September 1, 2020
A disturbing new report notes that “never in its history has the Marine Corps had anyone other than a white man in its most senior leadership posts” and charges that the Corps is “an institution where a handful of white men rule over 185,000 white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian men and women.” The reality is more complicated. For one thing, most Marines are directly led by noncommissioned officers, whose ranks are much more diverse. For that matter, so is the officer corps writ large, and few Marines will ever meet a general. But the issue bears a closer look.
The story by the New York Times weaves around the case of Anthony Henderson, a star officer who began his Marine career in 1994 already holding a law degree (cum laude) and has “multiple combat tours, leadership experience and the respect of those he commanded and most who commanded him.” He was recently strategic advisor and military secretary to then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who enthusiastically recommended him for promotion. And yet, Henderson has not yet made brigadier general in three tries. Some have attributed this to “a tendency to speak his mind,” which, while often a hurdle for promotion in a culture that prizes team players, carries some ugly historical baggage when applied to a Black man.
Looking at his resume, it may seem staggering that Henderson isn’t a general officer. Aside from exemplary performance as an Infantry officer through his long career, with a desirable mix of fleet and broadening assignments, he has excelled in the classroom, participating in prestigious programs at MIT and Harvard in addition to staff and war college. He’s exactly the kind of warrior-scholar America needs in its senior ranks.
Yet the fact that one superstar Black officer has not yet been selected for a general’s rank is not proof of a race problem in the Marine Corps. As a recent RAND report on general and flag officer development shows, all the longstanding services (that is, excluding the new Space Force) have a cliff between colonel/captain and brigadier general/rear admiral, with none having a selection rate above 8 or 9 percent.
In all the services, simply making colonel/captain is a signifier of elite accomplishment. That’s even more true in the Marine Corps, which promotes a smaller percentage of its officers to each of the field grade ranks than its sister services. While promotion through captain is essentially automatic, fewer than 70 percent of Marine captains make major; fewer than sixty percent of majors make lieutenant colonel; and fewer than 40 percent of lieutenant colonels make full colonel. Those who do are said to constitute the “Senate” of the Corps.
Yet because there are only 37 one-star generals in the entire Marine Corps, only 8 percent of these colonels will ever pin on even a single star. Indeed, it is a longstanding custom, as RAND notes, that “when a Marine Corps officer is promoted to the grade of O-7, they receive letters from other Marine Corps GOs including advice and a reminder that the distinction could just as easily been afforded to ten of their colleagues, and to take the responsibility of the rank seriously and humbly.”
It has been said many times that “if every one- and two-star GO in the Army keeled over dead today, the big machine would still be fine” because the bench of colonels is so talented. The same attitude holds in the Marines, but perhaps more so. Army colonels (like their counterparts in the Navy and Air Force) maintain their branch or functional area specialization. In the Marine Corps, all colonels are branch immaterial—literally, general officers in waiting.
Further, because the Marines eschew early promotions of its best officers, the average brigadier general pins on his first star with 28 years of service—later than in any other service and fully two years slower than the Air Force. Indeed, at the 26-year mark, Henderson is still under the average.
Still, while a single anecdote can be dismissed, the overall data is worrisome. The report notes that the Corps has seen only 25 Black officers make one-star rank, only six have made three-star, and “none has made it to the top four-star rank, an honor the Marines have bestowed on 72 white men.” Further, “Out of 82 Marine generals overall today, there are six African-American brigadier generals and one African-American major general.”
Obviously, America has a long history of racial discrimination and Black servicemembers were only relatively recently admitted to the officer corps as anything like equal members. Still, the Army had a Black one-star general, Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., in 1940—eighty years ago next month. The Air Force’s Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. became the nation’s first Black four-star general in 1975. Colin Powell became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Michelle Howard became the first Black woman to pin on four-star rank in 2014. And Charles Q. Brown, Jr. became the first Black service chief just last month. Against this record, the Marines’ lack of even a single Black four-star merits investigation.
It is conceivable that the explanation is something other than racial bias. The most plausible alternative is the truism across the services (and, indeed, in the civilian world as well) that “ducks pick ducks.” Leaving aside for a moment that promotion boards generally consist mostly of white men, perhaps their bias is simply toward officers in their own career specialties. For the highest ranks—three- and four-star officers—the Marine Corps overwhelmingly selects infantry officers and, to a far lesser extent, aviators. Yet even this explanation is problematic. Black officers are underrepresented in those specialties. While this is typically explained as self-selection—at least some Black officers face family and community pressure to learn skills that directly translate to civilian employment—it may well be that there is subtle pressure within the Marine Corps that reinforces this.
To be sure, it is only recently that the Corps has had four-star officers in any abundance. Alexander Vandergrift, who became Commandant in 1944, was the service’s first four-star. The person holding that billet—and there have been only 20 commandants since—was for decades the only four-star general in the Corps. The Assistant Commandant didn’t become a four-star officer until Lew Walt assumed the billet in 1968. And, as shocking as it may seem today, no Marine held a unified combatant command billet until George Christ took the helm of Central Command in November 1985. So, not only has the opportunity for Marines, regardless of color, to make four-star rank been extremely limited but it has been biased toward infantry officers.
Still, given what we know about structural racism and unconscious bias, the fact that so few Black officers make it to the top of the Marine Corps should alarm senior leadership and spur deeper scrutiny. Since most of the “ducks” doing the picking are white men, it’s reasonable to suspect that this fact colors their vision of what a Marine general looks like.
Effective today, the Marine Corps has eliminated the official photograph from the personnel file that goes before promotion boards. That’s an acknowledgement that implicit bias may well have been present. Still, while it may help make selections of lower-ranking officers more color-blind, and perhaps give the service more Black colonels to choose from down the line, it is unlikely to make much difference on brigadier general boards themselves: the Corps is too small and every officer on the board is likely to know every colonel up for consideration.
It is challenging to make an objective evaluation of the situation from the outside. Even the above-cited RAND report, which is the source of most of the data in this essay and which was commissioned by various Defense Department offices, had to rely only on Defense Manpower Data Center data because they were denied access to service data. It would behoove the Marine Corps to make more detailed information available to scholars for examination.