Escaped slaves fought on the British side, which promised to free them, during the American war for independence for white men. But nobody liked to talk about that much after the French won the war, although — come to think of it — nobody much likes to talk about the French winning the war, or for that matter about the big losers being, not the British but the Native Americans.
White folks weren’t eager to arm slaves, although an NRA-type genius just said on U.S. televisions this week that if slaves had only been armed they wouldn’t have been slaves. The militias famously protected by the Second Amendment included, perhaps primarily, white militias aimed at crushing slave rebellions. Escaped slaves fought for the Union in the Civil War, which may not have been an insignificant factor in Lincoln’s decision to announce their freedom.
The massacring of Native Americans conditioned black troops as well as white for the brutalities they would inflict in the name of freedom and democracy on the Philippines and Cuba. Imperial wars abroad brought with them huge surges of violence at home. During the days in which the United States liberated Filipinos and Cubans from their lives, thousands of lynchings and hundreds of riots brought freedom and liberty to African Americans at home. While Haitians were occupied, blacks were attacked in Harlem and Alabama.
African Americans were included in the U.S. military during World War II, in segregated units, and often in non-combat units. The pretense was that they couldn’t fight, never had, never would. And yet, just as they had before, many did — with less training, less equipment, and in riskier positions. And many came to grasp what it all meant. A jim crow nation that locked up Japanese Americans and rioted against blacks and Mexicans, slaughtered innocent civilians for imperial gain in the name of opposing imperialism. “Just carve on my tombstone,” said an African American soldier in 1942, “here lies a black man who died fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.”
The draft was segregated. The military was segregated. Blacks were largely confined to the support labor that is now hired out to contractors. When FDR was finally pushed to support blacks’ participation in the army, he insisted that they make up no more than 10 percent and be kept in segregated units. And yet, when African American soldiers in World War II weren’t facing the Germans or the Japanese, they were still at great risk of violent assault by white U.S. soldiers, not to mention the abuses they would face back home after their “service.” In Guam, U.S. commanders allowed white troops to prepare for assaults on Japanese troops by abusing African American sailors, including by tossing live grenades at them.
African Americans launched a Double Victory Campaign, whose symbol was two V for victory signs, desiring as they did a victory over fascism abroad and at home. Some saw through the military madness, understood the connection between violence abroad and at home, and refused to enlist — or got themselves declared mentally unfit, as Malcolm X did. Black soldiers resisted, struck, and mutinied. In April 1945, sixty black officers defied a ban on their use of an officers’ club and were arrested. Another group defied the ban, and they were arrested. And then another.
Before he integrated baseball, Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus on Fort Hood.
A budding movement could be recognized that was also forming within U.S. prisons where black and white conscientious objectors were confronting domestic injustice in new ways.
As black and white troops prepared to return from France, black soldiers had their guns confiscated, while white soldiers guarding German prisoners kept theirs and turned them on the African American troops as well. Lest you imagine this the hypocrisy of a few bad apples who failed to grasp the great moral purpose of the war, let’s not forget that as the victors put the Nazis on trial for crimes including human experimentation, the United States was giving syphilis to Guatemalans to see what would happen, just as it had long been and would long continue studying (and not treating) African Americans with syphilis in Alabama. In fact, German and Italian troops being held prisoners of war helped white U.S. troops enforce segregation. And Nazi war criminals found an eager employer in the Pentagon. Black veterans of World War II were shot and lynched in such numbers in 1946 that a Chicago Defender columnist wrote that “the Negro press still reads like war.”
Returning black troops faced “jim crow shock,” when they imagined they’d just killed and risked dying for freedom but got home to find none. Some were more equal than others under the G.I. Bill and within U.S. society. Compared to the mythical “spitting on the troops” after the Vietnam War or the lack of interest or awareness during the — yes — still ongoing endless war on everywhere that started in 2001, this was a heavy blow. It led to suicides and violence of all variety.
It did not lead to complete rejection of the military and military “service.” For African Americans disproportionately, the military was the best available means of obtaining a paycheck or any sort of skilled employment, as well as a way to prove one’s manhood and the right to citizenship. Discrimination within the military, rather than the existence of the military and its draining impact on other possible pursuits and investments, was enemy number one. Everything currently said about gays or women in the military was said about blacks in the military, and — as in the newer controversies — even those claiming to oppose militarism prioritized equal access to participate fully in it.
In 1948, A. Phillip Randolph warned:
“I would like to make clear to the Senate Armed Services Committee and through you, to Congress and the American people that passage now of a Jim Crow draft may only result in a mass civil disobedience movement along the lines of the magnificent struggles of the people of India against British imperialism.”
Senator Wayne Morse — remembered, when he is remembered, as an opponent of the war on Vietnam — charged Randolph with treason.
Truman announced an integrated military, with an executive order, much as Obama closed Guantanamo. Blacks joined up in 1948 and 1949, mainly for the money, expecting an integrated military but finding a completely segregated one. Even brothels providing sex slaves to soldiers in Japan were segregated for black and white.
During the war on Korea, however, the military moved in the direction of integration, and of full combat roles for blacks. The draft disproportionately brought blacks into the military, while at the same time they lost the publicly understood disadvantage of being kept away from combat and acquired the disadvantage understood by soldiers of being sent into combat — sent into more dangerous combat than others, in fact, and accused of cowardice as a reward.
While black soldiers like James Forman were coming to recognize their participation in foreign occupations for what it was, blacks were enlisting, reenlisting, and being drafted in record numbers — largely for economic reasons, needing the employment and lacking qualifying grounds for deferment, such as college. From the Korean War forward, blacks were no longer kept out of the U.S. military through quota limits, but made up a greater percentage of the military than of the population at large.
At the same time, in contrast to World War II, the war on Korea met with opposition from many prominent African Americans, and a movement against militarism began to grow, as did the movement at home for civil rights. African American newspapers in the north began sending their war correspondents to places like Mississippi. J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant murdered Emmett Till in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Milam said he’d done to Till exactly what he’d done to Germans during World War II — the war that never stops giving. Conscientious objectors Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, William Worthy, James Farmer, James Lawson, and Bob Moses organized in the U.S. South against violence of all varieties, joined by John Lewis, Julian Bond, Diane Nash, and Gwen Patton.
Vietnam was the same story: ever more African Americans in the military, and yet ever stronger activism against it, including resistance by GIs. The day three SNCC volunteers — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney disappeared — was also the day of the pretended Gulf of Tonkin incident. Robert McNamara in 1966 announced Project 100,000, aimed at lifting 100,000 men out of poverty by moving them into the military and sending them to war. Between 1966 and 1971, the project brought 400,000 men into the military, 40 percent of them African American. Increasingly, through the 1960s, African Americans’ opinions turned against war. The Last Poets’ 1970 “The Black Soldier” said:
“Here’s to you black soldier
“fightin’ in Vietnam
“helping your oppressor
“oppress another man.”
I found this and a detailed discussion of much of the above in a new book by Kimberley L. Phillips called “War: What Is It Good For? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military From World War II to Iraq.“ The author’s father fought in Vietnam. Her parents were unable to buy a home in San Luis Obispo because, “local residents’ equal disdain for the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement meant no one would sell a black soldier a home.”
Phillips, who is the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, writes that “since the Vietnam War, the armed forces have served as a de facto jobs program for black Americans and a symbol of a gain in their long struggle for full citizenship. In a postindustrial economy of the late twentieth century, the military has provided steady work and important benefits, including health care, child care, and education. For increasing numbers of black immigrants, military service has provided a step toward legal citizenship.” That hideous step is being imposed on all sorts of immigrants today.
African Americans disproportionately opposed wars, enlisted in the military, and gave their loyalty to the Democratic Party. So, what happened when a Republican President led major wars that even white people opposed? Between 2000 and 2005, black enlistments in the military dropped 40%, and black presence in the military 25%. These trends continued through 2008, at which point they began to turn back around.
Maybe that’s the economy’s fault. Maybe it’s misperceptions that the war is over. Or maybe it’s a question of what the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize President looks like. But the U.S. military is targeting Africa in a big new way, and targeting Asia and the Middle East in a big familiar way. Why should anyone participate in oppressing anyone anywhere for the Pentagon?
A poet in Qatar was recently given a life-sentence in prison for reciting a poem. This is a translation:
Oh, Prime Minister, Mohammad al-Ghannoushi, if we consider your power, it doesn’t come from the Constitution.
We are not nostalgic for Ben Ali, nor for his times, which represent merely a dot on the line of history
Dictatorship is a repressive and tyrannical system and Tunisia has announced its people’s revolt.
If we criticize, it is to decry what is base and disgraceful
If we praise, we do it in first person
The revolt began with the blood of the people rising up and has painted liberation on the face of every living creature.
We know they’ll do what they wish and that all victories bear tragic events,
But pity the country that lets itself be governed by ignorance and believes in the strength of the American army,
And pity that country that starves its people while the government rejoices of its economic success
And pity that country whose people go to sleep a citizen and wake up poor and stateless
Pity that system that inherits repression
Until when shall we be slaves of all that selfishness?
When shall the people realize their worthiness?
That worthiness that is hidden from them and that they soon forget?
Why don’t governments ever choose a way to end a tyrannical power system that is aware of its disease
and at the same time poisons its people who know that tomorrow a successor shall occupy that very seat of power?
He doesn’t take into account that the country bears its name and that of his family,
the self-same country that preserves its glory in the glories of the people,
the people that answers with one voice to a single destiny: in the face of the oppressor we are all Tunisian!
Arab governments and those who lead them, all are thieves, to the same degree.
That question that causes sleepless nights for those who ask it will not find an answer from those who embody officialdom.
Photo in the public domain