Diversity and Inclusion: Imperative for the U.S. Military’s Future Success

written by On February 3, 2014 in 2010-2016, Military, WIIS Blog

By Kelsey L. Campbell

In late October, I had the pleasure of attending a well-curated conference organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States entitled, “Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Militaries.” Military officers from Europe, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand joined American defense personnel, private sector leaders, and members of Congress for a two-day conversation on diversity and inclusion (D&I).

The main lesson of the conference was that we should not be blind to our individual differences (for example, sex, religion, ethnicity, language ability, education), but instead acknowledge and value them. These differences can and should be used to improve mission effectiveness—the military sine quo non. In contingencies today, interpersonal skills and the ability to operate in various cultures and situations are key to protecting the force and achieving varied missions. Having a diverse squad (in education, sex, ethnicity, and socio-economic background) of service members increases the chances for mission effectiveness by bringing a wider variety of tools to the fight. A diverse force is more dynamic and able to more easily adapt to the next challenge.

I recently ran across a piece on contextual intelligence by Harvard scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye that is apropos of this discussion. He posits that today’s defense leaders need a combination of soft and hard power, attraction and coercion. The technologically centered battlefield of the twenty-first century requires a range of leaders and fighters, and the oversimplified image of a traditional warrior is not doing us a service.

“It is not a manly modern Achilles or the strongest alpha male who makes the best warrior leader in today’s communication age. Military leadership today also requires political and managerial skills,” Nye states.

Some critics of mandating diversity in the military (especially those against opening up combat positions to military women) have peddled the notion that introducing a new sub-population will negatively impact unit cohesion and morale. However, our European allies at the German Marshall Fund conference stated that diversifying the ranks actually improved unit cohesion. Diverse personnel offer access to complementary knowledge and skills, creating interdependence and therefore increased cohesion in the unit.

Members of the Bundeswehr (German military) told us about efforts to increase representation of Turkish immigrants. This not only helped create a more representative German force, but also provided opportunities for increased engagement during contingencies in Muslim countries. Likewise, African immigrants in European militaries have served as soldier-ambassadors during missions in Africa. Although the Female Engagement Teams assembled by the U.S. Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan did not result from increased recruiting efforts of women, having all-women teams operating in the field proved very successful as it enabled U.S. forces to engage with and hear the concerns of tribal women and children.

Only 1{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of the American public has served in the U.S. military.  By nature of the all-volunteer force, those that enlist in the military are primarily self-selecting. For many, it is about continuing a family tradition of service. Though, for example, several immigrant communities and women have not had the long tradition of service or perhaps have not been encouraged to serve. Quotas or affirmative action recruiting are contentious policy options in America. The key is to encourage diversity and inclusion to occur in the most organic way possible. When young people see military leaders that look like them or have a similar background, it sends the signal that the military is a viable option for them. Promoting qualified military leaders with perhaps non-traditional backgrounds or career paths can send a strong signal to future recruits—everyone has a place to excel in the U.S. military.

The U.S. military does not have the option for personnel to ‘lateral in’ – i.e. a mid-career civilian joining the military and receiving a rank equal to their civilian experience. No matter your background, everyone enters the military as either lower enlisted or a company grade officer. Thus the diversity of our senior non-commissioned officers and flag/general officers is solely dependent on who is recruited to the initial ranks. The Department of Defense has to anticipate specific needs in personnel expertise and background at least 20 years in advance in order for those unformed members to reach top leadership positions in the military. Providing senior officers with further education only serves as a stopgap, and is unlikely to completely transform their perspectives or experiences that have been formulated over two decades. The time to recruit a diverse group of senior uniformed leaders for 2030 and 2040 is today.

Another reason to establish a diverse force is that it better prepares service members for their transition into civilian life. A case can be made that service members that are a part of diverse and inclusive units will more easily transition to civilian life, whether that is onto a multifaceted college campus or into corporate America.

Increasing the diversity of the U.S. military has the attention of many members of Congress. Senator Ben Cardin, an early champion of the Military Leadership Diversity Council, was a keynote speaker for the event. Congressman Elijah Cummings, introducer of the Military Leaders Enhancement Act in 2011, spoke at the VIP lunch panel. Both were very passionate about creating a force that is agile and best represents the country it defends. As Congress becomes a more diverse and inclusive body with each election, one can only imagine that their interest in DoD progress in this area will continue.

Dr. Nelson Lim, a senior social scientist for RAND, suggests that diversity and inclusion programs be removed from the human resources part of military staffs and instead fall under the operations staff, which is led by officers who generally have the most influence in a military unit). For diversity and inclusion to succeed, senior Defense leaders need to make it a top priority for the forces. Lim said the military services would be wise to “plan less, act more, and monitor progress” when it comes to D&I.  Simply put, we do not need many more academic studies, but more action and leader focus to mainstream diversity and inclusion.  With the political investment of the top brass and civilian leaders, the Department can effectively implement a D&I strategy.

It has only been a few decades since we anxiously kept an eye on the Fulda Gap for armored columns. Today, we have GIs just barely out of high school battling cyberspace threats. Times have changed and continue to change, and we must build a cadre of service members and leaders who will be able to fight and win in any political, cultural, or environmental climate around the world.


Kelsey L. Campbell is a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and an Air Force veteran. The views expressed here are strictly her own.