The Bunker: Racism in the Ranks

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Can George Floyd’s death help eliminate it?

The U.S. military fights racism the same way it fights wars. There are platoons of PowerPoint planning, battalions of buzzwords, and squads of staff officers, The Bunkernotes in its latest Military Industrial Circus. But, just like in Afghanistan, victory against racism in the ranks remains a distant dream. As someone who has covered the military for more than 40 years, The Bunker knows that things are a lot better than they used to be. But racial animus remains salted through the ranks.

The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis May 25 seemingly is causing the military to finally take a hard look at itself. Its top officials are acknowledging that much racism still persists, and that it hurts the military’s ability to fight.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with his just-created Board on Diversity July 15 for the first time (the military has been creating such panels/offices/advocates willy-nilly over the decades to deal with the issue). Racism exists in uniform, Esper added, and the board’s goal is “to confront it, and to eradicate prejudice and bias and discrimination.” The next day, he issued an order (PDF) that silently bars the Confederate flag from public display. But it never uses the word “Confederate,” apparently to avoid challenging the commander-in-chief. “When people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism,” President Trump told Fox News on July 19. “It represents the south, they like the south…it’s freedom of speech.”

So instead of banning that symbol of the Confederacy, the Pentagon carefully spelled out an approved list of banners, including military, allied and state flags. Bottom line: if your flag is not on this approved list, it can’t be unfurled on U.S. military property.

When the civilian leader of the world’s mightiest military has to tiptoe around a ban on a traitorous flag, you know that the racism it represented—represents—is insidious and ubiquitous.


Pentagon weapons-buyer suggests maybe we all should be warplane builders

General Motors chief Charles Wilson has been quoted as saying—behind closed doors—that “what's good for GM is good for the country." That may be a simplification, but it’s apt. After all, it came during Wilson’s 1953 confirmation hearing to serve as the nation’s fifth defense secretary, under President Eisenhower.

That adage was turned on its head July 14 when a top Pentagon official basically suggested that what’s good for GD is good for the country—and that perhaps they should be one and the same. “If our industrial base collapses any more,” Will Roper, the Air Force weapons-buying czar, said, “we’ll have to nationalize advanced aviation and maybe other parts of the Air Force that currently are competitive.”

The Bunker knows that GD—General Dynamics—built the F-16 and F-111 warplanes, and isn’t in that business anymore. But the bigger point is spot on. Roper said a different kind of competition is needed to keep the handful of U.S. aircraft companies—basically Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop—alive. More models, built more quickly and in smaller numbers, could lead someone like Elon Musk to do to the defense business what he did to the car business.

But the bigger question isn’t whether nationalizing any Pentagon-supplier segment makes sense. It’s why the world’s biggest and costliest military is even exploring the notion. One wonders if building simpler, cheaper weapons could go a long way to solving the problem.


Will the USS Bonhomme Richard be worth saving?

If you’re looking more evidence that U.S. military weapons cost too much, check out the likely fate of the USS Bonhomme Richard. The Navy is considering junking the amphibious-assault ship after a four-day fire swept through the 844-foot-long vessel in San Diego last week (Such huge vessels are basically the Marines’ equivalent of the Navy’s slightly-bigger aircraft carriers.) “The damage is extensive,” Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said July 17, after the inferno. He is “100% confident” the defense industry can make the vessel, which was undergoing maintenance, shipshape: “The question is should we make that investment into a 22-year-old ship?” Bought for $760 million, a replacement would cost about $4 billion.

A top Navy admiral suggested a spark of unknown origin may have ignited maintenance supplies, including rags, aboard the ship. That could have led to the conflagration that took place amid a $250 million overhaul of the vessel. “Officials have said no foul play was suspected,” the Associated Press reported.

Sounds familiar to old salts. That’s because there are echoes here of the 2012 fire aboard the USS Miami, an attack submarine, during a 20-month upgrade at a Maine shipyard. “A vacuum cleaner was identified Wednesday as the source of the fire that caused about $400 million worth of damage last month to a nuclear-powered submarine at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” the Portland Press Heraldreported a month after that disaster.

Not quite. Ultimately, a civilian painter was convicted of setting rags on fire atop a bunk to get the day off. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison and ordered to pay $400 million, perhaps the costliest day off in world history. Even though the fire aboard the attack sub was put out in 12 hours, the Navy ultimately decided to scrap it. It made that decision after repair costs ballooned to as much as $700 million due to extensive damage the fire caused to the boat’s air, hydraulic and water systems.

The Navy decommissioned the Miami in 2014. The service’s press release detailing the formal ceremony never mentioned why it was happening. Except, perhaps, for this quote from the admiral serving as the keynote speaker: "Every once in a while a ship earns a waterfront reputation as a 'hot boat,’” he said. “Miami earned that reputation early and kept it going.”

Like a sub afire, no doubt.

Meanwhile, three investigations are now underway into the San Diego fiasco. “Could there be another Bonhomme Richard waiting to happen?” CNO Gilday asked David Larter of Navy Times before heading to San Diego to inspect the ship’s smoking hull for himself. “If you go back to 2017, who would have predicted we’d have had two collisions of that magnitude within a month?” Gilday wondered, referring to the pair of at-sea collisions that killed 17 U.S. sailors, and for which the Navy was found responsible. “So, I’m not waiting for ‘number two’ to decide we have a trend here.”

Apparently, even four-star memories are short. The Miami burned eight years ago, following a mid-maintenance fire. The Navy decommissioned it six years ago. The Bonhomme Richard burned under the same circumstances. It will almost certainly meet the same fate. With all due respect sir, the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard is #2.


Here’s what has grabbed The Bunker's eye recently

Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?

According to a where-is-Colin-Powell-now? piece in the New York Times magazine July 19, the case for war was based on “semi-educated guesses built on previous and seldom-challenged guesses that always assumed the worst and imagined deceptiveness in everything the Iraqi regime did,” Robert Draper reports. For which 4,431 U.S. troops died.

Colonel Sanders, reporting for duty

Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking to cut defense spending in 2021 by 10%, and plow the resulting $74 billion into health care—including COVID-19—and education. While Fred Kaplan at Slate reported July 17 that the Vermont Independent’s bid “is all but certain to be defeated,” his effort is backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. If the Senate majority flips from GOP to Democratic control this fall, Sanders’ effort could serve as a blueprint for retooling the nation’s defenses at a lower cost. Always willing to help a good cause, The Bunker’s colleagues, Dan Grazier and Mandy Smithberger, are out with a detailed list cutting nearly $1 trillion in military spending over the coming decade at the nonprofit Defense Priorities, along with recommendations by others for a smarter, more effective U.S. military.

How the U.S. rebuilt its Army on the eve of Pearl Harbor

The U.S. Army grew from fewer than 200,000 troops in 1939 to more than 1.5 million by the fall of 1941 just before entering World War II. How it accomplished this amazing feat is the subject of Paul Dickson’s new book, The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941, the subject of this July 15 New York Times review.

Fuelish behavior

The Air Force, one of the biggest users of POL (Pentagon-speak for Petroleum, Oils and Lubricants) in the world, wants to fly its petrol further. On July 13, it asked “Airmen of all ranks and occupations” for ideas on “how to optimize aviation fuel for the Air Force, enabling greater combat capability, range and more efficient operations.” And maybe no more wars for oil.

Solemn honor

After helping oversee 225 military funerals, 1st Lieutenant Craig Robbins became the first commissioned officer to receive the Pennsylvania Military Funeral Honors Ribbon, the National Guard reported July 14. “To be the first came as a surprise for me,” he said. To The Bunker, too.

War story

It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and debate the wisdom of the nation’s longest war. It is far different to have experienced the war in Afghanistan. That’s what gives Erik Edstrom’s war memoir its bite, and it doesn’t let go. The West Point-educated author of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of our Longest War gets a respectful review on the West Point-based Modern War Institute’s website. “His book is an unsparing condemnation of US senior civilian and military leadership for failing to think through and devise a viable strategy that aligned America’s instruments of war with ends that America and its allies could achieve, within a reasonable magnitude in cost and duration,” Robert Cassidy writes in his July 15 review. Cassidy calls the book “a genuine, factual, and laudable effort to make American citizens understand the meaning and consequences of perpetual war for those who are directly involved in the violence, and to bring leaders to account for it.” Don’t hold your breath.

A nuclear anniversary…and a passing

July 16 marked the 75th anniversary of the first atomic blast over the New Mexican desert. The world hasn’t been the same sense. The end of great-power wars has been tempered with a flurry of proxy conflicts, and the still-present concern that the world as we know it could be incinerated momentarily. Scott Wyland of the Santa FeNew Mexican, 150 miles away, reflects on that first detonation and its legacy. There are only about 20 million Americans alive today who have lived in a world without atomic weapons.

And Bruce Blair, a one-time Air Force ICBM launch-control officer who went on to become a leading advocate of a non-nuclear world, died July 19. All of us who wrestle with questions surrounding nuclear weapons, from strategists to citizens, are in his debt, regardless of which side you might be on.

Because that’s where the money is

With apologies to bank robber Willie Sutton, bad guys know the Pentagon is ripe for the plucking. Not only does it spend more than $2 billion a day, but it has trouble keeping track of how it spends a lot that money. Yet every once in a while, the good guys hit pay dirt. Federal agents arrested a married couple of Army veterans who set up a vanpool arrangement at Fort Hood, Texas, that allowed them to steal up to $11 million. As a platoon sergeant, he had access to personnel records. As someone who had worked in Army personnel, she knew the system. Together, the feds allege, they signed up unknowing soldiers (many not even posted to the sprawling Texas base) for van rides and pocketed the up to $240 per-rider Army subsidies. “The $240 is paid by the [vanpool] program’s office in D.C.–not from units on Fort Hood–so it isn’t costing the installation, or me or the other riders, any money,” one soldiers enthused to the Army-published base newspaper in 2013. It ran, a second GI said, “like a well-greased wheel.”

Green Cheese Dept.

U.S. Air Force cadets are exploring their futures in space, perhaps as part of the new U.S. Space Force. A study group at the Air Force Academy is “really interested in finding out what future role Space Force might have on the military-on-the-Moon concept 20 years or so down the line,” Cadet J. P. Byrne told Science magazine July 15. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like Steve Carrell’s recent Space Force sitcom on Nexflix? “I actually expected it to be making fun of the Space Force a lot more than it did,” Byrne said. “And don’t get me wrong—they did—but the accuracy of their ideas was really cool.”

Maybe experts are over-rated…

That certainly seems to be the case at the Pentagon, where political newcomers don’t seem to be measuring up to the people they’re replacing. Loyalty, ahem, trumps experience, as The Bunkernoted last month. The latest example is Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, who has been tapped to be the Pentagon’s R&D chief. He’s replacing Michael Griffin, 70, who has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and served as chief of NASA. Kratios, 33, has a bachelor’s degree in political science with a focus on Greek democracy, Defense One reported July 13. He apparently got the job the same way he landed his White House gig: he’s close to Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire and early Trump backer.

Let’s try to get it right this time

The Army explained what it wants in its replacement for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in a description posted July 17. Fingers crossed. As the Military Industrial Circusreported back in March, the Army has spent $24 billion in three failed attempts to replace the Reagan-era BFV.

American dominance in the rearview mirror”?

William J. Burns, former deputy secretary of state and now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns that the global order finds itself in a period of transition with anarchy looming. “If 'America First' is again consigned to the scrap heap, we’ll still have demons to exorcise—our hubris, our imperiousness, our indiscipline, our intolerance, our inattention to our domestic health, and our fetish for military tools and disregard for diplomacy,” he wrote in The Atlantic July 14. “But we’ll also still have a chance to summon our most exceptional national trait: our capacity for self-repair. And we’ll still have a chance to shape our future, before it gets shaped for us by other players and forces.”

Well, on that optimistic note, thanks for reading The Bunker this week.