Even though the United States was founded on the idea that all people have inalienable rights, applying that principle to all Americans has been a long, still-incomplete struggle played out in multiple arenas, including the U.S. military. Over the past 75 years, the armed forces have been used to advance this cause several times. Presidents found the military a valuable tool in the expansion of rights and the construction of a more unified society because it could be ordered to accept change to an extent that the rest of society could not. The military also tended to judge its members less on personal attributes than on their ability to contribute to the team.
One example of the military’s contribution to expanding rights was its role in ending racial segregation. In 1948, then-President Harry Truman ordered the military to implement “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin” long before the rest of society embraced that idea. More recently the military has played an important role in expanding opportunities for women and in accepting homosexual service members.
Now the United States again is entering another great debate on rights that the military can and should play a major role in: expunging America of its sordid tradition of glorifying the Confederacy.