For forty years, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee in his home or his office. During that time, he considered Lee a near-ideal model of military leadership and commitment to duty. McChrystal kept it throughout his illustrious Army career, which culminated in command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Then, in 2017, he took the painting down and threw it away. McChrystal published an account of removing the portrait from his home, noting, “The darker side of Lee’s legacy, and the picture in my office, now communicated ideas about race and equality with which I sought no association. . . . At age 63, the same age at which Lee died, I concluded I was wrong.”
Now Americans are witnessing a massive change in attitudes as such decisions shift from the personal arena to organizational and societal levels. The secretary of defense has excluded Confederate flags from the permissible set for public display, the commandant of the Marine Corps has banned them on installations, and the prospect of removing memorializations of Confederate figures from Army installations has now moved into mainstream defense conversation. Many worthy alternatives for renaming Army installations have emerged to recognize a more diverse set of heroes, and Congress appears to be on a path toward determining when, not if, these installations will be renamed.
But perhaps we should use this moment of collective awakening to reconsider our focus on the individual and expand memorialization to a collective identity that is more inclusive. For an institution reliant on coordinated, collective action on a massive scale, the US Army in particular may be better served by symbols that downplay the individual and promote collective identity. Four of the seven Army values are about putting the collective ahead of individual interests (selfless service, loyalty, duty, and respect). Air Force values similarly emphasize “service before self.” The practice of naming installations and buildings after individuals fails to reinforce those values, putting historical primacy on individual achievement and character rather than on unity of effort and collective accomplishment. Such symbols may subtly and inadvertently bolster an individualist, careerist mentality among the officer corps. Further, as we’re witnessing now, the shine of at least some individuals so lionized does not hold up over time, after history looks more closely and comprehensively at their lives or as societal values shift. The current controversy over John C. Stennis’s legacy, the long-serving senator from Mississippi, is one such example. A zealous defender of white supremacy, Stennis has an aircraft carrier named for him, as well as a NASA field center.
Recognize Differences and Reaffirm Superordinate Identities
In his confirmation hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten noted, “Now when I am in uniform, I feel colorblind.” The comment no doubt was intended to symbolize progress and was likely interpreted as such to some. Still, though, colorblindness ignores the unique experiences of black Americans and other marginalized groups, making it more difficult to acknowledge and confront the subtle, but pervasive biases that black service members continue to experience. A better goal is to develop a shared group identity that includes, rather than displaces, other important identities such as ethnicity or religion. Decades of social psychological research show the importance of superordinate identities for reducing intergroup conflict and increasing cooperation. Critical to the success of these superordinate identities is to recognize, differentiate, and integrate the subgroup identities. Differentiation welcomes differing identities and backgrounds, and this perspective has been apparent in recent efforts to recruit a force that reflects the diversity of the country. A common purpose and identity then unites and integrates those differing backgrounds, but without asking servicemembers to set other identities aside and ignore historical and ongoing inequities.
Research by the US Army Research Institute confirms the importance of the two components of inclusion—differentiation plus integration. In a survey to assess inclusive leadership, soldiers characterized inclusive units as open to differences and unique perspectives, while also integrating members into a common identity and developing shared understanding among them. Inclusive organizations meet their members’ needs for both belongingness and distinctiveness, with important implications for work satisfaction and group relations. Research in nonmilitary settings suggests that inclusion may lead to better retention of minority group employees.
Although the military has historically aimed to build such identities to a greater degree than many other US institutions, recent events reveal the need for further improvement. The US armed forces have a history of limiting the roles and contributions of African Americans. Renaming Army installations to include names of minorities and women would highlight diversity and acknowledge the contributions of historically marginalized Americans to the nation’s security. Such changes will not compensate for a history of exclusion, but would help communicate that the Army has a more inclusive vision for its future while continuing both to honor its past and to acknowledge aspects of that history that are incompatible with the future vision.
However, recognition and renaming may not be enough to strengthen superordinate identity and bring groups together. While well-intentioned, attempts to be more inclusive through highlighting the racial and ethnic identity of minority members can sometimes backfire, drawing more attention to differences and potential fault lines within units and organizations. For that reason, recognizing differences should be accompanied by the integration of those differences into shared goals and identity.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other defense leaders have spoken publicly about strength in diversity and the need for unity. Because some white males, in particular, feel left out of and resist discussions of diversity, progress toward inclusion can face backlash and additional barriers. Some majority group members experience “diversity fatigue” as they are asked to confront uncomfortable race and gender issues, or feel targeted by accusations of prejudice and racism. Some servicemembers—just like some members of society more broadly—may not see themselves in the social symbols recently ascendant in popularity, such as the rainbow pride flag. When they hear the slogan, “black lives matter,” some of them may hear “black lives matter more,” rather than “black lives matter also,” as though compassion and justice are a zero-sum competition. Rather than simply dismissing these reactions as irrational, it is important to acknowledge that issues of identity are often deeply emotional. It’s worth considering what purpose the identification with Confederate symbols serves for some, but not all, in this demographic group, in order to better engage them in the vision for a more inclusive organizational culture.
For some military members, Confederate symbols are indeed used as an expression of white supremacy, a continuing scourge that the military has to eliminate. For others, Confederate symbols may serve as an expression of group belongingness and heritage, and they may perceive efforts to ban them as exclusion or rejection of Southern whites. Bans on public display of Confederate symbols within the military may actually increase their private use, as some servicemembers seek to reassert their fundamental need for autonomy. However, the need for status and acceptance within the organization can outweigh the need for expressions of autonomy. If leaders are consistent in communicating support for the change, allow for other avenues to meet autonomy needs, and avoid micromanagement, resistance may be muted. Majority group peers can also play an important role. Bans on Confederate symbols and related inclusion efforts need to be implemented and managed just as any other organizational change effort.
Since the onset of the all-volunteer force, the military has shifted more and more toward interest-based appeals to service, attracting recruits with an enviable set of financial incentives and benefits. Incentives may be enough to get people in the door, but servicemembers have core psychological needs that should not be overlooked in the process. Pay and incentives are not enough to keep servicemembers aligned and working together with common understanding, coordination, and respect. Military recruits are like other American young adults, looking to employers to help provide a sense of purpose and belongingness. For that, the Army and other services need identity and symbols that are more inclusive and better reflect the organization’s values.
Recognize Collective Contributions
While doing the essential work of recognizing and addressing racial inequities, backlash against these initiatives is a risk that can prevent progress. Military organizations should watch for the unintended consequences of some majority group members feeling marginalized. Renaming installations to include historically important military figures from minority groups recognizes their substantial contributions, but risks reinforcing the perception that social groups are in competition with each other. Efforts to promote diversity and inclusion will have a greater likelihood of success when they not only recognize the experiences and contributions of minority group members, but also integrate the participation of minority and majority group members together. For example, majority group members in positions of authority should expand their professional networks to mentor individuals from other social groups. Leaders should also appeal to majority group members to be change agents, not just change recipients, as the military works toward a more inclusive future.
To bring groups together and minimize backlash to these changes, senior leaders should be very mindful to promulgate a vision and symbols that every member of the organization can see themselves in—no small task in a country grappling with its long history of racism and suffering a resurgence in political polarization. Operational units have plenty of such important symbols, but at higher organizational levels, the need for common purpose and identity has rarely been so acute.
Removal of Confederate symbols from military installations and other public buildings is long overdue. Renaming efforts should look not just at individuals, but consider other possibilities with the input of diverse stakeholders—options might include locations (similar to the Navy), symbolic events, important geographic features, or other objects with collective significance and relevance to service values. If military installations are renamed after individuals, senior leaders’ communication will be important in minimizing perceptions of competition among groups for recognition and influence. The listening sessions that the chief of staff of the Army and the secretary of the Army are encouraging will be helpful in building empathy across social groups, but may not be enough to address underlying identity concerns.
Building on these efforts, narratives that highlight the importance of racially integrated efforts in past military successes can help link the current conversations to organizational identity and history. These narratives should go beyond merely acknowledging diversity, recognizing that the diversity itself is an asset in building and maintaining the force. One example might be the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the Revolutionary War, in which black slaves enlisted and served with white soldiers, fighting at Yorktown. Such examples illustrate that the contributions of black Americans have been woven into the fabric of the US armed forces since the nation’s founding, and the collective efforts of black and white soldiers together can and should be a core aspect of the Army’s identity. Care will be needed in such narratives not to paper over the mistreatment, lower pay, and other inequities that black and other minority groups faced. Symbols and narratives can play a critical role in acknowledging and reconciling the Army’s past with its vision for a more inclusive force.
Reaffirming the unity and cohesion that defense leaders are currently promoting is critical, and symbols can either help or detract from that. The current conversation about symbols occasionally has a competitive tenor regarding whose history and achievements deserve to be memorialized. Shifting the conversation to include how to best reaffirm collective identities and values would be a step toward greater unity and an indivisible defense workforce.
Just like McChrystal, many Americans are reckoning with the symbols, and present-day reality, of racism and the enduring echoes of slavery. As the military works to address racism in its ranks, embracing symbols that emphasize the collective contributions of all servicemembers working together may be the most effective way forward.
Allison Abbe is professor of organizational studies at the US Army War College. Her research focuses on the development of leadership, interpersonal, and intercultural skills in national security personnel. She has previously worked as a research psychologist and program manager in defense and intelligence organizations and holds a PhD in social and personality psychology.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, US Army War College, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Meisberger