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The Washington Post Company

A Multicultural Military

By Dennis C. Blair and Joe R. Reeder

March 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post. All rights reserved. 

One vital requirement of the American military -- one we cannot afford to lose sight of in peace or war -- is a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps that is educated and trained to command America's racially diverse enlisted ranks. A cohesive officer corps is essential to the military's ability to protect national security. This is not an abstract academic goal, it is a combat imperative.

That is why the outcome of the University of Michigan affirmative action cases now before the Supreme Court is so important to us. It will, inevitably, have a powerful effect on the ability of our fighting forces to fulfill their vital mission.

Last month we joined 27 former top-ranking officers and civilian leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps -- including military academy superintendents, former secretaries of defense, and present and former Senate leaders -- in submitting an amicus brief supporting the use of race-conscious admission policies. For the good of the nation, the policies established by the Supreme Court in University of California v. Bakke must not be overturned.

Over the past two decades, the military has made major progress in achieving a fully integrated, highly qualified officer corps. It cannot maintain the diversity it now enjoys without the ability to recruit and educate a diverse officer corps. The primary sources for the nation's officer corps are the ROTC and our service academies. The academies use limited race-conscious recruiting and admissions policies. The pool of minority candidates at any given ROTC member institution is limited by the number of minority students admitted. A cohesive military requires a diverse officer corps, and it requires that our officers be educated and trained in diverse educational settings.

During the 1960s and '70s, while integration increased the percentage of minorities in the enlisted ranks, the percentage of minority officers remained disturbingly low. The perception of discrimination was the standard. This contributed to low morale and heightened racial tension. The resulting danger is not theoretical, as the Vietnam era demonstrated. As that war continued, the armed forces suffered increased racial polarization, pervasive disciplinary problems and racially motivated incidents in Vietnam and in other places around the world. By the early '70s, racial strife in the ranks was pervasive. The dearth of minority officers substantially exacerbated the problems.

To resolve this threat to combat readiness, the armed services moved aggressively to diversify the officer corps and, equally important, to train all officers in diverse educational environments. In full accord with Bakke and the Defense Department's affirmative action program, the academies and the ROTC have set goals for minority officer candidates, and they work hard to achieve those goals. They use financial and tutorial assistance as well as recruiting programs to expand the pool of highly qualified minority candidates in a variety of explicitly race-conscious ways. They also employ race as a factor in recruiting and admissions policies and decisions.

These efforts have substantially increased the percentage of qualified minority officers. Moreover, increasing numbers of officer candidates are trained and educated in racially diverse educational settings, giving them the irreplaceable educational benefits inherent in a mix that matches the nation's highly diverse enlisted ranks.

No workable alternative to limited, race-conscious programs currently exists that would increase the pool of high-quality minority officer candidates and ensure diverse educational training for officers. The military's aggressive minority recruiting programs must continue to increase the pool of qualified minority candidates.

Our diverse fighting force not only deserves this, it requires it.

Dennis C. Blair, a retired Navy admiral, was commander in chief of Pacific Force in 1999-2000. Joe R. Reeder is a former undersecretary of the Army and served as an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division.

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