Posted on October 25, 2022

Military Leaders: Affirmative Action Is a National Security Imperative

Jerome Karabel, The Hill, October 23, 2022

Of the many issues raised by the contentious affirmative action cases that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, national security would not seem to be among them. Yet that is precisely what a distinguished group of former military leaders argue in an extraordinary friend-of-the-court brief supporting the affirmative action programs of Harvard and the University of North Carolina.


The military’s message could not be clearer: “Because most of the military’s officer corps come from service academies or ROTC, the diversity of these institutions and programs directly impacts the diversity of our military’s leadership … History has shown that placing a diverse Armed Forces under the command of a homogeneous leadership is a recipe of internal resentment, discord, and violence.”

Among those who signed the brief: four former chairmen of the Joint Chief of Staff  — Gen. Joseph Dunford, Gen. Richard B. Meyers, Adm. Michael G. Mullen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton — six former superintendents of the U.S., Naval, and Air Force Academies and 17 retired four-star generals, including Wesley Clark and William McRaven.

The military’s deep commitment to a diverse officer corps is rooted not in an abstract commitment to social justice, but rather in hard-earned experience. In 1962, just as American military involvement in Vietnam was beginning, just 1.6 percent of commissioned military officers were African American. {snip}

The vast discrepancy between an overwhelmingly white office corps and the large number of Black troops they commanded contributed to an atmosphere of acute racial tension within the armed forces. According to the military’s amicus brief, “in 1969 and 1970 alone, the Army cataloged more than 300 race-related internal disturbances, which resulted in the deaths of seventy-one American troops.” As the Vietnam War continued, the military argued in an amicus brief submitted in an earlier affirmative action case, “racial tensions reached a point where there was an inability to fight.”

The military’s conclusion from this period of intense racial strife was unequivocal: “The stark disparity between the social composition of the rank-and-file and that of the officer corps, fueled a breakdown of order that endangered the military’s ability to fulfill its mission.” It was in this context that race-conscious affirmative action was introduced at the nation’s military academies and in the armed forces. The new policy largely succeeded in producing the intended changes: The current entering class at West Point is 12 percent African-American, and the officer corps is 9 percent Black, though progress at the very highest ranks has been considerably more modest.


In a post-George-Floyd America, the prospect of a return to an overwhelmingly white officer corps exercising life-and-death authority over rank-and-file troops who are now over 40 percent nonwhite is a deeply alarming one. But the current Supreme Court has shown itself to be willing to overturn decades of precedent. The question before it now is whether it will once again not only cast precedent aside, but also ignore the warnings of the nation’s most eminent military leaders on a fundamental matter of national security.