Gen. McConville addressed the nation’s internal unrest, trust of the military, even QAnon, in a wide-ranging interview with Defense One.
After a contentious summer of nationwide social unrest that thrust the military into uncomfortable spotlights, the Army’s top general said his branch is working hard to maintain the trust of the American people and build a force free of racism, extremism, and other influences that could hurt the unity of its soldiers, from Confederate flags to QAnon conspiracy theorists.
The sum of it all, or at least the intent, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, is to maintain a service ready to defend the nation and hold its qualitative edge over China and Russia.
“I think any type of racism or extremism in the U.S. Army needs to be totally eliminated,” McConville said, in a wide-ranging online interview with Defense One on Tuesday. A virtual audience member asked about QAnon conspiracy theorists in the ranks. “Racism and extremism — we just cannot have that in the United States Army,” McConville answered. “There’s just no room for that. It breaks down cohesion in our Army. Any type of extremism, any type of racism, any type of people that aren't willing to treat their fellow soldiers with dignity and respect and not willing to take care of each other cannot serve in our Army.”
Racism and cohesion in the ranks has become a priority issue for the chief as an extension of the nation’s own discussion and civil protests that have sometimes turned violent. Americans on city streets from coast to coast have confronted camouflage-wearing military forces sent to maintain President Donald Trump’s declaration of “law and order.” Critics say Trump politicized the military, using them to protect his personal and political interests, or encouraging state governors to use their National Guard forces to discourage or disband protests against his policies. Openly, veterans and partisans have battled in op-ed pages over what role the military should play in the coming elections, if any.
The military’s front-page moments in the news this summer also have raised long-simmering issues in military circles like flying Confederate flags on bases, renaming Army bases in the South that memorialize Confederate generals, and what to do about American extremists outside of the military who dress like U.S. military personnel as they seek to counter-protest the Black Lives Matter movement, sometimes violently.
“We live in a political environment but we’re an apolitical organization, and I think it really must remain that way, especially with an election coming up,” McConville said.
“The job of the American military is to protect the nation, not to police the nation. That’s why we have police officers, that’s why we have law enforcement,” he said. When local, state, and federal law enforcement has broken down, using the regular Army, he said, “is a last resort and my best military advice is only in the most extreme conditions should that be considered.”
He continued: “We should never take for granted the trust of the American people…when we have issues, whether it’s racism or anything else that divides our country and also our military, it’s something that we would take immediate action on.”
Pentagon leaders up to and including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a West Point graduate and previously Trump’s Army secretary, have tried with mixed success. When a move to ban the Confederate flag and change Army base names met resistance at the White House, Pentagon leaders rolled out what seemed a clever workaround for the flag. Defense Department leaders declared that in all service branches troops and civilians could display only certain authorized military related flags and symbols. But in doing so they inadvertently blocked troops from displaying the Pride flag, favorite sports teams, or anything else.
“What we want to do is take a look at where the policy could be adjusted,” McConville said. “That’s a question of, ‘Hey, we didn’t have this flag; was that the intent of what we were trying to do?’ and I think that discussion is ongoing.”
The inadvertent ban on the Pride flag is not just a Beltway issue, he said — actual soldiers care. “We have heard from some soldiers and some families, the concern about what flags fall into the policy. But the intent — at least with the Army that I can speak of — we want to make sure that everyone feels included and everyone belongs.”
“We’re looking for things that are going to bring people together long term. What’s the best way to bring the force together, to make everyone feel like they’re an integral part of the team.”
To that end, Defense One reported in July, Army leaders were working on a plan much wider than changing the names of Army bases named for Confederate generals. Trump killed that idea with tweets and other public statements, saying he would not whitewash history, which also upended some of the Army’s efforts at building unity in its ranks. McConville said he’s heard mixed opinions from soldiers about renaming the bases.
“I think depending on your perspective, depending on some soldiers I’ve talked to, it’s a very emotional issue. For other soldiers, they don’t even realize the names of the people on the bases they’re at. So I think we have to take a look, but at the end of the day — what we want to do, at least as the leadership of the Army, is identify those things that may divide us and take a look at and come up with solutions that can bring us together.”
The soldier who became the unwitting poster child for unwanted military intervention in domestic partisan politics has been McConville’s predecessor, now boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. McConville and Milley served together in Iraq once, and Afghanistan twice. Milley has said publicly that while he was fighting on the ground in the Battle of Fallujah, he received life-saving cover fire from McConville and his Apache attack helicopter in the air. This summer, Milley was harshly criticized as a willing or unwitting partner to Trump’s violent crackdown on protesters in Washington, D.C., which the chairman later said in a speech he was wrong to do and vowed to keep the military out of politics. The leader who became a villain to some in the Black Lives Matter movement, if temporarily, McConville spoke of reverently.
“He and I spent a lot of time together over the last 15 to 18 years. He’s a great combat leader,” McConville said. “There is no one that is braver or who is more courageous in combat. You know, that day on the west side of Baghdad, it was no different than any other day. He was out there with his troops, leading his troops. He got kind of blown up in an IED, a small one, and there was an ambush and we just happened to be available in attack helicopters, to survive this, for what he needed. It was not a big deal. It was nothing heroic. We did that every single day, supporting troops on the ground.”
Milley and McConville are continuing with their no-big-deal, apolitical roles. This week, while the public and pundits in the media have harshly criticized Trump for not condemning Moscow after a series of apparent Russian provocations at American forces in Syria and elsewhere, McConville confirmed that Milley has made his concerns clear.
“The chairman has talked to his counterpart and made it very, very clear about the concerns that he has about these interactions — and we are very, very concerned at our level,” he said. “I think we should make sure we confront them when these things happen and find out what was the intent behind the confrontation.”
The United States has the obligation to protect its troops, he said, and “it’s very, very dangerous when you have armed troops who have the right to self-defense.”
In all, the future of the Army is clouded with division at home and threats abroad. McConville said he hopes Americans have faith in their soldiers.
“This has been a very challenging time for the country,” he said, with COVID, unemployment, and unrest. “And yet young men and women continue to raise their right hand and serve.” The Army is concerned about China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremism, but also wildfires in the west, hurricanes, the pandemic, social unrest, “and the things that are breaking this country down.”
Through it all, he said, the Army is going to to work with the American people “to do what we do, and that is protect the nation.”