Days after Defense Secretary Mark Esper proposed removing photos from officer promotion board packages as a way to eliminate unconscious bias in the process, the Army has moved to suspend its use of the photos.
In a memo dated Wednesday and signed by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, the service announced that use of the photos would be suspended as of Aug. 1.
“The strength of our Army comes from our diversity,” the leaders wrote in the memo, reviewed by Military.com. “Developing and maintaining qualified and demographically diverse leadership is critical for mission effectiveness and is essential to national security.”
The memo added that the service would begin to evaluate the use of photos on warrant officer and enlisted soldier promotion considerations beginning in August, and would publish an Army directive no later than September 2021 making a policy change permanent regarding use of the photographs.
A defense official confirmed to Military.com that the memo was authentic.
Not all services use promotion photos, which are intended to show military bearing, fitness and attention to proper uniform wear. Neither the Coast Guard nor the Air Force include them as part of the promotion package. Those who oppose use of the photos argue that they favor white men and disadvantage anyone who looks different from the stereotypical image of a military leader.
On June 18, Esper released a video message to the force announcing the establishment of a new “Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion” and proposing, as one initial change, the removal of photos “from promotion, school, and command selection boards — this is something I pushed as secretary of the Army as we worked to overhaul our personnel system.”
Earlier this week, the deputy commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, published an unofficial Twitter poll asking whether promotion board photos should be eliminated. More than 75% of the 3,255 respondents had voted in the affirmative as of Wednesday.
Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, military assistant to the assistant secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) for Quality of Life, tweeted, “Nothing in a photo reveals talent.”
Jim Perkins, an Army Reserve major in the Army Reserve’s 75th Innovation Command who has been vocal about the military’s need to change its policy, said photos were “at best a weak proxy” for other qualities such as fitness that can be otherwise quantified in a promotion package.
“What doesn’t a picture show? It doesn’t show academic achievement — you can get a badge for two weeks of training with helicopters, but not for a Ph.D. — or technical certifications and language proficiency. It also shows nothing about a person’s recent performance,” he said.
“What do a Ranger tab and Combat Infantryman Badge from more than 10 years prior as a lieutenant matter to a board evaluating a major in acquisitions for promotion to lieutenant colonel? They don’t, but they reinforce preferences for white men over all others. Military bearing is simply code for conformity to demographic norms.”
— Matthew Cox contributed to this report.
— Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.
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