action in order for real education to take place. Still, the greatest barriers to overcome in how those in uniforms see and treat each other are the values and beliefs of the cultures they come from.

In addition to classroom sessions on diversity, mentoring, coaching, group therapy and similar programs may enhance the goals of equality among the military and the population. Officers and NCO’s have an ideal opportunity to serve as mentors for diversity if they are afforded the appropriate training and resources. One important element which aids in expanding tolerance and viewing individuals as individuals is the military’s focus on respect being earned. Though rank is clearly a source of respect, an important element of the culture and training is that each person be held accountable for their actions, lead through honesty and respect, and do their job well the first time. It is not only putting everyone together, the various training programs, policy makers, and life or death situations that aid the military in their diversity goals, the very principles of judging the worth of individuals in the workplace based off of their performance is a vital, deep seeded, and long-standing way to help make the culture more diverse and accepting of diverse soldiers.

The problems of integrating racial minorities, sexual discontinuities, religious conflicts and other differences are being handled in a myriad of ways. Not least among them are distinguishing between values and policy, respect for each other’s values, and education. The US military has traditionally led the nation in diversity and integration and will no doubt do that again in these divisive times.

Dwarka Ramphal Ph.D. FTCC/SWCS Instructor, United States Army Special Operations Command, Special Warfare Center and Education Center, Ft. Bragg, Fayetteville, NC.

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