Green Lives: Racism in the Military

There is a great many things I could criticize about the military. Few are as double edged as its ability to indoctrinate a person into an entirely new path of thought. Some call it ‘brainwashing’, and honestly sometimes it felt like that. There are two lines of cadence, sung while marching in formation, that sum up, in a simple manner, this process of reeducation, “Took away my faded jeans/Now I’m wearing Army greens”. Upon entry, servicemen and women undergo a strict training regime that also exposes them to the customs and culture of the American armed forces slowly dissolving a civilian’s sense of individualism. In combat, in a foxhole, there cannot exist animosity or mistrust between those fighting alongside one another. This is a matter of life and death. Old grudges between blacks and whites, and the prejudices between other ethnic divides, serve no function on the battlefield. A soldier’s loyalty and sense of duty are to their teammates regardless of their background- at least in theory.

“Seeing green” is a unique artifact of military customs and culture. It is one of those things you’ll never find in a technical manual or field manual, but is nonetheless recited religiously when troops are asked about their views on race. Like most things in the military, it serves a functional purpose in helping soldiers identify their own on the battlefield by recognizing uniforms. The image of the military is often one of diversity. Being built on a volunteer force, it brings in people from across the nation and the globe. In my eight years in I worked with men and women from a wide array of countries- Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Hungary, and more- each one an immigrant, alongside individuals from small towns like Dillsburg, PA and big cities like Los Angeles. The military’s mobility and influence around the world means that interaction with people from other nations is also an inescapable reality of life in the armed forces.

For soldiers, seeing green, dissolves the idea of race and diversity by replacing it with something greater than ethnic divides. A recruit learns to forgo your past customs and culture to adopt new ones, issued to you like a rucksack and e-tool. When you raise your hand and swear the oath your loyalty is to the military, not your buddies back home, not your girlfriend or wife, your mom and dad, your kids, or even God. Those things come after. The mission and your oath come first. Whether you’re black and white, it doesn’t matter when you all bleed and die the same.

Unfortunately it’s not entirely true, and “seeing green” has become the military equivalent of #allivesmatter, distracting from the very race issues that exist within.

A survey conducted by the Military Times in 2018, showed that of those surveyed, 22% “have seen signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces,” while 55% of non-white soldiers reported experiencing racism within the ranks.

With the murder of George Floyd and the recent protests bringing to light issues within organizations like the police and the military, I wanted to gauge what black soldiers felt and what experiences they had with racism. In the weeks of the protests, I’ve had more white soldiers reaching out to me to vocalize their opinions on racism, often citing the usualadage that they, “only see green” or simply reciting Hartman’s line from Full Metal Jacket (you’ll know which one you watch the movie). In a movement about black voices and black rights, I found it concerning that I wasn’t seeing or hearing them regurgitate this same sentiment, but rather resigning themselves to the ugly reality that racism and prejudice are inextinguishable obstacles ignored by their white peers.

I found that older soldiers- those who are either now retired or in senior positions- had more interactions with racism than younger troops- those who enlisted post-9/11. Half of the two dozen black soldiers I spoke to shared reservations about discussing this issue, one stating, “George Floyd is definitely not the mountain, I as a black man, am willing to die on.” For some black soldiers, seeing green has proven more effective in the erasure of their identity than white soldiers, which in turn means the very real fears and experiences they have go on unnoticed and worse, simply accepted as a norm.

Those younger recruits shared that while they experienced it here or there, it had never felt like it had really impacted their professional pursuits. As one black active duty sergeant expressed, “I’ve been blessed to have had some all around great guys around me. We go through so much together, how can we be racist?” Another gave a similar response and said, “In the Army it was just a little racism. He went on to share an experience in which he had to deal with prejudiced interaction with an armorer and also noting that his white friend was there to defend him, stating, “Luckily my boy was there[...]or I would’ve been a real suspect.”

It was among the older veterans that racism in the military seemed more than rampant according to their accounts. As one retired first sergeant described, “My PSG in the 82nd didn’t want a black squad leader. I was moved to another battalion, after I complained.” Another senior leader had his own experiences with leadership, stating, “I had a racist squad leader who had given me the nickname ‘night ranger’ until, to my embarrassment and other people’s laughter, I figured out what that meant sometime later.” A commonality among the older generation of soldiers was that most encounters with prejudice and racism overwhelmingly came from superiors, some including sergeant majors and colonels.

All of the black soldiers interviewed expressed that the majority of the racism and prejudice they experienced came from people ‘off post’. All of them had at least one serious negative interaction with police.

While the military is a diverse entity in comparison to organizations like Congress, there still exists a divide between ethnic representation. According to data from ODEI (Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), the armed forces is: 3% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 13% Black, and 65% White (other groups being lower than a full percent in representation). Voter demographics also show that there is a gap between white soldiers and black soldiers, the latter of which vote consistently Democrat. This is a very real division between soldiers of color and their white counterparts that is masked by “seeing green” in the same way #alllivesmatters serves to detract from the issue at hand, allowing white supremacists to continue to go relatively unseen in an environment more concerned about being infiltrated by Islamic extremists despite the FBI finding that twice the number of white supremacists have already been discovered within the armed forces.

Seeing green might have diluted some notions of racism, there still undoubtedly exists an obliviousness to what already exists. As the first sergeant shared, “My battalion had a lot of skinheads. They later killed a couple[…] I had warned them about the activity. They ignored it. […]They were charged, and the Army came out with the tattoo policy.” The individuals and the policy he mentions are tied to the 22 soldiers connected to skinhead groups at Fort Bragg, and the murder of two black civilians in Fayetteville in 1995, leading to a ban on recruiting those with tattoos linked to white supremacy. Years later, in 2008, the FBI would release an assessment, White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11 covering the alarming presence of white supremacist recruiting within the military’s ranks, stating, “military veterans involved in white supremacist extremism may exploit their accesses to restricted areas and intelligence or apply specialized training in weapons, tactics, and organizational skills to benefit the extremist movement.” The assessment also expressed concerns that white supremacists recruited from within the military’s ranks held a certain prestige because of their training, allowing them to have extensive influence over their civilian numbers across the nation. This means groups or individuals who perpetrate hate crimes, like the Fayetteville incident in 1995, likely have leadership from both active duty and prior service veterans.

The military’s 65% of trained white soldiers is an excellent place to start recruiting, and the entrenched racism from a white soldier’s life prior to joining that hasn’t been unlearned by military indoctrination means that black soldiers face a battle from several angles- racism from the civilian sector outside post, police interactions off-post, peers, and leadership. It’s a battle some black soldiers feel is unwinnable. As one seasoned veteran, a retired Army ranger, put it, “It’s never going to change.”

It’s a sorrowful statement to hear from a man trained to win every fight, but as long as race issues within the military are continually ignored by those who “see only green” it seems he might be right.

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