It is rare in someone in public life gives an complete, unqualified apology. Far too often, we get the “Sorry if you were offended that . . . ” or “If I had known I would not have . . . ” It is even more rare that the highest ranking general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivers such a robust apology — and unprecedented in my lifetime that we hear an accounting of the military’s own shortcomings on race.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley’s personal apology got the most attention. “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he said of his June 1 venture into Lafayette Square with President Trump. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I’ve learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.” Less remarked upon but even more bracing was his recognition that the military has come up short on race.

He told the graduates of the National Defense University on Thursday, “Our military has a mixed record on equality. We fought World War II with a racially segregated military. The Tuskegee Airmen are just one example of courageous men who fought for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy at home.” He continued, “Racial segregation of the armed forces ended in 1948. And today the military has come to reflect the diversity of our nation, the strength of our nation.” Nevertheless, he cautioned:

For example, although the United States military has a higher proportion of African American serving in our ranks then in society at large, only seven percent of our flag and general officers are African American. The Navy and Marine Corps have no African American serving above the two star level. And the army has just one African American four-star. The United States Air Force will soon swear in our first African American service chief an achievement long overdue.

Milley made clear that our need to diversify and treat all Americans fairly is not simply a reflection of our values or a legal necessity, but a matter of self-interest. “We cannot afford to marginalize large portions of our potential talent pool or alienate certain demographic groups,” he explained. “No, we need all the talent that American society can muster.” He came back to the theme toward the end of his speech: “Equality and opportunity is a matter of readiness. It’s the basis of cohesion. We fight wars as teams, and we cannot tolerate anything that divides us.”

In concrete terms, he urged, “We will collectively take a hard look at how we recruit, retain and promote talent within our services. . . . And we must ensure fairness and equity at all key gateway selection boards, including promotion, command and War College. We must take advantage of the diversity committees, the councils and the offices in each of the services to identify best practices in talent management and act on them.” He also encouraged military leaders to mentor those junior officers by seeking out and surrounding themselves “with those who don’t look like you, think like you and who come from different backgrounds. Specifically reach out to junior officers and enlisted members whose background is different than yours and mentor them.”

Milley’s address was a fine example of humble leadership, something we rarely get from civilian politicians. The ability to take stock of oneself and one’s organization is critical if we are going to rectify centuries of racial injustice. By modeling good behavior, Milley should inspire others in the military, civilian government service, business, media and elsewhere to stop making excuses and commit to do better. For all that we can say, well done, General Milley.

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