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The Equal Opportunity Army

How will U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s structural overhaul of the U.S. forces benefit domestic policies?

August 31, 2001

How will U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's structural overhaul of the U.S. forces benefit domestic policies?

For all the global debate about the defense priorities of the United States, one the most important roles the U.S. military plays is almost completely overlooked. And yet, it is the one dimension that even the sworn enemies of the United States might welcome — the military’s role as an agent of domestic policy.

It is a well-known fact that weapons programs and military bases provide attractive and high-paying jobs in key Congressional districts all around the United States. Often, these jobs are in regions that would be in poor economic shape — without all those defense dollars.

But, in contrast, the often overlooked contribution which the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard have made is in the area of race relations. In fact, there are few other entities in U.S. society that are as important in promoting effective racial integration as the U.S. military.

The role of the military in providing professional development and training opportunities for minorities — and for fostering racial equality — is significant. African-Americans today make up 36% of the highest non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army — even though they account for just 12% of the overall U.S. population.

These are precisely the types of jobs that, in their civilian guise, are often the most difficult for blacks to obtain. The jobs are equivalent to factory foreman or master technician, which often require licenses or union memberships that are difficult to obtain.

And contrary to popular belief — and sharply differing from the state of affairs during the Vietnam era — there is ample evidence that blacks and other minorities are no longer disproportionately represented at the front lines in real conflicts. Minorities tend to concentrate on the support jobs that provide skills for civilian careers. Meanwhile, today’s front-line soldiers tend to be young white Americans, searching for some adrenaline-rushing, adventurous years.

The U.S. military remains one of the few places where blacks and other minorities routinely supervise and give orders to whites. That makes it a leading-edge institution.

This factor should also be part of the equation when U.S. defense planners swing the ax to reduce the size of the armed forces to free up funds for high-tech projects such as missile defense. In doing so, they might inadvertently deal a blow to an institution that provides one of the few places in U.S. society where race has really, seriously become almost irrelevant. The military’s commitment to equal opportunity makes it more than just a job training organization — important as that is.

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are also an important source of racial harmony. Perhaps what the United States needs is to expand the number of people in national service — rather than to substitute missiles for them.