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War Against Iraq Showcases Top Black Leadership

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Doha, Qatar

By George E. Curry


If United States Supreme Court justices want to know how affirmative action works before ruling in the Michigan cases pending before them, they should visit the Army base here, the place where the war against Iraq is being coordinated.

Everyone on this side of Mars knows by now that daily briefings are conducted by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, an African-American. His is the official voice and face of the war, the person who conducts daily briefings that are beamed around the world.

Brooks is not just a pretty face for the Army, he also is deputy director of operations. And there are times when he sounds more like a warrior than a government spokesman. As he said at a briefing Sunday, “…Any piece of the regime that's out there, or any piece of this force that supports the regime, will be attacked, it will be destroyed…”

The general is not the only African-African on the base. In fact, they hold positions at every level, from the general standing at the podium to the private sitting on the floor placing the microphone in front of reporters as they ask questions.

As journalists approach Camp As Sayliyah, the Army base on the outskirts of this capital city, one of the two MPs on duty is likely to be an African-American. After walking uphill to the check-in point, one is often greeted by the smiling face of Army Spec. Julia Simpkins, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who escorts journalists to the Central Command Media Center.

And before Brooks enters the room like a recently-launched cruise missile, the entire media operation has been supervised by Air Force Col. Ray Shepherd, director of public affairs.

Other Blacks move in and out of the briefing room as Pvt. Lizaro Myers of Philadelphia squats on the floor, usually out of the sight of cameras, holding his long microphone.

Shepherd says, “We’re everywhere.”

That certainly applies to Sgt. Maj. Dwight J. Brown. He was at the briefing on Sunday, but by Monday he had left for Afghanistan. Sergeant major is the highest rank an enlisted soldier can reach, and as Command Sgt. Major, Brown is responsible for enlisted soldiers sprawled over 25 countries, including Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

During oral arguments in the affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia said if the University of Michigan is so interested in diversity, it should lower its standards. Of course, university officials reminded Scalia that the institution does not need to lower its standards in order to attain a diverse student body.

If Scalia comes here, he will see that the Army didn’t lower its standards to produce quality leadership.

This $110 million facility, built less than five years ago, has allowed the military to cut normal troop deployment from four weeks during the Gulf War to four days in the current war. There are 27 warehouses, with approximately 1.6 million square feet or 36.3 acres of enclosed storage space. It takes that kind of room to house 150 Abrams M-1 tanks, 116 Bradley fighting vehicles and 112 armored personnel carriers.

The men and weapons here have been deployed to perhaps the most turbulent region in the world. And African-Americans have been entrusted to operate at the highest level, as far as their talent would take them.

CENTCOM—the Army’s way of saying U.S. Central Command—normally operates out of Tampa, Fla. But during this war, the leaders set up headquarters here, a major jumping-off point for men and women headed to battle. And it’s no accident that African-Americans hold such prominent positions.

After Scalia and company visit Qatar, they should return to Washington and re-read the friend-of-the-court brief filed by more than 25 distinguished military leaders.

Vouching for the effectiveness of affirmative action were Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the first Gulf War; three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Adm. William Crowe, Gen. Hugh Shelton and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili—former Defense secretaries William Perry and William Cohen, along with former superintendents of the U.S. military and Air Force academies.

“Doing affirmative action the right way is deadly serious for us—people’s lives depend on it,” the military leaders said in their brief. Dismissing so-called race-neutral approaches to diversity such as percentage plans, they noted: “There is presently no workable alternative to limited race-conscious programs to increase the pool of qualified minority officer candidates and establish diverse educational settings for officer candidates.”

Because the military is more integrated than most sectors of American society, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way.

As late as 1968, Black enrollment at the Naval Academy at Annapolis and West Point was less than 1 percent. In 1973, although African-Americans made up 17 percent of the rank-and-file, they constituted only 2.8 percent of all military officers.

By 2001, Blacks and Hispanics made up 11 percent of West Point, 14 percent of the Air Force Academy and 15 percent at Annapolis. Today, people of color represent 40 percent of the military and 20 percent of all officers.

Brig. Gen. Brooks is a graduate of West Point. He did something there that no African-American had ever accomplished—he became cadet brigade commander. When you see him on TV, he still is providing quality leadership.

Even affirmative action foes Clarence Thomas, who was admitted to Yale Law School as a result of affirmative action, and Scalia should not miss that point.

If they do, maybe we can get Col. Jerry Robinson, the Black chaplain here from Baconton, Ga., to pray for them.

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