Defense Secretary pick deserves a fair hearing

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 19, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

The US Senate opens hearings this week on retired general Lloyd Austin’s nomination as next defense secretary. To some, Austin should lead because he’s Black and battle-hardened. To others, he’s disqualified because he’s not civilian enough. Austin’s been reduced to his stars or skin color. It’s not the first time this has happened to someone like him.

138 years ago this month, Henry O. Flipper of Thomasville, Georgia, was dishonorably discharged for a crime he didn’t commit. He was held to an awful double standard. White officers had recently received light reprimands for the same charge. Flipper was West Point’s first Black graduate, the US Army’s only African-American officer when he was kicked out.
Flipper was ostracized at West Point. Thankfully, that had changed by the time Lloyd Austin, also from Thomasville, graduated from the military academy in 1975. Yet Austin’s now experiencing the same prejudgment and double standard Flipper did well over a century ago.

Since President-elect Joe Biden announced Dec. 8 he would nominate Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary, an “angry mob” hasdenounced his nomination. Austin requires a special waiver approved by the US House and Senate. The waiver would satisfy the National Security Act of 1947’s seven-year post-retirement waiting period for military officers. 
The rule keeps civilians in charge of the defense department. It provides ‘cooling off’ time for retired military officers before assuming Pentagon leadership. Two waivers have been granted. First, in 1950 for retired general George Marshall. Then four years ago for former general James Mattis. 

The scholar Eliot Cohen testified four years ago that senators should “make an exception for Mattis.” But Mattis had been retired for just under 4 years. Austin’s been retired a full year longer. Mattis was that much closer friends and generals; to press for Mattis and push against Austin makes little sense.

As Congressman Ro Khanna, member of the House Armed Services Committee said, he “does not see how we can grant it for Mattis and then turn around a few years later and deny it for one of the most qualified African-American leaders to ever serve out nation.”

If the waiver’s standard is an emergency, as Cohen has written, then current Pentagon leadership looks like an emergency.

People of color make up 43 percent of the active military’s 1.3 million members. Black troops are 22.7 percent of enlisted soldiers, 16.5 percent of warrant officers, and 11 percent of officers. 

Until 2020, there had never been a Black general or admiral in charge of any military service. What’s worse, the pipeline for prestigious leadership jobs is and has been severely constrained. Only 2 Black colonels command among 96 of the US Army’s brigades. Only 3 Black officers command the 85 warplane wings in the US Air Force. Congresswoman Jackie Speier has said these figures demonstrate “the path to attaining senior rank remains effectively closed to Black soldiers.” 

Civilian Black leadership at the Pentagon is also small. African-American civilians make up 20 percent of the workforce, but only 6.6 percent of senior executives. 

When you restrict the pipeline, is it any wonder that it takes an exception to break through a broken system? 

Others think Austin will only get the job either because he’s Black or courageous. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that President-elect Biden is being pressured into granting “cabinet jobs based on race and gender.” 

Austin’s loudest backers include retired generals who praise his leadership “from the front.”

But running the Department of Defense takes more than guts. Austin’s being considered for CEO of the world’s largest organization, with more than 700,000 civilians and 2.2 million servicemembers. Defense’s research and development budget of $80 billion per year is “more than twice Google’s, Microsoft’s, and Apple’s R&D combined,” according to former defense secretary Ash Carter. 

To lead defense is an enormous position of responsibility and trust. America’s future is shaped by defense secretary hands. 

So let’s hear Austin speak, on the record, to address both the concerns and gains that come with his potential service as defense secretary. There’s more to Lloyd Austin than some old stars and his skin color. 

America didn’t fully consider Henry Flipper’s case until fifty-nine years after his death. It took till 1999, when he earned a posthumous Presidential pardon. 

We’ve got another chance to make a choice about a West Pointer from Thomasville, Georgia. The least we can do is give him a fair hearing. 

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