Last week, several papers carried stories about sociologists in the Army worried about the low percentage of black leaders, particularly at the battalion and brigade combat team level.
U.S. Army sociologists are worried that a lack of black officers leading its combat troops will have detrimental effect on minorities and lead to fewer black officers in top leadership posts.
“The issue exists. The leadership is aware of it,” Brig. Gen. Ronald Lewis told USA Today on Thursday. “The leadership does have an action plan in place. And it’s complicated.”
The paper also noted that of the 238 West Point graduates commissioned to be infantry officers in 2012, only seven were black. One of the Army’s plans for addressing the issue will be to put more emphasis on recruiting and mentoring minority officers.
Let us set aside for the moment the question of whether the Army needs to have senior leadership ethnically proportionate to the population of either the Army or the nation at large.
Why is it that there are so few black field grade commanders?
Well, one author, writing under a pen name to avoid career suicide, addresses the topic.
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 skew in demographics is far less for senior NCOs. There’s plenty of black Command Sergeants Major. But even so, my anecdotal experience as recruiter showed me that, while many young blacks were interested in service, they were mostly interested in improving their lot in life, via technical training in the service, or through the educational benefits. Many who did enlist in the combat arms did so mostly because low test scores precluded them from more skill oriented specialties. Some of those soldiers found they enjoyed the combat arms, and decided to make a career of it. Many did their job for the term of their enlistment, and went on to use the GI Bill to pay for education. At any event, once they were in a unit, there wasn’t much to choose from between one soldier and another. Was there racial tension in the units I served in? Some. Sometimes. But less than I see in the population as a whole.
On the officer side, as Petronius Arbiter notes, not many blacks commissioning in the Army want to be in the combat arms, in spite of a great deal of effort to convince them to go Infantry.
Combat Arms is the path to stars in the Army. It’s not the only path, but it is the most likely. But the journey from 2LT to GEN is a long one, and only a vanishingly small number of officers will rise that far. If you don’t start with a significant percentage of black officers in the combat arms, your chances of having any rise to the very top are miniscule. Not non-existent, just miniscule. That’s not racism. It’s statistics.
The Army could simply force larger numbers of black officers to accept commissions in the Infantry or other combat arms branches. That is likely to have serious consequences in the officer management system on two fronts within just a few short years. First, the obvious one. It’s extremely likely that many young black officers, forced into a branch they didn’t seek, will leave at the earliest possible opportunity. And do we really want combat leaders who don’t want to be combat leaders? Second, there are plenty of young officers who do want to be in combat arms, and fight like heck to get the crossed rifles of the Infantry. If we force black officers to take slots in the Infantry, obviously, some officers who had sought that branch will be forced elsewhere. And they too will likely seek to leave at the end of their obligation, rather than continue as career officers. Both groups would likely show as a dip in the numbers of mid grade officers in their respective branches. Given the difficulties the Army is already having in that group of grades in retaining quality officers, exacerbating the problem is not wise.
Likely, the Army will stress diversity, attempt to increase recruiting among blacks (at an increased cost- lower propensity to join means higher recruiting costs), and, at worst, a unspoken quota system for those few black officers that do choose combat arms; in effect, if you’re black and breathing, you get promoted.
Ironically, as mentioned in the comments at FP, there was a time when the Army virtually excluded black officers from the combat arms, even for black regiments. To be black and in the Army in World War II was one thing, to be black and in the combat arms in the Army in World War II was a source of great pride. And ultimately, I’d argue that it was one of the germs of the civil rights movement. A man who will fight and shed blood just as red as a white man’s was obviously as due respect and equal treatment as the rest of the population.