WASHINGTON — Retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who is on the brink of becoming the first Black man to be secretary of defense, rose to the heights of an American military whose largely white leadership has not reflected the diversity of its rank and file.
For much of his career, General Austin was accustomed to white men at the top. But a crucial turning point — and a key to his success — came a decade ago, when General Austin and a small group of African-American men populated the military’s most senior ranks.
As a tall and imposing lieutenant general with a habit of referring to himself in the third person, General Austin was the director of the Joint Staff, one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes positions in the military. His No. 2 was also a Black man, Bruce Grooms, a Navy submariner and rear admiral. Larry O. Spencer was a lieutenant general who was the arbiter of which war-fighting commands around the world got the best resources. Dennis L. Via was a three-star general who ran the communications security protocols across the military.
And Darren W. McDew, a major general and aviator with 3,000 flight hours, was a vice director overseeing the plans the Joint Staff churns out.
At one point in 2010, the men thought they should capture the moment for posterity since nothing like that had happened before and likely would not happen again. They summoned the man who had made it happen, their boss, Adm. Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, into a room for a photo.
“What is this about?” Admiral Mullen asked when he walked in.
“History,” General McDew replied.
Now General Austin is poised to make history again. His ascension to the top Pentagon job would be a remarkable punctuation to a career whose breadth showcases the scope of what the military can do on diversity when senior leaders act. But the singularity of General Austin and his Black colleagues’ moment in power also demonstrates the entrenched system that has defaulted to white men at the top when 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States are people of color.
The photo of Admiral Mullen with his senior Black directors and vice directors stands in contrast with another photo, taken a year ago, of President Trump surrounded by a sea of white faces — his senior Defense Department civilian and military leaders. Today’s Joint Staff directors and vice directors are similar: All but one of those jobs are filled by white men. The exception is Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, a white woman, who is the director for strategy, plans and policy — a reflection of the inroads that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has made by appointing women to jobs they have never had before.
But as the country has focused on racial disparities and protests after the police killing this year of George Floyd, Defense Department officials have acknowledged that they have failed to promote Black men, who were fully integrated to serve in the military after World War II. They have offered a host of reasons, from a lower number of Black men in the combat jobs that lead to the top ranks to a tendency by corporate America to raid the best talent, to explain why so few senior leaders are people of color.
In a series of interviews over the past two months, General Austin, Admiral Mullen and the Black men who ran the Joint Staff 10 years ago — most of whom went on to even higher levels of command — said the reasons given by the Defense Department’s top ranks are excuses.
“It’s a simple issue of leadership,” Admiral Mullen said in a recent interview. “If you want to get it done, you can get it done.”
At first glance, Admiral Mullen might be an unexpected choice to be the senior officer who would work to break racial barriers at the Pentagon. The son of a Hollywood press agent, he grew up in 1950s Los Angeles, where his high school senior class of 130 had only one Black student.
But the world opened up for him when he got to the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1964: One thing the American military does is throw together young men and women of all different races, at least at first.
Midshipman Mullen was classmates with Midshipman Charles Bolden, who would go on to become the first African-American to lead NASA. The two teenagers had gotten to the Naval Academy via vastly different paths: Midshipman Mullen through a basketball scholarship, and Midshipman Bolden only when he wrote a personal letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson after being turned down for the Annapolis appointment by South Carolina’s congressional delegation, which included a segregationist, Senator Strom Thurmond.
Admiral Mullen’s racial antennae went up slowly as he progressed through the ranks of the Navy. He could not help but notice that the higher up he went, the whiter the Navy got, until soon there were no people of color around him. “I would look up occasionally, and it was an all-white world,” he said.
By the time President George W. Bush appointed him first to lead the Navy in 2005 and then in 2007 to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen feared that the Navy, and the military as a whole, was not keeping up with the country for which it fought. “I felt that the more unrepresentative we were as an institution, the farther we would drift from the American people and the more irrelevant we would become,” he said.
Enter General Austin.
General Austin, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, was raised in Thomasville, Ga., the same town that produced Henry O. Flipper, who was born a slave and in 1877 became the first African-American graduate of West Point and the first Black noncommissioned officer to lead Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry.
General Austin had helped lead the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s during the American-led invasion in 2003, commanded a light infantry division in Afghanistan after that, and was back in Iraq as a ground commander in 2008 when Admiral Mullen arrived for a tour. Mr. Bush’s surge had started to quell the worst of the sectarian violence that had plagued the country, but American troops were still dying and the country was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.
It was well known among the American command staff members in Baghdad that General Austin loathed talking to the news media or doing on-demand performances for visiting dignitaries. But over dinner with Admiral Mullen at one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, he opened a map of Iraq and walked the Joint Chiefs chairman over what the American military was doing on every piece of contested ground in the country.
“I was just blown away,” Admiral Mullen recalled. “I hadn’t run into anybody who had the comprehensive understanding of the ground war that he had.”
General Austin said in an interview that during the dinner he was just focusing “on the X’s and O’s,” but remembers Admiral Mullen telling him “it was the best picture of the fight that he had gotten in some time.” Back in Washington, Admiral Mullen called Gen. George W. Casey, the Army chief of staff who was responsible for compiling names for promotions to Joint Staff’s top jobs.
“Is Austin on your list?” Admiral Mullen asked him.
“He said no,” Admiral Mullen recalled. “I said, ‘Put him on it.’”
By 2009, General Austin was at the Pentagon as director of the Joint Staff, the first Black man to hold the job. Admiral Mullen also appointed another Black officer, Admiral Grooms, a baby-face Navy submariner whom the admiral had been mentoring for years with public strolls around the Pentagon to make sure other people took note, to be General Austin’s vice director. Upon his arrival, Admiral Mullen told General Austin to make the rest of Joint Staff directors and vice directors more diverse, too.
But when General Austin went to the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy asking for recommendations for high-quality candidates, he ran into a brick wall. Every list he got from the services, he said, was filled solely with white men. He returned to his boss a few weeks later saying he could not find any minority candidates.
The reaction, General Austin recalled, “was one of the worst butt-chewings I ever got from Mullen. He said: ‘They’re out there. Go back and find them.’”
General Austin went back to the services and told them not to bring him any more lists of only white men. He had learned a lesson: In the American military, if he did not specifically ask that minority candidates be included on the lists for various posts, he would not get any.
“We did a second look, and cast a wider net,” General Austin recalled, “and found there were folks out there who were supremely qualified.”
The result was General Via, who would rise to become the commander of the U.S. Army Matériel Command; General Spencer, who would become the vice chief of staff of the Air Force; General McDew, who eventually became the commander of United States Transportation Command; and Brig. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, who became the commander of U.S. Army forces in Japan.
Of those, with the exception of General Harrison, who retired after he was disciplined as a major general for mishandling a sexual assault case in Japan, all rose to become four-star generals and admirals.
On Sept. 1, 2010, at a ceremony at Al-Faw Palace in Baghdad attended by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., General Austin became commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It was the start of what has become a crucial relationship with Mr. Biden, now the president-elect.
Mr. Biden was already predisposed to like the general; his son Beau sat next to General Austin, who is Catholic, during Mass in Iraq when Beau Biden was serving there. General Austin and the elder Mr. Biden would go on to spend hours together in White House Situation Room meetings discussing Iraq and the Obama administration’s withdrawal of 150,000 troops from the region, developing a level of personal comfort with each other.
Mr. Biden, in an op-ed in The Atlantic on Tuesday, called General Austin’s management of the Iraq withdrawal “the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades” and compared it to what will be required to help distribute coronavirus vaccines throughout the United States, a job the next defense secretary will find in his portfolio. “I know this man,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday, formally introducing his nominee for defense secretary.
When General Austin was appointed by President Barack Obama to be head of United States Central Command — the country’s premier military command, and the one that fights the nation’s wars in the Middle East — he had risen higher in the military than any other Black man except Colin L. Powell, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Now General Austin is poised to rise even higher as the next secretary of defense.
The Joint Staff director job that Admiral Mullen gave General Austin set him up for all that came after. “You’re involved in the planning of sophisticated issues, interacting with the secretary of defense routinely,” General Austin said. “People who might not have known Lloyd Austin began to know him.”
But even if confirmed by the Senate as the Pentagon chief, General Austin may find himself running into the usual hurdles promoting people of color. One of General Austin’s Black contemporaries on the Joint Staff, General Spencer, recalled in an interview what happened when he once tried to fill an executive assistant job — a promising one that would ensure upward mobility.
“They kept sending me lists of all white candidates,” General Spencer recalled. When he asked for a more diverse roster, he said, “the officer tells me, ‘Well, sir, it would look bad if you picked a Black E.A. because you’re Black.’”
Whether views like that handcuff General Austin if he becomes defense secretary is an open question. During an interview before Mr. Biden asked him to take the top Pentagon job, General Austin was adamant that senior leaders have to take responsibility for diversifying the senior ranks.
“People tend to choose the people to be around them that they’re comfortable with, and unless the leadership values diversity, this just doesn’t happen on its own,” General Austin said. “It kind of makes you believe that having goals and objectives is a nice thing, but having requirements might be better.”