Why The Military Needs Diversity

Community
Photo by Gary Nichols

In the comments section of a recent article in Task and Purpose, someone wrote, “Diversity is no substitute for excellence. Period.” I’m sparing you the all-capital letters typical of the comments section genre. Several other comments echoed that commenter’s statement, with widely varying degrees of eloquence and sanity.


These were in response to writer Anna Granville’s statement, “The majority of senior military leaders are white, Christian, conservative men … who grew up middle-class or privileged … this also means there’s a lack of diversity of ideas, a resistance to alternative ways of thinking, and the lethality of group think.”

As with many hot-button issues, the issue of diversity has been twisted so that in the minds of many, it has devolved into a caricature where there are only two possible positions. There is either absolutely no institutional acknowledgement of the existence of minorities at all, or there is some type of strict quota-based, “affirmative action” hand-out system totally independent of individual merit. As with most political and ideological issues, there is actually a practical and realistic center.

For whatever scoffing the overused term “diversity” engenders, it has significant payoffs. All else being equal, a team with more than one represented demographic will tend to perform better, especially when it comes to producing innovation, which becomes more important to the military with each passing day. Groups with members of varied backgrounds generate more ideas and encourage individuals to “up their games.

In the military, we sometimes add tactical necessity to the mix — the Marine Lioness program is an example. It allowed female Marines in units to conduct searches and collect actionable intelligence among local women in Iraq. Additionally, in a military operating in far-flung reaches of the world, having diverse backgrounds often leads to units having individuals conversant in the culture or language of an area of operations.

Additionally, the corporate world already widely recognizes diversity as a necessity for recruitment and retention and the military should as well. Having minorities and women in a workplace helps to recruit and retain them — seeing people like you makes a difference. White men have benefited from this principle for generations — they just never consciously think about it.

It’s not a choice between diversity and high standards. They aren’t mutually exclusive. With the right approach diversity can actually increase the military’s standards.

Let’s start by saying that there’s nothing wrong with being a white Christian male. I’m one myself. I know that senior military leaders of that persuasion worked hard to get to their positions, but only the most naive would not admit that some others of different backgrounds might have to exercise more initiative or work a little harder to reach the same level.

A major issue here is that from adolescence on, white males stare military service in the face as a primary option. It’s not uncommon for them to have an unbroken male lineage of military service going back to their grandfathers and sometimes beyond. Their families and communities wholeheartedly endorse them joining. That doesn’t occur nearly as often for those from other demographics. For many women and some minorities, joining the military, especially as an officer, is not as obvious an option as it is for a typical white male.

This is where an opportunity to encourage diversity without compromising standards comes in. Diversity doesn’t have to be some plan by which a thumb has to be put on the scale favoring the minority or the woman in any selection; like the type of affirmative action where a racial or gender-based golf handicap gets figured into the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery score for enlisted service members, SAT scores for officer programs, or some other standard.

By just making a bigger effort to broaden the pool of applicants we select from, we have the ability to increase, not decrease, quality. If there’s a large pool of potential applicants who are ignoring the option of joining the military for whatever reason, then by taking steps to encourage more of them to apply, quality goes up, not down. To use a simplified example, if you need to pick 10 people for a job, are you more likely to get higher quality recruits from a group of 50 applicants or 100?

The biggest example of this is the under-representation of women in the military. Leaving the combat-exclusion debate aside, if women applied to the military at the same rate as men, especially to competitive programs such as officer selection, the military’s selectivity, and thereby its quality, could go way up.

The same principle applies to under-represented ethnic minorities as well, albeit in a more marginal fashion, because we aren’t dealing with a near-doubling of the potential pool.

Culturally, the military has to take an honest self-assessment as an institution and ask why some of these populations don’t join at the same rate as the stereotypical white male. To seize an obvious example, a lot of parents are going to discourage their daughters from joining if they feel that sexual assault is one of the occupational hazards. While the Department of Defense’s handling of this issue has been hamfisted and often counterproductive, the fact remains that this perception holds the military back in a big way, and that needs to be fixed.

Getting more women and minority applicants can be as simple as advertising the military more to those groups. It may also mean strategies such as placing recruiters into communities that may initially yield lower returns, in hopes that over time the military will be more recognized as an viable career option.

Other steps to broaden the possible pool for competitive selection include recruiting more officers out of the enlisted ranks, rather than out of high school for ROTC or academies. That would lessen the disparate impact of poor high schools in favor of proven job performance, while providing more role models of leaders from under-represented demographics.

Diversity doesn’t have to be accompanied by the straw man trope of lowered standards. If we embrace equality of opportunity, vice equality of results, it can be a win-win. It may take awhile, but we can actually increase the quality of our force, while gradually making a force that looks more like the nation it defends.

Islamic state members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. (Reuters/Rodi Said)

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) - The Islamic State appeared closer to defeat in its last enclave in eastern Syria on Wednesday, as a civilian convoy left the besieged area where U.S.-backed forces estimate a few hundred jihadists are still holed up.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 317th Airlift Wing walk to waiting family members and friends after stepping off of a C-130J Super Hercules at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 17, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Mercedes Porter)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The U.S. Air Force has issued new guidelines for active-duty, reserve and National Guard airmen who are considered non-deployable, and officials will immediately begin flagging those who have been unable to deploy for 12 consecutive months for separation consideration.

Read More Show Less
Pictured left to right: Pedro Pascal ("Catfish"), Garrett Hedlund ("Ben"), Charlie Hunnam ("Ironhead"), and Ben Affleck ("Redfly") Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A new trailer for Netflix's Triple Frontier dropped last week, and it looks like a gritty mash-up of post-9/11 war dramas Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker and crime thrillers Narcos and The Town.

Read More Show Less
Army Sgt. Daniel Cowart gets a hug from then-Dallas Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty. Photo: Department of Defense

The Distinguished Service Cross was made for guys like Sgt. Daniel Cowart, who literally tackled and "engaged...in hand to hand combat" a man wearing a suicide vest while he was on patrol in Iraq.

So it's no wonder he's having his Silver Star upgraded to the second-highest military award.

Read More Show Less
A small unmanned aerial vehicle built by service academy cadets is shown here flying above ground. This type of small UAV was used by cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored competition at Camp Roberts, California, April 23-25, 2017. During the competition, cadets and midshipmen controlled small UAVs in "swarm" formations to guard territory on the ground at Camp Roberts. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drones have been used in conflicts across the globe and will play an even more important role in the future of warfare. But, the future of drones in combat will be different than what we have seen before.

The U.S. military can set itself apart from others by embracing autonomous drone warfare through swarming — attacking an enemy from multiple directions through dispersed and pulsing attacks. There is already work being done in this area: The U.S. military tested its own drone swarm in 2017, and the UK announced this week it would fund research into drone swarms that could potentially overwhelm enemy air defenses.

I propose we look to the amoeba, a single-celled organism, as a model for autonomous drones in swarm warfare. If we were to use the amoeba as this model, then we could mimic how the organism propels itself by changing the structure of its body with the purpose of swarming and destroying an enemy.

Read More Show Less