Opinion | National Security

Three questions for US defense leaders

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Last month, America hit the brink of seeing our professional armed forces deployed to U.S. streets. Today, senior defense leaders are scheduled to testify to Congress about how and why this came about. It will be tempting for House Armed Services Committee members to focus their questions on White House drama accompanying June's events. It would be better to inquire about how the Pentagon can mitigate the next such crisis.  

Here are three questions to start:          

  1. How are you narrowing America's civil-military divide? 

As soon as President Trump posited using the Insurrection Act in response to civil protests, former Pentagon officials united to decry the idea as a dangerous departure from civic norms they served to defend. What they failed to acknowledge is that it also threatened to spotlight a problem they served to create. 

Since the end of the draft in 1973, every U.S. service member has been a career military professional. With high year military tenures capped at 64 years of age, that means America just crossed the threshold of a full generation of troops with no experience beyond their All Volunteer Force. Both leaders set to testify, Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are products of this force and, if asked to assess it, undoubtedly are prepared to cite its impressive technical qualifications. But it is how those qualifications measure up on America's streets that is pertinent this week.

There may be solace in polls that rank the military as America's most trusted institution. Yet there is some concern that our soldiers and the civilian populace they guard could like each other more than they know each other. Only 7 percent of adult citizens today are veterans, down from 14.5 percent in the 1990s when the military confronted riots in Los Angeles, and 20+ percent in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Moreover, the geographic representation of our troops is increasingly and worryingly skewed, with half of U.S.-based military families living in just five states - California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia - and new military volunteers trending disproportionally from rural areas of America's South and West over the urban coastal and midwestern regions of June's protests.   

Both civilians and military citizens across this divide should know how it will be bridged before they meet again, whenever and wherever that may be.  

  1. How are you widening America's military-police divide?

Few Americans are entrusted with the most modern technologies of lethal force and sanctioned to use them for pay. Totaling roughly 2.5 million, sworn U.S. military and law enforcement professionals comprise less than 1 percent of the citizenry they are employed to defend.  

This leads to an understandable sense of solidarity. However, in 2020, for some people they may be too close for comfort. The U.S. military has spent the post-911 era sharpening counter-insurgency and civil military affairs skills that any Iraqi or Afghan would call policing. U.S. law enforcement agencies have spent those same years training and equipping to match military capabilities, doctrine and tactics. Thankfully, these uniformed forces rarely meet on America's streets. But when they do, they constitute the most similarly armed and ideologically integrated military-police presence America has ever had.  

Protesters in Washington recently witnessed this, as military and police forces deployed with nearly imperceptible division to the casual observer. Many Americans and their lawmakers may have been shocked to see U.S. military helicopters employ "persistent presence" operations alongside police activity to scatter them, but that shock was unlikely shared by their armed compatriots.    

This relationship needs to be policed by the leaders who own it, and the American public needs to know how.  

  1. How are you pursuing inclusive national security?

Both Secretary Esper and Gen. Milley have addressed their participation in a June 1 walk with President Trump through Lafayette Square, but the imagery endures. As two white men, among ranks of the same, their presence could be construed as publicizing their privilege. Whether or not that was intentional, it exposes the fact that those appointed to make national security decisions with generational repercussions do not represent the diversity of the nation they seek to secure. 

This is more than just an Oval Office issue. A scan of official public biographies on the Defense Department's website reveals that not one of its top 30 officials by order of precedence is visibly of color. And while our military as a whole is diverse, with nearly 30 percent identified as non-white, that non-white representation drops to 12.5 percent among generals and admirals.  

Racial inclusion matters for American justice. Americans of all colors deserve to know that it matters for their national security, too.    

Frank Goertner, a retired U.S. Navy commander, is director for military and veteran affairs at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, where he chairs the Initiative for Veteran Lifelong Leadership. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

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