The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Dr. Christopher Rein
/ Published November 05, 2021
On Tuesday, 15 June 2021, major news outlets highlighted a testimony from the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Gilday who asserted that the US military is not “weak” or “woke,” which is certainly not news to anyone serving today.1 But the real news from the congressional hearing that sparked the CNO’s testimony is that sitting members of Congress, including Colorado Representative Doug Lamborn who have the constitutionally-mandated duty to “provide for the common defence,” apparently do not understand that racism within the ranks undermines the military’s ability to accomplish its mission.2 According to transcriptions of the hearing, Lamborn speciously and mockingly asked the CNO how reading a book that highlights the nation’s long and tortuous history with racism would “improve our Navy’s readiness and lethality for great power competition.” One can hope that Rep. Lamborn was simply posturing for his base in his ultra-conservative district around Colorado Springs, which includes the US Air Force Academy and the current headquarters of US Space Command, but in the event his comments represent his sincerely held beliefs, I would offer the following rejoinder.
First, let me categorically reject the assertion that working to overcome the nation’s history of racism is an attempt to tear the county down, or instill a sense of “white guilt” that would constitute a reverse form of racism. The US military, which I was proud to serve for 22 years on active duty, works hard every day to overcome shortfalls and get better. Every training sortie, every field exercise, every shipboard drill, is an attempt to identify and overcome flaws, in order to make the individual or team better and stronger. Eradicating racism in the ranks is exactly the same. We don’t point out flaws in our children in an attempt to “tear them down,” we do it because we love them, and want them to reach their full potential. Confronting and eradicating racism in our nation’s military is an act of patriotism that makes our country better and stronger.
But, as strong as the US military is, it can’t do it alone and never has. The country could not have won its independence without French assistance. Allies from around the globe united to defeat the twin menaces of fascism in Europe and race-based imperialism in Asia. Every day the US military relies on partners and allies of many different races, faiths, and cultures for additional capability, support, and basing. In a recent article published in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Lt Gen Jon Thomas, Deputy Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, highlighted the vital importance of the many “faces” we work within the theater.3 Through “direct, frequent, and persistent personal interaction” these partners provide the “trust, understanding of the operating environment, [and] interoperability” that “enable operational maneuver and sustainment by contributing to reliable and consistent access to airspace, facilities, and equipment necessary to successfully conduct dispersed operations.” The same is true throughout the globe, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the jungles of Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. In some places, we are entirely reliant on local expertise and capabilities in order to accomplish our mission.
Focusing just on the Pacific theater of World War II, the US military could not have even begun to fight back against Japan without a secure base area in Australia. In New Guinea, inhabitants that some soldiers initially disregarded as “savages” and “pickaninnies” risked their lives to carry supplies into the jungle and wounded American servicemen back out, eventually winning the affection and respect of their comrades in arms, though many still referred to the New Guineans as “Fuzzy Wuzzys.” Without the support and assistance of indigenous porters, organized under the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, the US military could never have successfully prosecuted the defense along the Driniumor River.4
Upon reaching the Philippines, the US Army again relied heavily on indigenous forces to help liberate the island of Mindanao. An annex to the 31st Infantry Division’s official operations order attempted to classify and rank the various ethnic groups on the island, from the Moros who they recognized as “among the finest individual fighting men in the world,” as a result of 40 years of only partially successful combat to “pacify” the American colony, to the “Negritos” of the Surigao Peninsula, which the order labeled “physically and intellectually the lowest people on the island…small of stature” with “curly hair, flat noses, broad heads, and thick lips.” But guerrillas drawn from all of these groups, led by US military personnel working as civilians on the island during the Japanese conquest and aided by escaped prisoners of war from the Davao Penal Colony, had liberated an estimated 95 percent of the island by the time Eighth Army landed in April of 1945.5 Their collective efforts considerably accelerated the campaign and reduced casualties, keeping the 24th and 31st Infantry Divisions ready for the follow-on invasion of the Japanese home islands. Many servicemen modified racial views after long experiences with the various peoples of the Pacific Rim, overcoming racial biases, and eventually regarding Filipinos more akin to fighters like Manny Pacquiao than the boys who dived for coins thrown by sailors into polluted Subic Bay when US Navy ships made port calls there. But the next conflict may not afford an opportunity for the gradual erosion of racial stereotypes prevalent in American society today, highlighted by the senseless and brutal attacks on Asian-American citizens that hearken back to the internment of Americans with Japanese ancestry during World War II. We have to be ready to fight on day one alongside allies of different races, ethnicities, and faiths. And we can’t waste time while we figure out that our innate prejudices and convictions that we grew up with are simply wrong.
My favorite historical example of the power of diversity in military operations comes from my hometown of New Orleans, where a polyglot American force under the command of Andrew Jackson defeated a homogeneous force of British regulars under the command of Sir Edward Packenham on 8 January 1815. The event, more than any other, fueled Jackson’s subsequent political career and eventual ascension to the Presidency, making him such an icon of some on the right that his portrait hung on the wall of former President Trump’s oval office. Jackson was no saint and was a lifetime slaveholder, as well as the architect of the Indian removal later known as the “Trail of Tears,” but he was an astute enough commander to recognize the power of diversity in his ranks. Packenham’s force, many of whom were veterans of the armies that had defeated Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula, proved unable to penetrate a defensive line Jackson erected to block access to the city. Jackson was hopelessly outnumbered, having only two regiments of regulars—the 7th and 44th—plus detachments of regulars and dragoons. He bolstered them with militia from Tennessee—the legendary Tennessee “Volunteers” immortalized in song and that state’s athletic teams—and Kentucky who made up with numbers what they lacked in training. Joining them were two battalions of free Blacks from New Orleans, under Majors Pierre Lacoste and Louis Daquin, building on a tradition of Black military service that dates back to the French colonial period in Louisiana. Jackson placed them all behind a strong barricade to bolster the discipline they needed to face their enemy in the most successful combination of regular and militia forces since the Battle of Cowpens 34 years earlier.
But Jackson was not satisfied with his “total force” of regulars and reserves. He also accepted the services of Jean Lafitte’s Baratarians, privateers who had preyed on American commerce shipping, but who added their expertise as artillerists and, most importantly, their weapons and gunpowder to stud the line with cannon. Finally, Jackson anchored his flanks with additional support, including naval forces in the Mississippi River, to prevent Packenham from outflanking his right flank by crossing to the West Bank and Choctaw Indians to guard the swamps on his left flank. Jackson had proven the futility of Indian forces fighting in a conventional style behind a barricade a year earlier at Horseshoe Bend, but the Choctaws proved to be expert irregular forces and prevented British incursions around through the swamp. Left with no other option except to charge across an open field and into the teeth of Jackson’s guns, Packenham lost the battle and his life to Jackson’s polyglot force. By leveraging the strengths and compensating for the weaknesses of each element of his forces, Jackson created a combined-arms force that was far greater than the sum of its parts and saved the Crescent City from British occupation and potential destruction.
So diversity is not just an abstract concept; it has and will continue to produce victory on the battlefield. And racism, which creates fault lines and drives wedges within the force, weakens the line and leaves it susceptible to breaking. Eradicating racism and violent extremism in our ranks makes our forces stronger and makes us a better ally for our partners around the globe. Those who question and attempt to thwart our military’s efforts to eliminate racism and eradicate extremism in our ranks actually make our forces weaker and serve our adversaries’ ends rather than our own.
Dr. Christopher M. Rein
Dr. Christopher M. Rein is the Managing Editor of Air University Press at Maxwell AFB, AL. He is a retired officer who has served as a navigator aboard the E-8C JSTARS, as a faculty member in the history department at the US Air Force Academy, and as an associate professor at the Air Command and Staff College. He is the author of Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionist, and the Civil War in the Cotton State (LSU Press, 2019) and the forthcoming The Dixie Division in Peace and War: The 31st Infantry Division and World War II (University of Alabama Press, 2022). The thoughts and opinions expressed are entirely his own and should not be construed as representing official positions of Air University, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.
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