On Jan. 6, as a throng of supporters of former President Donald J. Trump and right-wing extremists mobbed the U.S. Capitol, the Air Force Chief of Staff couldn’t tear himself away from the television.
Brown, teleworking away from the Pentagon, said he watched in shock and disbelief as events unfolded that killed five people and sent hundreds of lawmakers, staffers, and journalists running for cover.
“I was very disappointed, and it hurt,” he said in a live conversation with The Washington Post on Jan. 25. “I struggled on that day to understand what was going on and where we were going to go as a nation.”
Brown, who last summer became the first Black four-star general in American history to lead a branch of the armed forces, grappled with the sight of the Confederate flag being paraded through the halls of the U.S. Capitol—something not done even during the Civil War.
“The Confederate flag, throughout my career, has … never really sat well with me, just watching around our force or other locations, and having been stationed at locations in the South where you saw it,” he said. “To see it up on the Capitol, and to be walked through the Capitol, gives me an indication that … there is a bit of division.”
It drove home the work America must take on to bridge those differences and “be the nation we’ve all grown to know and love,” he said.
His sentiment echoes that of others in the Air Force who voiced their worries on social media.
“Internal division is our biggest threat, and it is being exacerbated skillfully by state and non-state actors that want to see us weakened & discredited,” Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, wrote in a Jan. 7 Twitter thread. “We are in danger of losing our republic.”
Brown suggested race may have played a factor in how Capitol Police and other law enforcement responded to the masses forcibly entering the seat of government, compared to aggressive policing tactics used against people protesting systemic racism in D.C. last year.
“There was a pendulum swing of the reaction then, and I think in this case, the pendulum swung a different direction,” Brown said. “It does make you wonder how we reacted, as a nation, to these particular events on the 6th, and how I think, in some cases, we underestimated the reaction from those who participated on the 6th.”
Reporting following the Capitol riot found that nearly 20 percent of individuals facing federal or local charges in connection with that day’s events have served or are serving in the U.S. military. The presence of current and former military members at the violent event, driven by ideological extremism in support of Trump, has spurred the military to take a new look at white supremacists and other extremists in its ranks.
“We witnessed actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law,” a memo signed by all eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. “The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition, and insurrection.”
“Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law,” they continued. The events took place as lawmakers were certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
On Jan. 13, one week after the deadly day in Washington, Brown and other senior leaders in the Department of the Air Force also wrote a brief letter to their troops urging them to “remain steady and stay focused on your duties to the country.”
“On the 6th of January, the violent assault on our Nation’s Capitol was an attack on the foundation of our great republic. Our oath demands that we are unwavering in safeguarding American ideals,” leadership wrote.
Speaking to the Post, Brown indicated extremism is a social issue on par with sexual assault and racial inequality that stops the Air Force from reaching its full potential. Nearly eight months after releasing a viral video entitled “What I’m thinking about,” a discussion of George Floyd’s death and the racism he’s faced in the Air Force, Brown said he’s pursuing meaningful, sustainable, and enduring cultural improvements for minorities in the military.
“We have to talk about our core values and our standards, but we need to be open and transparent about how we talk about those,” he said, adding that more could be done to make Airmen more tolerant of people from other backgrounds who they may not have interacted with before joining the military.
Brown also pointed to changes underway to more intentionally diversify service leadership, and to unpack other unconscious biases that may be holding the Air Force back or creating an uncomfortable environment for minority Airmen.
The Defense Department is wrestling with those issues as it welcomes its first Black Secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III. Brown served as the top officer providing air assets to the Middle East while Austin ran U.S. Central Command in the mid-2010s, and said the new Defense Secretary is straightforward, thoughtful, and inclusive.
“I think he’s going to hold us to account as well, to ensure that we deliver on … his priorities, the President’s priorities, to do the things that the Department of Defense does to secure our national security,” Brown said. That extends to “how we work with allies and partners and also have the right environment within the force.”
DOD and the Department of the Air Force will move forward in 2021 on several major initiatives, including continuing to stand up the Space Force and modernizing the air and space inventory. Brown praised speedy software development, plug-and-play software interfaces, and digital engineering as the biggest game-changers the department is pursuing. He also defended the need to continue the Space Force past the Trump administration.
“There are some opportunities here to actually increase our visibility on space,” he said. “Because the Space Force is coming out of the Air Force, it’s given us an opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves as an Air Force. There’s some things that we could do differently, and better, and there’s some things we may be able to learn as we look at a separate service now that starts from scratch.”