Renaming bases: What to do when the military wants social change, but the president doesn't

Renaming bases: What to do when the military wants social change, but the president doesn't
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The military hasn’t always embraced social change. Until relatively recently, it often resisted efforts to use it as a “social laboratory.” In 1949, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially ending racial segregation in the armed forces. The military’s response was anything but willing or swift; the Army secretary was forced to resign because he refused to integrate units. It took five years — until 1954 — for the Army to abolish its last all-black unit. It’s fair to say that, for this social change, the president opened the door and shoved the military through it.

In 1993, President Clinton adopted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a compromise to end the debate over gays serving in the military. DADT allowed gays to serve as long as they refrained from engaging in homosexual acts or from stating — “don’t tell” — that they are gay. It precluded military leaders from inquiring — “don’t ask” — about the sexual orientation of any personnel. Far from ending debate, DADT was an uneasy truce that turned a blind eye to the continuing struggle, sometimes violent, between gay military personnel serving secretly and honorably and those who considered their service an affront to good order and discipline.

In 2010, President Obama continued the momentum. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 established a process that essentially put the military in the driver’s seat: DADT would be repealed only if the president, Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman agreed. That agreement, in turn, could come only after a “comprehensive review” of the repeal’s potential impacts. After a year of study, the Comprehensive Review Working Group (CRWG), on which I served, concluded that the time for repeal had come. DADT ended after two presidents opened a door and the military willingly marched through it.


Today, the military is at the threshold of another social storm. The videotaped killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer has led to public protests nationwide. The outcry for social justice for African Americans has led numerous institutions to serious introspection and, in some cases, significant change — but also to a sharpening of our political divide along new lines: those who believe systemic racism exists, and those who do not.

We have reached a point where racism — whether and to what extent it exists — must be discussed. Over the past two weeks, the military has begun to have those discussions. Unfortunately, that step has taken the military to another “door” to social change that President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE thus far seems unwilling to open. He recently rejected the idea of renaming Army bases named for Confederate generals; previously, he restored a military transgender ban which the Obama administration eliminated. This has led to an interesting role reversal: The military is actively seeking to address institutional racism — and the president, unlike his predecessors, is, at best, indifferent.

Clearly, the military cannot ignore racism; its strength is rooted in its diversity. So how should the military proceed to change the president’s mind?

First, military leaders starting with the Defense secretary should take a page from the DADT playbook. DADT’s repeal hinged on a full study of its military implications followed by a certification to Congress that military readiness would not suffer. Just as that study changed the minds of many skeptics within the Defense Department, a similar comprehensive study of military institutional and systemic racial bias might enlighten those who believe such biases don’t exist. The authority to conduct such a study without direction from the president is inherent in the existing legal requirement that the military services must “organize, train, and equip” our armed forces.

The military and Congress should defer promoting specific issues and ideas until such a study is completed. Proposing removal of Confederate generals’ names from Army installations is an attractive notion in an environment where racial-justice passions are inflamed. Unfortunately, in an effort to lower the temperature, this premature suggestion encountered the resistance of Americans on the other side of the racial-political divide, including the president. There is no room for ad hoc decision-making in an environment as charged or with an issue as important as this.


Meanwhile, the Defense Department and the services must continue to address racial discrimination when and where it arises. This is a basic function of leadership. In the absence of a comprehensive study, they should at least continue to ask hard questions about “the way we do things.” The Air Force’s inquiry into military justice bias is a positive example of this approach.

Finally, leaders must continue to communicate “loud and clear” their commitment to a culture that promotes equal opportunity for all. On a visit to U.S. military communities in Japan as a member of the 2010 CRWG, I led a “town hall” of 300 troops to discuss DADT’s repeal. The first audience member to speak was a senior enlisted leader who declared he could not be part of a military that allowed gays to serve openly. That sentiment echoed through several more speakers until a young lieutenant said she could not be responsible for protecting any openly gay subordinate from anyone seeking to do him or her harm. That’s when I abruptly ended the discussion. I told the lieutenant and everyone else in the room that, regardless of their personal feelings, they were all responsible for the welfare of their fellow troops — and, if they could not accept that responsibility or enforce whatever policy resulted from the repeal process, they should consider another line of work.

The culture of any organization is the responsibility of each of its members. While institutional bias may not be the fault of anyone currently serving in the military, eliminating it is everyone’s duty. Those who refuse to embrace that should, at the very least, not be allowed to ascend to or remain in leadership.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For many years, willingly or unwillingly, the military has been near the leading edge of that arc; it has benefited from diversity and, thereby, become one of the most formidable moral fighting forces in history. Our nation has suffered many losses from racial bigotry and injustice; it is now asking hard questions intended to bridge a long-festering racial divide.

The military, as a reflection of society, must participate in that introspection; the president must lead. Even if he is not yet ready to open this door, the military still must move forward, show him the way, and convince him that our nation’s cries for racial justice demand the military’s continued movement along the moral universe’s arc toward justice.

Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.