The military leader who spoke out against racism just over a month ago has become the latest member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to weigh in on how the military should react in the wake of national unrest sparked by the death of another black man in police custody.
His statement makes it a clean sweep of joint chiefs speaking up and caps a day of statements from nearly all of the military’s upper echelon leadership at a time when the nation is reeling from days of widespread unrest.
“Current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division — rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself," Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said in a statement Wednesday.
The events — peaceful demonstrations of outrage, violent displays of destruction and an often heavy-handed response from law enforcement and in some cases the military — come in the wake of the death George Floyd, who prosecutors say was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer while restrained.
"The trust Marines place in one another on a daily basis demands this. Only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality, and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core values, and serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects us to be.”
Berger said he and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black are inviting commanders and leaders in the service to discuss these issues with their Marines and sailors, and actively listen to promote a better future.
“By listening, we learn, by learning, we change," Berger said. "The path to a more just and equal Marine Corps begins with these conversations.”
In April, well before this latest controversy, Berger issued a letter for the June 2020 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette about race relations where he claimed the Confederate battle flag “has the power to inflame feelings of division.” That was one reason he called to “exclude from our Corps public displays” of the battle flag carried by the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Berger is the latest military leader to address racial and Constitutional issues and joins the Air Force, Army and chiefs of staff who have raised their voices. Thier statements and those from other military leaders follow days of roiling protests that have rocked the nation, and come after President Donald Trump signaled his intention to send active duty troops out to quell civil unrest.
Wednesday saw a flood of statements.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley ssued a memo reminding the joint force that “Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it. This document is founded upon the essential principal that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. We in uniform — all branches, all components and all ranks — remain committed to our national values and principals embedded in the Constitution.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper sought to dispell the idea that service members will be asked to detain or fire upon their fellow citizens.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
U.S. Army and Navy leadership also released statements and videos Wednesday acknowledging the pain and tumult being felt across America and the military ranks.
Top Army officials released a letter noting the public frustration and affirming the Army’s commitment to rebuilding trust in response to the death of Floyd.
“Our ability to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, is founded upon a sacred trust with the American people. Racial division erodes that trust,” wrote Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston.
They urged Army leaders of all ranks to listen to their people, ask uncomfortable questions, and to “create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing grievances.
“Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” they wrote. “That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen.”
The Navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, released a video Wednesday addressing this “confusing” and “sad time for our country.”
Gilday acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“I will never walk in the shoes of a black American or any other minority,” Gilday said. “I will never know what it feels like when you watch that video of Mr. Floyd’s murder. And I can’t imagine the pain and the disappointment and the anger that many of you felt when you saw that.”
Gilday encouraged sailors to reach out to their shipmates of color, Americans who “are in deep pain right now.”
“I’ve received emails,” he said. “I know that for many of them, they may not have somebody to talk to. I ask you to consider reaching out, have a cup of coffee, have lunch, and just listen.”
He said he “can’t be under any illusions” that racism doesn’t exist in the Navy.
When shipmates hear racist comments or jokes, they need to call out those sailors, friends and family members, Gilday said.
“Make them more self-aware of what they did and what they said,” he said. “If we don’t do that, racism, injustice, indignity and disrespect — it’s going to grow and it’s going to continue.”
Gen. Joseph Lengyel, head of the National Guard Bureau, weighed in on Wednesday night with a letter he posted to Twitter.
“We cannot tolerate racism, discrimination, or casual violence,” he wrote. “We cannot abide divisiveness and hate.”
Leadership at the Italy-based U.S. 6th Fleet command also released a letter Wednesday asking shipmates and families to reflect on the outrage sparked by George Floyd’s death.
Sixth Fleet commander Adm. James Foggo, Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, Command Master Chief Johannes Gonzalez and Fleet Master Chief Derrick Walters wrote “it is also time for each of us to redouble our personal efforts to create — and ensure — a climate and a culture that is based on respect, dignity, and inclusion in every corner of our organization.”
Prior to these two releases, Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of Space Force, labeled racism as an enemy and called to build diversity and inclusion into the service’s “cultural DNA” in a letter to troops last night.
“Our nation needs us to build this new Service to protect and defend our access to and freedom to maneuver in space,” he said in the letter sent to the Space Force. “However, this is not possible unless we build this Service on a foundation of dignity and respect for all.”
Raymond said that these events serve as a reminder that “racism and unequal treatment is a reality for many and a travesty for all” and urged members of the Space Force to “look deeper: ask hard questions, have uncomfortable conversations,” and more.
On Monday, outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein was the first member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to denounce the police conduct in in Floyd’s death and pushed for Americans to confront the reality of racism
Previous to Goldfein’s memo, his top enlisted advisor, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright posted a Twitter thread expressing solidarity with other black men who have died from police brutality and promising a review of the Air Force justice system.
In response to these concerns, Goldfein said that the Air Force inspector general will review its military justice system, racial injustice, and opportunities for airmen of all backgrounds to advance.
Along with these top Air and Space Force officials, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has commented on the recent events. In a memo to U.S. troops on Tuesday, he urged service members to stay apolitical and voiced his commitment to uphold laws that protect “the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens.”
Other high ranking service members, including the Navy’s top enlisted sailor, Russell Smith, have spoken out, according to the Washington Post.
Smith wrote, “as sailors, we cannot tolerate discrimination of any kind,” a sentiment echoed by many.
Commander of Air Force Special Operations Command Lt. Gen. James Slife added that “our Air Force is a reflection of our society, so, by extension, this is an Air Force issue... We have to face it. And to face it, we have to talk about it.”
Retired Army Colonel Eric Flowers added that if people do not address and talk about the discrimination and problems at hand, that leaves an unspoken message that service members of color are being left unacknowledged.
In his letter written back before the nation’s cities began to burn, Berger reasoned that his job as the top Marine is to build a “team” that can fight and win, which requires unit cohesion, unit pride and emphases on the team over individuality.
“We are a warfighting organization, an elite institution of warriors who depend on each other to win the tough battles. Anything that divides us, anything that threatens team cohesion must be addressed head-on,” Berger wrote at the time.
“I ask every Marine to understand that I fully accept my duty and responsibility to help build this team. That means I must identify symbols or subcultures that degrade the cohesion that combat demands of us,” Berger wrote.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.