This year, the Supreme Court may decide Students for Fair Admissions v. The President and Fellows of Harvard College, a case that could prevent schools from considering a student’s race in the admissions process. It has major implications for diversity in the U.S. military and national security more generally.
To discuss the military’s efforts to increase diversity and breakdown what the case might mean for U.S. national security we have Bishop Garrison and Heidi Urben.
Bishop recently served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Defense with a focus on human capital and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. He is a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran where he served in Iraq and earned several awards, including two Bronze Stars. Heidi is a Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and a retired U.S. Army colonel. She teaches, researches, and writes about civil-military relations, military and defense policy, and national security.
Chief Justice John Roberts: We’ll hear argument next in case 20-1199, Students for Fair Admissions v. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Paras Shah: This year, the Supreme Court may decide a case that could prevent schools from considering a student’s race in the admissions process.
It has major implications for the U.S. military and national security. Here’s what Elizabeth Prelogar, the government’s top lawyer, told the Supreme Court in October.
Elizabeth Prelogar: A blanket ban on race-conscious admissions would cause racial diversity to plummet at many of our nation's leading educational institutions. Race-neutral alternatives right now can’t make up the difference, so all students at those schools would be denied the benefits of learning in a diverse educational environment, and because college is the training ground for America’s future leaders, the negative consequences would have reverberations throughout just about every important institution in America. For the United States military, having a diverse officer corps is a critical national security imperative.
Paras: To discuss the military’s efforts to increase diversity and breakdown what the case might mean for U.S. national security we have Bishop Garrison and Heidi Urben.
Bishop recently served as an advisor to the Secretary of Defense with a focus on human capital and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. He is a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and earned several awards, including two Bronze Stars. Heidi is a Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and a retired U.S. Army colonel. She teaches, researches, and writes about civil-military relations, military and defense policy, and national security.
Welcome to the Just Security podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah.
Bishop, Heidi, thanks so much for your service and for joining us today. Let’s start with a big picture question: Why does diversity in the U.S. military matter? And Bishop, why don’t you take this one first?
Bishop Garrison: In my mind, here in the 21st century, we're seeing some of the most complex issues that are facing the national security apparatus and the safety of our country. And in order to properly address those types of issues, you need a lot of dynamic, innovative thought, and you're not going to get that when you have teams that are homogenous, you have teams that come from the same areas, that have similar backgrounds and experiences. You want diversity of thought, and that's very important.
And more often than not, what we see that through having different demographics as a part of your team, so that doesn't just mean marginalized communities, though it's very important that they have proper representation. It also means women, it also means people from different socioeconomic backgrounds as well.
We want to see a multitude of individuals, as I like to say, at the table. Whenever we talk about – and Heidi's, probably laughing because she's heard me I think say this once or twice before – when we think of diversity, we should think of it as a large table, a family table, a conference table, a dinner table, however you wanna see it. And there are a certain amount of chairs there and you have certain groups that have always had a seat at that table. And what we're looking to do when we talk about having more diverse teams is not make anyone get up from their seat, not take away any seats. We're adding a leaf in the middle of that table and we're adding more seats to it. And we're thinking through, well, how can we have the best minds together at this table thinking through these difficult issues?
Heidi Urben: I think what I would offer too is I'm struck by how timely this discussion is right now.
Two big things stand out for me. First, 2023 is the 50th anniversary of the all volunteer force, an all recruited force as the military is very fond of saying, you know, in other words, this doesn't just happen organically. It requires hard work to recruit people to serve in today’s military. It requires a real connection between society and the military to have the fighting force we have today.
And the second big anniversary this year is on July 26th. We'll mark the 75th anniversary of Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces by executive order. These are monumental anniversaries for America's military, and they demonstrate that the decision of who serves isn't accidental. It doesn't just happen. These are, and were, political decisions. I was honored to serve in the Army for over 23 years, including in positions of command. And I firmly believe that one of the things that makes our military great is that it reflects America, and it should reflect America.
Our professional volunteer recruited force is better when it reflects the society it pledges to serve and defend. And so if we care about having the best fighting force to meet a range of threats today, we need talent from every corner of America.
Paras: So this case is about whether schools across the country can consider race as a factor in admissions. But how does that implicate the military and national security?
Heidi: What we're talking about here are officers, and just to give you a sense of the breakdown – at least in the active duty force, but I think it's probably pretty close – when we look at the reserve in National Guard, officers make up about 18% of the active duty force, the vast majority of the US military is in its enlisted ranks, the backbone of each of the services.
Officers are the ones that are gonna serve largely in leadership positions and management positions. They're the ones that are gonna be in positions of command where they would use, and have, military justice authority. So, this has particular importance in the military because officers are typically commissioned from one of three main paths: The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, ROTC, in a number of civilian universities across the country; the service academies, so West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, so forth; or officer candidate school, and what that usually means is that a currently serving enlisted service member has been given an opportunity to become an officer. ROTC, at civilian universities, and the service academies are responsible for producing the vast majority of our officers today.
So, this case is especially important for the Officer Corps in the US military because the path to becoming an officer is through higher education, and what many folks might not appreciate at first blush is the US military isn't an institution with a lot of lateral entry options. So, the military cannot grow a four star general or admiral the same way you might create a CEO in private industry. The path to the top of the Officer Corps is a long and hierarchical one, so it can take over 25 years to reach the rank of general officer. It can take over 35 years to grow a four star general or admiral, and in the overwhelming number of cases, they all started as ROTC or service academy cadets. So who we bring in as cadets very early on has great bearing on who will lead the profession, lead these institutions, decades down the road.
Bishop: Yeah, I want to add to that too, it goes back to individuals being able to see themselves in their leadership. That is in and of itself a recruitment, a retention tool that the military at the time that we have a deficit of candidates coming in. And we have issues with our recruitment numbers we desperately need. In order for an individual to have the proper information about making those flag ranks, they need a mentor that's helping them to identify, well, what are the key assignments you have to hit in order to be that top rated individual at each of your efforts, so you can then, when it's time to be competitive for that one star rank, you have had the proper prerequisites to even be considered for it.
As Heidi mentioned, you can't just start looking at someone at the Full Bird Colonel rank to say, now we need more diversity. Well, you're already too late. Because the diverse candidates had to have hit those particular ranks. Not only that, it starts even in the beginning when they're looking at what branches they're gonna go.
At times, I know more so in the ROTC, at least from the Army perspective, they are often at the needs of the army in terms of how they get selected for the branches. And so they have a little less control, but with the academies with West Point, you actually have a bit more say based on your class rank, your academic, military, and physical performance, in order to get that – not only the the base you potentially want to go to – but also the branch assignment.
The reason I bring all that up is, that is key as you're going through your career. If you're going to be selected 20 odd years down the road for a one-star position, if you've had those key assignments and who has been your validator, your mentor who can speak to the quality of the work you have put forth throughout all of that.
And lots of times, minority candidates – and I can speak from my own experiences on this – but minority cadets, minority officers don't have vision into that's the way the process in the community works. So when you have politicals that come in and say, “Hey, General Smith, why don't we have more diverse or more women serving in these positions?”
Well, their first question is, what did our lieutenants in infantry and armor and field artillery and aviation, what did they look like? Because until you tell me that our mission as a military, and as the separate branches, have changed, I'm going to be pulling my pool of qualified candidates from these certain backgrounds who have hit these certain prerequisites. And these key positions, that's the way they do their calculus. And if you don't know that, and often we don't, particularly as people of color, particularly as women, if we don't understand that, we're not gonna be as competitive as we need to be down the road.
Paras: What do some of the statistics around minorities in the military look like today?
Heidi: The statistics that I saw were 31% of the active duty force are racial minorities of some category. And then when you hone in on officers versus enlisted, you start to see some differences. So, racial minorities make about a third, of enlisted ranks compared to about 25% of the Officer Corps. So enlisted ranks look more like America. Officer Corps is a little bit less diverse or less representative.
Paras: So how does that compare to the militaries past?
Bishop: I will say that we have come a long way when you look at just July 26th, 1948 having a desegregated military, and it still took 10 years in order for that to actually go into effect and to be properly implemented. And even then, you're talking 1958 and that's still in the middle or quite really at the height of the civil rights movement within the United States.
So a lot of what we're doing and a lot of what we've consistently seen in the military is they tend to be on the innovative side of how we work through personnel issues and how we deal with a lot of the societal discourse that's happening around these service members. But at the same time, we still have a long way to go and we are a reflection of society, and society in and of itself is imperfect.
Heidi: So, you know, when we look at some of these big decisions in the past 75 years, every time in U.S. history when there's been a debate about opening paths to service – from the decision to desegregate the armed forces to the decisions to allow women to serve and then women to serve in all combat specialties just recently, to the repeal of don't ask no tell –there's always been this argument that, well, the military isn't and shouldn't be a social experiment, and if we remove these barriers to service, there's gonna be an ensuing decrease in readiness. In other words, there's been this debate of a false binary that you can either have a force that looks like America or you can have readiness, but you can't have both.
And the reality is, as we've gone through each of these big policy decisions that have allowed a wider swath of America to serve, you know, that false binary just hasn't really held up in reality. Each time one of those barriers was removed, we didn't see a decline in readiness, but rather we welcomed a new pool of willing and qualified Americans to serve.
And Bishop's exactly right. Like, this has taken a long time. Yes, the military is often the leading edge of such change, but that change can be uneven and it just takes a long time to fully implement that. It's a success story, I think, in the aggregate, but it's a long, you know, road and a long path to get there.
Paras: Another role of military service that might be overlooked is humanitarian missions and assistance. So how does diversity factor in in those types of situations?
Bishop: Yeah, again, it goes back to the communities that you're working with. That's not to say that people who are non-diverse can't go and learn languages and have an understanding of cultural backgrounds and nuances that are necessary to properly engage with local populations. We see this all the time. We've dealt with it for over 20 years in combat with Iraq and Afghanistan.
But, at the same time, when you have people that are native speakers, when you have people who grew up in those cultures and who fully and properly understand the cultural nuances, and the importance of how we approach and build relationships, and build bridges to these communities, you get more of that when you have a diverse team or you have individuals who have lived it, who again have that lived experience. And you run a greater risk when you don't have those individuals as a part of your team and you're more likely to have some type of misunderstanding or miss some type of issue that could cause a problem with your overall operations. If you have someone there that can speak the slang, that can properly interpret what's happening and what's going on, that can tell you when someone is not being as forthright as they need to be, when someone is trying to be problematic and disrupt your operations, you get more of that with people that understand and know the culture, and you're gonna get that from a more diverse team.
Heidi: We still need a complete reckoning of our military's performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's fair to say that our cultural understanding and awareness was deficient not just at the outset of each conflict, but throughout the entirety of both conflicts. We got better as time went on, but the same was true in the Balkans. The same was true in Vietnam. And so if we're gonna fight future wars, on the ground and among the people, we need to excel in understanding our environment and a homogenous force doesn't help us in that regard.
Paras: How has the military done at retaining diverse talent?
Heidi: There's also a story here, and that doesn't get as much coverage perhaps in the news as recruitment does. In the aggregate, we're doing better on retention than recruitment. So there's some encouraging signs there. I would argue that they're interrelated, right? So if somebody has a not great experience in the military and they leave and they get out and they go back home, they become sort of a counter recruiter, by sharing their experiences and so forth.
Among the senior officer ranks, as Bishop pointed out, is where we see the least amount of diversity. It was just this past August where the Marine Corps promoted its first ever Black four-star Michael Langley in its 246 year history. So it's not just a question about how do we recruit or assess a diverse force, it's how do we ensure racial minorities. Women continue to serve beyond their initial service obligation.
What I've seen is a greater willingness to examine unconscious bias. So the Army a couple years ago made the step to eliminate the use of official photographs and promotion boards. There are ongoing efforts to examine whether there have been disparities in the application of military justice, based on race. These are small efforts, but they can go a long way, and they also serve to build trust within units in the military writ large.
Bishop: Yeah, Heidi made some excellent points there. I'd also add the Marine Corps promoted its first ever female Black two-star general as well, Lorna Mahlock, who was also their first ever one star. So that also, reinforces the issue that we're talking about.
Another key aspect the Army did, and I know other services are looking into it too, is a 360 review, evaluation process for their Officer Corps as well. I've spoken with a lot of officers, really believed that it's a step in the right direction. It's something you see more in the private sector and in businesses lots of times these days.
So they are beginning a lot of smart initiatives. You're going to have to show a lot of junior officers what the long term benefits are to a career in the military. Being a member of the United States military’s hard, serving in the military is hard because it’s about service and sacrifice, and not just for you, but for your families. Military families are on the forefront of the sacrifice and for our nation, and we don't say that enough on a regular basis. So, if we're going to demonstrate to individuals why they should be a part of the United States military at such an early age, at the beginning of their career, we need to have a really good game plan.
We need to have a really good argument as to why you're going to not only put yourself through this, but your family, because it is about service and sacrifice, but we need to ensure that we're showing them that it's not all just service and sacrifice, that there are, are a lot of fantastic opportunities that will allow you to be prosperous in the long run and allow you to learn a great deal to build skillsets, to make lifelong friends, to build lifelong relationships that are gonna be important and give you a great deal of wealth within your life and career.
Paras: The million dollar question here is what happens if the Supreme court bans schools from using race as a factor in admissions. And I know I'm asking you to speculate and read some tea leaves here, but what do you think would happen then?
Bishop: I don't want to have any type of knee-jerk reaction, but I'm concerned. I want to understand and know how services will react to that. What type of policies will they try to implement that help them, and to ensure that they can continually be competitive in terms of recruiting top diverse talent?
The military has long been very resilient and very flexible in terms of how it approaches very complex issues, particularly issues of personnel and readiness. I will say that it's gonna make their work more difficult. There will be problems associated with any type of repeal of these types of policies, or any type of – whether it's a blanket ban or something more nuanced – that is gonna have an impact on how we are able to recruit diverse talent. But I don't want to yet be an alarmist and say that it's going to be the end of all minorities at academies or in ROTC. I think we'll still have some work to do, but we need more information. We need to see what happens first.
Heidi: Yeah, if the Supreme Court overturns race-conscious admissions policies, it doesn't mean the Department of Defense and the military is gonna suddenly stop caring about racial and ethnic diversity in its ranks. It just makes it that much harder, ia time when the propensity to serve among American youth is at an all-time low, about nine percent I think in recent surveys, it just means the task becomes that much harder to recruit a willing and qualified volunteer force. There's been a number of stories that have covered how difficult recruitment has been the past couple years.
So, this is a fight for talent across the country and, the Supreme Court decision, one way or the other, isn't gonna change that dynamic for the U.S. military and that they remain in a fight to find the most qualified, talented individuals willing to serve today. But the decision will add to the complexity of this at a time when it's already a hard sell, perhaps, to convince America's sons and daughters to consider a career in the military. So, it doesn't mean that DoD and the military is gonna stop caring about diversity, but it will make their job harder.
Bishop: I just hope that we continue these types of conversations around this topic. It's incredibly important. It's not diversity for diversity's sake. We have, for way too long, put diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts in its own little stove pipe, its own little vertical. And it's been siloed off from the broader aspects of military, of service, of operations, of understanding why this is such an important role and key part of our national security apparatus.
And I would hope that we see a point in which this has become less politicized, and less of a hot button issue.
Heidi: All I would add to is, nothing about an all volunteer force, an all recruited force, is inevitable or natural, right? It requires and depends upon a connection between the military and its society. And perhaps, you know, a second or third implication of having a smaller volunteer force is that today's military is less understood, less known, less considered by the American public. Diversity's not just a laudable goal or initiative to make an environment more harmonious. It has real national security implications.
Paras: Let’s wrap up there. Bishop, Heidi, thanks so much.
The Just Security podcast is produced in partnership with NYU's American Journalism Online program. AJO trains students to become world class journalists, no matter where they live or work. Find out more about AJO, and how you can apply, in our show notes.
This episode was hosted by me with co-production and editing by Tiffany Chang and Michelle Eigenheer. Our music is the song “The Parade” by Hey Pluto! Special thanks to Clara Apt, Bishop Garrison, and Heidi Urben.
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