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Black Retired Major General On Facing Racism In The Military

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's been a tumultuous time of nationwide protests against police violence forcing many to rethink the role of policing in America, as well as the military's role in managing these demonstrations. This past week, President Trump deployed low-flying National Guard helicopters and thousands of federal troops to quell protests in Washington, D.C. Earlier today, President Trump said he has ordered the National Guard to begin withdrawing troops from D.C. That's supposed to take place over the next few days. Yet the president made clear that they can quickly return.

But former military leaders, once hesitant to speak out, are vocally condemning the president and his decision to mobilize the armed forces in response to protesters. One of them is retired Major General Dana Pittard. He spent decades in the U.S. Army, becoming one of a few African Americans to rise to the level of major general. And he's here now to share his thoughts on what's been going on throughout the country. Major General Pittard, welcome to the program.

DANA PITTARD: Oh, thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: What was your reaction to how the Trump administration was trying to mobilize the military in response to protesters in recent days?

PITTARD: Yeah, I was surprised, especially when peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., just outside the White House were cleared for the president to walk across the street for a photo-op which included the secretary of defense and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, who unwittingly did that. But I was very concerned with even the threat of using active duty military to quell the protests. What normally happens - it's law enforcement, and then the National Guard can be called up by state governors. And in very rare instances - and this is rarely done - the governor of a state could ask the president to send in active duty military.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, you've said there are occasions when it would be appropriate to use the military in domestic emergencies. What kind of a crisis would rise to that level?

PITTARD: Oh, we've seen that in the past. The riots in LA, Los Angeles, in 1992 following the Rodney King trial verdict. There was a need. The governor of California asked the president then, President George Bush, to do that. But though there were protests throughout the country, most of the protests were in fact peaceful. There was some violence. There was some looting. But that should've been handled first by the National Guard.

MCCAMMON: You did an interview with Foreign Policy magazine recently in which you discussed some racist incidents that you faced throughout your military career. In it, you recount times where you were reluctant to say something because you were outranked. But you also said that you faced the most egregious forms of racism while you were rising through the ranks before you joined the leadership ranks. What do you think that says about race in the armed forces?

PITTARD: Well, what it says about race in the armed forces, as well as other segments of society, is, again, the U.S. military is not immune to that. The U.S. military is merely a reflection of the American society in which it serves. It's no better, it's no worse in the U.S. military than it is in the rest of the country.

MCCAMMON: The last time there were massive protests against police violence was in 2014 during Ferguson. I'm thinking there are people of color serving in the military now witnessing what's taking place. You wrote about watching Ferguson from Baghdad while leading the initial fight against ISIS at that time. Can you tell us more about what that felt like, fighting one battle abroad while another one was taking place at home?

PITTARD: Yes. In fact, I was watching on TV from my office in Baghdad as we were beginning this fight. And there was an irony to that in that, back in our own country, my own sons, who are African American, could in fact have been in the same situation as what occurred in Ferguson. I think we as Americans, especially we as African Americans are tired of this cycle. It's a cycle of - there's an incident. Then there's grief. There's outrage. And then there's nothing done. That's why this time, this is different. This time, we must come up with a solution. We as a country must deal with this.

MCCAMMON: What do you think that solution looks like?

PITTARD: I think there's many aspects of a solution. H.R.40, which is a bill to talk about setting up a commission for reparations. I don't support monetary reparations, but let's have this discussion of what 401 years ago occurred, when the first African slaves were brought over and the history there of slavery, then the post-Civil War, Jim Crow laws and what we're still dealing with.

MCCAMMON: You've talked about the importance of leadership, especially from white elected officials. What kind of leadership would you have liked to see from President Trump at this time?

PITTARD: Is uniting the country. Be a unifier, not a divider. Be the president of all the United States, not just to his base. But it's the American people who have to resolve this. You know, one leader, though powerful, can certainly make a difference. But to end systemic racism throughout our country, African Americans can't do that by themselves. It takes white Americans and the majority of America to help do that.

MCCAMMON: That's Dana Pittard, retired major general from the U.S. Army and co-author of the book "Hunting The Caliphate: America's War On ISIS And The Dawn Of The Strike Cell." General Pittard, thanks so much for your time.

PITTARD: Sarah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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