Split personality: The U.S. military
Ever since our armed forces were integrated by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, they have been our society’s largest meritocracy. For the most part, skin color and/or religion have not gotten in the way of advancement up through the ranks. Indeed, since 1948, we have witnessed individuals of virtually every background rise from the bottom ranks to four-star general or admiral -- even to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
But if military promotions were based on the skills needed “to close with and kill or capture the enemy by fire and maneuver,” then our military is not quite the meritocracy one might like to imagine. For example, let’s say a service member has been trained to jump out of airplanes, to survive for weeks in swamps and mountains with no outside support, to do under-water demolitions, to be a martial-arts expert, to be an expert in both personal and crew-served infantry weapons, to be able to rappel from helicopters or down cliffs, to carry an eighty-pound pack up steep mountains for miles, to be an expert with military communications, to have the medical skills of an Army medic or a Navy Corpsman, to speak at least one foreign language very well, and to be able to get people of varying ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds to work together as a team.
One would think that soldiers or sailors or airmen with those kinds of military skills would be the ones chosen to run our military establishment. Not so. In fact, members of the Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, Air Force Special Operations and the Delta Force are looked down by the “non-elites” who, for the most part, have controlled our armed forces. In other words, having “special” or “elite” in one’s job title is almost the kiss-of-death when it comes to attaining our military’s senior management positions.
Of course, there have been exceptions; however, being “special” or “elite” runs head-on into the other side of our military’s split personality which is: Egalitarianism. Long before anyone ever heard of paratroopers, Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, Air Force Special Operations or the Delta Force, our military had a tradition of trying to treat everyone alike.
The idea behind that may have stemmed from Henry Ford’s use of the interchangeability of parts and the assembly line. One soldier could be inserted in place of another soldier. Uniforms were invented to make everyone look, well…uniform. Wearing something “different” on one’s uniform was sure to draw a reprimand from some sergeant or officer. Even facial hair had to be as uniform as possible. You get the picture.
For example, if you read the memoirs of almost all of the senior officers who were involved in Gulf War I, you learn that General Norman Schwarzkopf detested Green Berets or any kind of “special” forces. Only at the last minute would Storm’n Norman allow our elite forces even the smallest role in Gulf War I. You also learn that if JCS Chairman, Colin Powell, had had his way, Saddam would still be occupying Kuwait while Powell argued for additional diplomacy.
When Colin and I were classmates for nine months at Ft. Benning, it was Colin’s nature to hang back and see which way the wind was blowing. So what the other retired generals have to say about Colin is not surprising.
Post-9/11, our armed forces were leaning more toward the light, “special” operators needed to chase down the radical, Muslim jihadists and leaning away from the heavy, conventional forces designed to stop Soviet tanks at Germany’s Fulda Gap. But now, post-Russian resurgence, we may be headed back toward Fulda-gap thinking.
Either way, and even more than ever, our troops need grass-roots support. Go to: www.LetsSayThanks.com. Let them know you care.
Retired military officer, William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, served on active duty for 20 years.
©2008. William Hamilton.