The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Veteran Panelists Reflect on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military

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In commemoration of Veterans Day, the Rockefeller Center co-hosted a conversation on diversity and inclusion in the military co-sponsored with the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding on November 11, 2020. Moderated by Associate Professor of Government Jason Lyall, panelists included Brad Carney ’20, an Army veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne Division and later as an Army Ranger in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, and Karla Rosas ’20, who served in the Air Force for five years as a Security Forces member.

Lyall began with a brief overview of the historical diversity and inclusion (or lack thereof) seen in militaries worldwide, noting that there is still much to learn about the complex relationship between the two ideas. “Our academic fields have largely shied away from questions of identity in the military,” Lyall explained, citing a lack of data, a historic focus on weaponry in discussion of strategy, and a common misconception that a team’s homogeneity is critical to its success. However, referencing his recent book Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War, Lyall emphasized just how critical both diversity and inclusion are to military operations, not only from a moral standpoint, but also with regards to “the effectiveness of your army as it deploys into the challenges of the future.” To that end, Lyall concludes, racism is indeed “a national security threat,” and as such must be dealt with an equally high sense of urgency.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Lyall explained that militaries around the world have actually seen a lot of diversity over the past few centuries; the average army that has gone to battle since 1800 has consisted of about five different ethnic groups. However, he emphasized, in order for this diversity to actually mean something, diversity and inclusion must work hand-in-hand. Inequality “throws away the advantages of having diversity,” Lyall argued, comparing it to a “poison” within an army that “rots it from within.” Just as any group of people in your average workplace, a team lacking in diversity and voices is more likely to take more losses as their ideas and strategies are less original and efficient. Similarly, Lyall recounted, diverse armies throughout history whose leadership had discriminatory views towards certain groups of soldiers often “turn[ed] in on itself” and resorted to violence to maintain control, detracting from the army’s success.

In response to the question of whether the United States military valued diversity and inclusion, Rosas noted that “as far as diversity in the military, there’s a lot of work to be done,” speaking specifically about the need to protect and include transgender people in the military, protect all members of the military from sexual assault, and give “black and brown people…the space to report biased incidents.” She also emphasized the importance of the military actually “defin[ing] diversity and inclusivity for the institution,” noting that it’s “very hard to value something you haven’t defined yet.”

Carney agreed, adding that “in terms of broad strokes… the military seems to be diverse; it just depends where you’re looking.” Despite the high number of African Americans serving in special forces and ranger battalions, Carney noted, it was unclear as to why other groups in the military were often so predominantly white. “The military should reflect our society,” he explained, “and to me there isn’t an obvious reason why there shouldn’t be more black infantrymen.”

Moving forwards, both Rosas and Carney agreed that there was more to be done by the military to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Rosas explained that there needed to be a more active effort to represent a wider range of backgrounds at all levels of leadership in the military. Not only is representation lacking in the upper echelons of military leadership, Rosas noted, but the military doesn’t “invest in [the] professional development” of enlistees, citing pervasive “predatory recruitment,” where recruiters target low-income high schools and neighborhoods to recruit teens and young adults who have little knowledge of what their time in the military will actually bring. Carney added that a certain degree of “toxicity” in the military resulted from the frequent promotion of people with little experience into positions of power where that power may be abused, suggesting that a study needed to be conducted as to why more minorities may not choose to join the military in the first place.

In the end, both Carney and Rosas agreed that their time in the military was pivotal to their success in the personal endeavors that followed. Although both described the military as generally a “mission-first” environment, perhaps at the cost of one’s individualism, their experiences taught them the strength and discipline they now find critical in their everyday lives. “It prepared me for life,” Rosas concluded. “It prepared me for Dartmouth.”

 

-- Written by Shawdi Mehrvarzan’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

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