Commentary

Race and the Marine Corps

As I read retired Col. Thomas Hobbs’ op-ed “The Marine Corps: Always faithful — to white men,” I was struck by both the power of his emotional argument and the inefficacy of its logic.

By painting the Marine Corps — its traditions, processes, policies, and procedures — as inherently racist, he inadvertently excuses racist individuals from any personal responsibility. This is like saying, “All Germans are innately evil. Need proof? Look at the Holocaust.” Such statements defy logic, and serve only to label potential critics as defenders of racism. Throughout his essay, Hobbs’ argument falls short of logical consistency, and hence he ultimately renders his argument irrelevant. Most of the shortcomings involve unsubstantiated assertions that originated as talking points from various interest groups.

The first assertion involves Hobbs’ statement that, “Americans of color are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate to white Americans due to the accumulated effects of institutional racism at the federal and state levels.” This fact is not supported by reference to any data, it just lays there, daring the reader to doubt it. It has absolutely no relation to the remainder of the argument; its sole function is to establish the author’s purported virtue as a social commentator. I’m no epidemiologist, but I suspect racial disparities in infection and mortality are due to a myriad of factors. Some of those factors may indeed result from this country’s heritage as a monoethnic social and cultural polity, but it’s much too early in the life of the pandemic to make deterministic statements, much less to discuss notions of “blame” or “victimhood.”

Second, Hobbs argues that the Marine Corps’ branching model used at The Basic School produces “racist outcomes.” Such outcomes are defined only as, “most of these black officers did not select combat arms, the institution forced them into [those branches], to meet racial quotas.” By itself, forced branching is race-neutral. It is simply a way to ensure that all required branches are filled according to the manning priorities adopted by or levied on a given military service. Force-branching to meet some unspecified racial ratios in each branch may be unfair to those individuals not given one of their top three branch choices, but it is hardly racist. The fault lies not with the branching process or the Marine Corps, but with federal legislation (enacted with the enthusiastic support of legislators of all colors from both political parties) requiring ever-more rigid representation ratios. The proper response is to alter the legislation, not vilify those required to enforce it.

Recruits from Company C help a fellow recruit climb an 8-foot wall at Parris Island, S.C., Dec. 14, 2012. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Griffin/Air Force)
Recruits from Company C help a fellow recruit climb an 8-foot wall at Parris Island, S.C., Dec. 14, 2012. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Griffin/Air Force)

Third, Hobbs’ argument cites an overall lower level of academic achievement on the part of officers of color (again with no evidence cited). Specifically, he asserts that minority officers have more trouble with land navigation, marksmanship, and swimming requirements than white officers. “Many of the minority officers I led grew up in low socio-economic areas, typically poor urban neighborhoods. They did not have access to scouting, neighborhood pools or hunting.” I will admit that when I was a Boy Scout in the 1970s, I earned merit badges for swimming, target shooting, and orienteering. Most scouting organizations in 2020, however, spend the vast majority of their time doing “safe” activities indoors. Based on my personal experience and observation, this is because most councils can’t afford the insurance for more ambitious activities, a large percentage of scouts’ parents oppose the introduction of weapons training in any form, and few scouting leaders possess the requisite skills themselves. As the commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command told a group of officers (in 1994!), “The ‘hunters and gatherers’ are long gone, and today’s recruits need significant training” on exactly those three tasks. It may be that these events unduly affect an officer’s chances at securing a branch assignment of choice, but the reasons offered in the essay fail to convince — especially since the implicit argument for white supremacy is that ALL white officers had equal and unfettered access to swimming pools, robust scouting activities, and hunting with small- or medium-caliber firearms.

Deep in the essay, one finds the declaration that, “The [Marine Corps] perpetuates the unspoken narrative of white superiority by setting up minority officers for failure.” In Hobbs’ view, a major contributor to their failure is an insistence “by those who have power and determine the standards… that the language we use in the Marine Corps, particularly among officers [be] ‘proper’ English.” I find this a curious statement. In a pluralistic society with an increasing ratio of foreign-born recruits, it only makes sense to communicate with all of one’s subordinates using a common idiom. After all, we’re not Austria-Hungary or Canada. A failure to communicate the proper meaning of an order in combat can have fatal consequences. Moreover, for immigrants from non-English-speaking nations, their first formal exposure to learning English comes in the form of English language textbooks — Hobbs’ “proper” English — not street slang or regional dialects. If Hobbs’ objection to speaking “modern English” or “standard” English arises from indifference to or acceptance of risk on the battlefield or pride in his heritage, so be it, but he should own his reasons for not wanting to speak or write a certain way.

Finally, Hobbs takes issue with organizational headquarters that display photographs of former commanders, since “almost all are white men.” Rather than view such displays as either a record of officers of exceptional achievement or as an educational tool to show how the Corps (and American society) have developed over time, in defiance of all logic Hobbs equates such displays to monuments to the Confederacy. This is the ultimate, nihilistic, destination of an identity-based world view. Where once white and minority officers would have viewed such displays as motivational (“someday I’m going to have my picture on that wall”), Hobbs would instead have minority officers tear the photos down, deny their existence, and ignore the history of the organization rather than see them for what they are: artifacts of the Corps’ history from which much can be learned.

America may not yet be the paragon of virtue envisioned by the Founders, but neither does it remain a society that espouses only a white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant Christian worldview. To believe the opposite is illogical; to espouse the opposite from a platform of authority is irresponsible, and needlessly delays our achieving the Founders’ vision.

Retired Col. Tom Hanson, Ph.D, is a former Army infantryman. He is the author of “Combat Ready? The Eighth US Army on the Eve of the Korean War,” as well as numerous articles on military history.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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