photo of Lueco Allen Jr., a black solder in Vietnam
photo of Lueco Allen Jr.

Most of my interest in Black military serviceship and the sixties are because my uncle fought in Vietnam. Being bullied and beat down by white troops whom antagonized him with their Confederate flags and dehumanized his Blackness, he realized that his enemies were not exclusive to Vietcong. His war as a Black man against the legacy of colonialism would be far more intent and indefinite. In the sixties, the esteem of enlistment and solidarity in (military) service in unifying with fellow American soldiers against a common enemy proved inconsequential. Prejudice was pervasive. White supremacist violence was conflated with valor.

My uncle was not only terrorized by the inexorable terrain and encounters in combat. He was also routinely brutalized by his ‘’allies.’’ In his unit, white soldiers would assault him in passing and sling racial slurs. This violence would go unacknowledged and unpunished by his superiors. The experience, he says, empowered him because he was inclined to toughen up and retaliate. He recalls how clapping back at several soldiers, once breaking some of their noses, keened others not to mess with him. I have to wonder what ranked worst for those white soldiers: losing to Vietcong or having a Black man execute their lilywhite defeats by pummeling them in plain sight. Despite this abuse, my uncle carried out successful missions which would earn him medals; notably, in Agent Orange, which has been linked to his present respiratory ailments and PTSD.

The current U.S. administration and every Trump trash bin, nationalist, and ignoramus alike have literally and figuratively disserviced his service. If the proposed Republican health bill passes, my uncle is likely going to end up breaking the bank trying to pay for his various medications for his PTSD and recently diagnosed cancer. This is a mild musing about the historical and modern-day pitfalls of paltry politics, but it’s relevant to most of us in smaller ways. We must take a hard look around and within to dignify our truths.

But, this did not start, nor will it end, with craven contemporaries.

Photo by Corbis Bettman
Photo by Corbis Bettman

The appeal of military service was a false promise that serving one’s country would merit respect. I mean, it should have. It just didn’t. For Black people, it never will. History serves as a testament to that stark reality as much as the present; a present in which Black veterans and active soldiers are still jeered, beaten down, or murdered by white supremacists despite their service. Throughout every thinkable U.S. conflict between the Revolutionary War and Iraq, Black soldiers have been belittled, beaten, and mistreated by others during and after their service.

Prior to emancipation, many enslaved were promised freedom following their service terms only for slavers to renege on their promises. During the Reconstruction era, Northern Republicans championing Rutherford B. Hayes negotiated and appealed to southern democrats for votes, promising to allow the south to enforce home rule as opposed to…well, reconstruction. Once his presidency was won, Rutherford removed federal troops who had kept the peace and (modest) justice in the south and sent them back north, leaving southern white supremacists to cultivate and unleash their wills through poll taxes, literacy tests, and the Klan. The following years would define and normalize the horrific anti-Blackness distinct to Dixie, where the legacies of lynchings, Klan callouts, and mob violence are notorious. Conversely, the halted European immigration from World War I meant a halted supply of workers to the north—which meant employment opportunities to Blacks who migrated from the south.

Amidst World War I, the 1917 Selective Service policy further weaponized the draft to disenfranchise Black people. It assumed Blacks were more prone to medical problems due to “racial deficiencies” and classified Black men as more fit to serve (read: disposable) than white men. It also hindered Black advancement as free Black men were likelier to be drafted than enslaved ones. Moreover, the Houston Riots broke out after returning Black soldiers were ravaged by Jim Crow laws, white supremacy, and miscellaneous mayo mediocrities.       

Black soldiers were only afforded equal pay and enlistment officially in 1948 under President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which was signed and abided only after the Korean War fared harder than anticipated, and as a way to avert demonstrations he feared might turn violent. But even after that order, Black soldiers were still discredited and scapegoated as the cause of failed missions or cowardice in battle which led to an inquiry and court marshalling, indicting many Black soldiers to lifelong prison terms.

No matter how much people continue to romanticize the nonviolent doctrine of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights did not abolish anti-Blackness, especially in Dixie. It only pressured policy makers to critically consider the cons of insurgency and the overall embarrassment of the nation. Black soldiers were simply tolerated as necessary (and exploitable) resources during the Vietnam War. Even though military integration was ordered in 1950, anti-Blackness was still rampant and resulted in grave disparities, until 1969 when Mandatory Watch and Action Committees were introduced to each unit cautioning whites that racism could cost them their military careers.

black man holding a sign reading "black men should not fight in vietnam for a racist USA"
original source unknown

This was a response to the growing Civil Rights and Black Power movements which involved the famous marches on Washington and Selma, as well as boycotts and sit-ins. Essentially, the Black Panther Party’s encouragement of active defense against racist offense resulted in several uprisings and shootouts.

In fact, the anti-Blackness in America was so notorious that it was a substantial source of embarrassment and psychological warfare employed by the Vietcong. The colossal catastrophe Americans fared against via the Tet Offensive was marked by propaganda wherein Vietcong would circulate images of the racist responses to Civil Rights back home. Snapshots, illustrations, and stark statements played upon the hypocrisy of white Americans who purported to be fighting for freedom and justice while enabling and participating in the dehumanization of Black people, both at home and abroad on the battlefield.

During the Korean War, Black people were more widely admitted simply due to a lack of “preferred” manpower. Through Project 100,000,  Blacks were  encouraged to enlist in order to meet numbers. Even when it came to quality, policymakers and partisans were still thinking in terms of quantity. Veterans returned home with alarming rates of PTSD, 20% of whom were white. Compared to 40% whom were Black, one of whom is my uncle.

People lay claims to us with no real foundation or insight. They impose their ideologies upon us without stopping to consider the merit or logic of doing so. I’m not sure why people don’t seem to grasp that they’re not entitled to anyone or anything, but their own rights and their own space. There is no way you can reasonably presume to dictate my or anyone else’s life (or space) in good conscience.

Another thing the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras have taught me is the importance of collectivizing. I say this as someone aware that there’s power in numbers, while also knowing I’m just another number. Public demonstrations and solidarity are what forced the spotlight, and eventually forced the hand of bureaucrats to officiate the criminality and injustice in discrimination. Not that this completely ended it, and the fight for equality still rages on to date.

Ebony Magazine cover 1968 featuring "The Black Solider"What set apart the Vietnam War was the prevalence and identification in the Black Power movement, in addition to Black people protesting the merit of fighting on behalf of a colonialist nation that didn’t dignify its own with the freedoms they purported fighting for. For prior wars, Black soldiers thought—even hoped—that, upon their return, their service would get them recognized, earn them respect, and freedom. I think Black soldiers were coldly aware of how shameless and selective supremacy was by the time Vietnam came around. And, I think that’s why masses were drawn to demonstrate and discern their struggles. A few choice names are spotlighted, but never forget it was a movement. Lone wolves can incite changes, but it takes a pack to win them.

That’s not just history. That’s today too.

If you’re in favour of this current administration in any way. If you’re twiddling your thumbs in ignorance. If you legitimately do not know or care about history. No, you do not “Support Our Troops.” Actual support needs to start somewhere, but it also needs to be seen to its end or progress. People need stop being so selfish and short-sighted. There’s more to soldiers than anthems, medals, uniforms, and whiteness.

 

Sources:

Herman Graham III, The Brothers’ Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003) 7.

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