Army as close as there is to meritocracy in America

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by

It is Saturday, July 18, and I’m in Port Royal.

This morning I’ve got my coffee, a sliced peach, and read that General Charles Brown has been confirmed as the new, incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Confirmation makes General Brown the first African American to hold this job since Colin Powell occupied the chair in 1993. As I digest this upbeat news I read further and see there is a pitched battle centered on the names of certain military bases — Bragg, Benning and Hood.

When I was growing up I had a variety of adolescent problems — my scholarship was borderline; my athletic achievement marginal; my efforts at romance uneven and largely unsuccessful.

For much of that unhappy adolescence I lived on military bases — a big stretch at Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, and then at Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany.

In San Antonio, and at Landstuhl, I was surrounded by other military kids called ‘dependents’ — black, white and Latino. But I must confess that in those long gone days, I was not tuned into racism — the distinctions that I perceived were between the officers and the sergeants, a/k/a non-commissioned officers.

The officers lived in bigger houses that were separated from the smaller enlisted housing. The officers had their own clubs with dark-paneled dining rooms, parquet dance floors and better beer. The distinctions between officers and the enlisted were many and manifest.

But when it came to their children the distinctions were not as obvious. We went to the same schools eating the same uninspired lunch on the same compartmentalized trays in the same Lysol-scented cafeteria. We danced to “Rockin’ Robin” at the Landstuhl Teen Club where I — the pimple-faced son of a Lt. Col. — had a romance with the breathtakingly gorgeous daughter of a Supply Sergeant.

Supply Sgt. Peterson was emblematic of the battle-hardened men who stayed in the Army after World War II. One evening, as I was picking-up his daughter, he said, “You’re going straight to the Teen Club. Right?”

“Yes sir, the Teen Club. And I’ll bring Brenda straight home,” I promised.

He lingered in the living room for a moment and then asked, “Do you need anything at your little club?”

“Bamboo,” I replied.

“What the hell do you want with bamboo?”

I explained to the Sergeant that I wanted a bamboo wall to separate the dancing area from the refreshment area in my little club — this bamboo would be the only decorative feature of a drab, low-ceilinged, badly-lit room.

I forgot about this conversation until a 2 1/2-ton truck drove up to the club with a load of precisely cut bamboo. The bamboo was accompanied by a large mahogany bar, once used by Wehrmacht officers when Landstuhl belonged to the Germans.

It was that moment I learned that enlisted men, people who lived in lesser circumstances and were thought to be of lesser value, could be important. In short order I requested a bus, a driver, and then took my “little club” to Heidelberg, Vienna and to Barcelona.

In 1986 Charles Moskos (writing in The Atlantic) wrote: “If there is a Black center in the U.S. Army, it is among the 94,000 Black non-commissioned officers. Because Blacks are about one and a half times more likely to re-enlist after their first hitch, their presence in the Army is notably high in the NCO corps. About a third of all buck sergeants and staff sergeants and about a quarter of all first sergeants, master sergeants and sergeant majors are Black.”

Although Moskos’ figures are dated, these days Blacks make up 17 percent of the active-duty military — somewhat higher than their 13 percent share of the U.S. population — and 19 percent of the Army’s enlisted population. The vast majority of enlisted personnel (92 percent) have completed high school or some college. This compares with 60 percent of all U.S. adults, ages 18-44.

It is also true that Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than they do in business, journalism, government or any other significant sector of American society.

While few Blacks have acquired “flag” rank — and there is still lingering racism in the ranks — almost every sociologist who has studied the U.S. Army say this organization is as close to a meritocracy as we are likely to get. And the military, in general, remains the one of the few institutions in our fractured country that is universally respected.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.