The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have compelled a righteous reckoning. Facing pressure from a large and diverse movement of Americans, many of our country’s institutions are facing up to their role in perpetuating racial injustice.
This reckoning should extend to our nation’s armed forces. Congress has both the capacity and responsibility to ensure that the military, often a leader on racial equality since President Truman desegregated it in 1948, continues to set an example for the country.
While one of us serves in Congress and the other leads a human rights organization, we both wore the uniform of our country as Army officers. We led soldiers into battle and lost some of them in combat. It is because of our commitment to the military that we wish to see it even more faithfully reflect our country’s ideals.
The most straightforward issue at hand is the rechristening of military bases currently named for Confederate leaders. Surely it is not too much to ask that the nomenclature of the military align with its mission. The purpose of the American military is to protect all of us, not the legacies of a small group of traitors.
For a nation founded on ideas, symbols are substance, whom we choose to memorialize speaks to what values we honor. Our military should celebrate those who fought for freedom, not those who led the effort to tear our country apart in the name of chattel slavery and white power. There’s no non-racist reason that our armed forces should be shackled to the symbolism of the Confederacy.
Both the House and Senate version of the annual defense policy bill contain amendments that would rename bases. Each amendment passed in committee with bipartisan support, yet President Donald Trump says he will veto the entirety of the legislation based on this issue. The question is whether Republicans will side with the president or with racial progress.
A more complex problem: Military culture and weaponry have crept into American civil society, especially policing. The rise of the “warrior cop” has obscured the crucial distinction between the police and the military. As more police officers see themselves as commandos and more police forces resemble occupying armies, Black people pay the heaviest price, sometimes in blood.
With the support of Congress, our cities and states should institute training that teaches police to respect communities’ cultures and to problem-solve rather than treat every interaction as a potential confrontation. In Washington state, for instance, Sheriff Sue Rahr (retired), executive director of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, has pioneered an approach that sees police as guardians, not warriors.
When political leaders consider our public square “battle space” and threaten to use active duty military to quell protests, something has gone terribly wrong. In places where political leaders capriciously use the military against domestic unrest, major human rights problems arise — and public support for the military suffers.
While President Trump’s threat to use military force against American protesters triggered widespread opposition, the problem of militarized policing remains. In the upcoming debate over the defense bill, Congress will vote on a crucial element of any solution: ending the Defense Department’s 1033 program. Organizations meant to serve the public shouldn’t be equipped like combat units, with M4 carbines and armor-piercing ammunition, grenades and launchers, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, armed drones, or anything from the federal supply class of banned items.
Yet through that program, the military gives these weapons of war at minimal or no cost to police departments around the country. The program also transfers military equipment and weaponry to agencies like Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If we are serious about making law enforcement more just and our immigration system more humane, restricting and ultimately scrapping the 1033 program should be a top legislative priority.
Those are two vital steps Congress can take. There are others, from reforming the Insurrection Act to restricting military deployments to the southern border and combating white nationalism among service members. Such steps would strengthen the military as well as the country.
The military is among the most respected institutions in American society, and rightly so. Congress should both leverage and enhance the military’s reputation by making sure it bolsters democracy at home. As the movement sparked by tragedy demands justice, Congress can put the military where it belongs: out of policing and on the forefront of progress.
Anthony Brown is a member of Congress representing Maryland’s 4th District (Anthony.Brown@mail.house.gov) and served as an aviator and judge advocate general in the United States Army. Michael Breen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president and CEO of Human Rights First, and a former officer in the United States Army.