Streetwise Professor

November 10, 2009

The Military’s Diversity Fetish

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:18 pm

In the military, it is common to conduct “lessons learned” reviews to determine what went right, and especially what went wrong, in a particular operation (or exercise).  These are supposed to be thorough, and spare no one.  Tragically, the Army’s Chief of Staff, General George Casey, is strongly signaling that there will be a concerted effort not to learn lessons from the Fort Hood slaughter.

Rather than even acknowledge the serious questions now raised by an accelerating avalanche of evidence that Major (that word sticks in my craw) Malik Hasan was openly sympathetic to violent jihad, and openly opposed to US military action in Muslim nations, Casey is strongly signaling that the Army will circle the wagons, and go into a full defensive crouch to protect its hallowed diversity efforts:

Lieberman’s comments were in stark contrast to  U.S. Army chief of staff  George  Casey, who told  CNN he’s deeply worried “that the speculation could cause something that we don’t want to see happen.”

“It would be a shame – as great a tragedy as this was – it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well,”  Casey said.

The former Iraq war commander said on ABC that focusing on Hasan’s religious roots might “heighten the  backlash” against all Muslims serving in the armed forces.

Casey further refused to concede that the Army had “missed” the danger posed by Hasan.  Un-freaking-believable.  Uhm, what should have been the first clue?  There are so many, each one sufficient to raise significant concern, that it is impossible to deny that the Army had, in fact, completely missed it.

The excessive concern about a hypothetical danger–backlash against Muslims–and the refusal to countenance one that has proved all too real–that posed by jihadist sympathizers in uniform–is utterly foolish.  Yes, I understand that invidious racial and cultural discrimination undermine unit cohesion and morale.  I further understand that the US military had debilitating racial problems in the 1970s, and has made remarkable strides to reduce them.  I therefore readily acknowledge that active efforts to combat invidious discrimination are important and valuable.

But I also understand that fetishizing anything almost always leads to perverse outcomes, and Casey’s statements indicate that the military has fetishized diversity to a point where it is posing a threat to the lives of service personnel, and their ability to complete the missions assigned them.

The fetishist is incapable of rationally evaluating the costs and benefits of the object of his adoration.  It becomes an absolute; it has only good attributes, and and nothing bad can come from it.  Even when the obsession is highly destructive, those in its thrall cannot recognize this.  Instead, they will engage in whatever mental contortions are necessary to attribute bad outcomes to anything but the fetish.

Large organizations are very susceptible to this problem.  It is well known that institutional cultures are necessary to coordinate the behavior of the large numbers of individuals work in the institution.  Moreover, to serve as a coordinating device, a culture or set of norms must impose rewards for adhering to its tenets and costs for deviating from them.  Fetishes and taboos serve this function.

The military is, obviously, a very large organization, and the institutional culture is rife with rituals that teach its norms, and rewards and punishments to enforce them.  Fetishism is a very real threat in such an environment, and can be extremely counterproductive at times.  The examples are innumerable, but one that comes to mind is the French fetishization of The Offensive prior to the First World War.  This mindset led the French to launch attacks that saw tens of thousands mowed down before machine guns; the fetishization of the belief led them to continue their forlorn assaults even after it was obvious that they were pointless and accomplished nothing than make widows and orphans by the gross.

Casey’s response–and the response of the government more generally (e.g., the dim bulb Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the FBI agents that played Alfred E. Neuman–“what, me worry?”–when investigating Hasan’s term paper outreach to Al Qaeda) make it abundantly clear that the military has fetishized diversity.  This has blinded it to the threat posed by jihadi sympathizers in its ranks.

The “backlash” concern is fundamentally one of false positives.  Hasan was the false negative from hell.  Whenever making judgments under uncertainty, it is inevitable that one has to trade off false negatives against false positives.  The military’s fetish has made it incapable of doing so.

Moreover, (a) its concern about false negatives is overstated, and (b) its attempt to suppress the obvious is likely to fuel even greater suspicion of Muslims within its ranks.

Its concern about false negatives is overstated, because there are numerous ways of identifying the potentially egregious cases like Hasan without casting a general suspicion on Muslims.  I dunno, but contacting Al Qaeda operatives, expressing sympathy for enemies who are trying to kill American soldiers, and publicly stating a higher loyalty to Islam (rather than the United States and its military) all seem like sufficient reasons to separate an individual from the service–or to impose more severe sanctions–and would not constitute a blanket condemnation of Muslims.  (Indeed, separation would seem to be a mutually beneficial transaction.)  To the contrary, it would indicate the Islamic faith is perfectly consistent with military service, unless one transgresses some rather obvious lines.  Contacting the enemy, or expressing a sympathy for them, or expressing conflicted loyalties, are all non-denominational transgressions.

Moreover, failure to draw these lines despite the demonstrated danger of doing so is a morale killer.  Military people understand the culture, and realize that it is necessary to put up with a certain amount of “chicken shit” (more politely referred to as “Mickey Mouse”) that makes no sense in order to maintain the institution’s coherence; small irrationalities are necessary to maintain the coherence of the whole.  But when it is demonstrated that certain norms have become fetishized to the point of dysfunction, the leadership’s continued worship is extremely demoralizing: how could it be otherwise when one is committed to life and death situations under the command of those who have lost their grip on reality (or whose perspective on what is important is so warped that their judgment is extremely impaired)?  What’s more, this can only lead to a broader resentment of Muslims in the service more generally by making them a privileged class immune from the scrutiny that other soldiers would experience if they do the same things.  Few things are more debilitating in large organizations than double standards.

Furthermore, Casey is betraying a very low opinion of those under his command.  He apparently thinks that they harbor ugly bigotries right below the surface, and are incapable of distinguishing between soldiers of whatever race or creed that do their duty, and those that sympathize with–and perhaps support–those they are supposed to be fighting.

That tacit disrespect is also a morale killer.

I have a little personal experience with the mindset.  As a plebe at the Naval Academy in the late-1970s, we were subject to diversity training.  (I can’t remember whether that was the buzzword de jour, but it all amounts to the same thing.)  Several times during the summer, we were required to attend either brigade or summer battalion (can’t remember which) assemblies in which we were harangued by what are now styled diversity consultants.  The message was quite explicit: everybody is a racist, and racism will rear its ugly head at the first opportunity.  Re-education is necessary to ensure that these tendencies are purged.

I have a very distinct recollection of one of the break-out sessions that each company had with its company officer.  It was the second year in which women were in the Academy, so the focus of this session was sexism.  One of my classmates made an unfortunate remark about Amazons.  The company officer turned on him viciously.  He said: “That remark is not just sexist, it is racist!”  (Note the labeling, the accusation without even asking for explanation or giving an opportunity to clarify.)  My hapless classmate–remember, a 17 year old kid–was nonplussed (and panicking), and asked how that remark could possibly be considered racist.  The company officer, demonstrating a cluelessness truly remarkable from somebody who had gone through nuke power school, said: “Because everybody knows that people who live in the Amazon are not white.”  I remember fighting the almost reflexive urge to roll my eyes.  I mean sheesh, how could somebody be so (a) ignorant (not to know that the Amazons were Greek mythological figures), and (b) incredibly confident in their superiority that they could make such an asinine statement with such condescension.

The whole exercise made it very clear that (a) the operating assumption behind the entire policy was a belief that everyone is a latent racist, and (b) that the military would come down brutally on anyone who vocalized any opinion that bore even the slightest possibility of being interpreted as racist or sexist.  The former betrays a fundamental disrespect.  The latter contributes to fetishization; those willing to become true believers stay, survive, and thrive, while those who aren’t, leave (e.g., yours truly–though this was only one of the straws on the camel’s back for me).

Casey’s response makes it abundantly clear that the diversity fetish has become counterproductive.  It leads to beliefs so at odds with reality that those not in its thrall lose respect for authority, and not just on this matter, but more generally.  If Casey is worried about backlash, he should worry about this: that his diversity fetish will discredit the entire concept and undermine the progress that the military has made since Viet Nam.  Acknowledging realities and making reasonable adjustments will not weaken the military; failure to do so will make the military’s current leadership the modern equivalent of the out-of-touch chateau generals who sacrificed thousands to their fetish.

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  1. Those who have reached flag rank didn’t get there by rocking the boat. Career concerns plus a legitimate respect for civilian control combine to make it highly unlikely that anybody in a position that matters will challenge an administration that is highly invested in the diversity agenda. Moreover, those in such position are either true believers or so deeply complicit in the system (for careerist reasons, even if they are not true believers) that they are not likely to rock the boat in any event. Moreover, being so deeply committed to the system they are loath to admit a failure that would reflect very badly on them.

    To be honest, the military is incapable of investigating itself in this type of situation. That’s why a truly independent, civilian investigation is required. Unfortunately, the administration has no interest in pursuing it either, and a Democratic Congress will likely have little appetite either.

    All of which means that it is highly likely that this will be swept under the rug, and that it will not catalyze the necessary changes. Which will only feed public alienation and cynicism. It will especially feed alienation and cynicism in the military–and tragically, this will work to the advantage of the rapture ready crowd you so rightly fear. People of this ilk at the O4-O6 level will interpret a failure to respond as an indication that the leadership is out of touch, and that Congress and the Administration are too, and that it is their duty to redress the situation.


    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 10, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  2. 1. The Offensive = diversity fetish is fallacious. The former resulted in 100k’s excess casualties, the latter in this one dozen since 9/11.


    and publicly stating a higher loyalty to Islam (rather than the United States and its military)

    And he was right to do so. Islam is the highest calling of any Muslim, any other attitude would make him or her an apostate, and deserving of execution according to some interpretations of sharia.

    3. Just because one dude snapped does not mean that diversity is a bad thing. The US Army is no longer all- (or nowadays probably even majority) white like fifty years ago, diversity is absolutely essential even from a non-ideological viewpoint.

    4. The cadet you’re speaking about sounds like a sexist and a racist. Most people associate Amazons not with Greeks (actually you’re wrong there – they were Scythians, which in a sense made him racist against Russians), but with scantily clad prehistoric Brazilian women. If I were an officer I’d have disciplined or expelled him.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 10, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

  3. * correction: all-white not quite fifty years ago, but prior to WW2.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 10, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  4. Hmm…I would imagine that in military it is important to run everything by command and there is expectation to obey orders and accepts opinions of superiors without an argument. So when the officer says something is racist, it is! Coz mama said so. Perhaps he got a command from someone higher to enforce the diversity thingy…and he wanted to ensure that everyone got it by calling out some of the kids racist / sexist.

    Btw…did you have a chance to look at Hasan’s power point presentation….

    In the last slide he says

    DoD should allow Muslim soldiers the option of being released as conscientious objectors, to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.

    —this resonates with what Deith was suggesting….

    I guess Hasan was trying tell the army doctors and bosses how from his experiences he found that Muslim soldiers might not be able to serve effectively in the military. I guess they chose to ignore this valid point and also gave him a poor performance review and deployed him in Iraq! What genius.

    Comment by Surya — November 11, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  5. That’s not the point. Once you embrace diversity beyond white males like Lance Cpl. Jasen D. Bruce, it has to reach out to everyone, regardless of race, creed or sex.

    My new belief is Third World nationalism, I think. The pursuit of progressive, anti-imperialist goals in the imperialist core, and support of anti-imperialist movements in the Third World – including in Russia, its spiritual leader – even if they happen to be reactionary, because their ultimate aims will produce progressive outcomes on the global level. This belief is a natural consequence of my diasporic mentality.

    I’m not defending Major Hasan, I’m calling for understanding his frustrations, and the frustration felt by others like him. But people don’t want to understand, they prefer to hate and destroy. It’s all quite depressing, really.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 11, 2009 @ 1:05 am

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