The Brother’s Vietnam War

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The Brothers’ Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience. By Herman Graham, III. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003 ISBN 0-8130-2646-6. Pp 179 $55.00.

Summary

The Korean War marked a turning point in American history—for the first time, black troops stared fighting in desegregated units. Unfortunately, not all was equal for these black troops, and inequitable treatment persisted as America entered the Vietnam conflict. Herman Graham details the inequities experienced by the black troops during the Vietnam War—a war during which “the U.S. military was selling manhood…and African American men were eager to buy.” (15) Initially, the fighters defined their manhood by fighting and dying. Certain spokesmen “interpreted the death rates as a sign of progress and portrayed African American soldiers as manly patriots.” (22) However, as the war dragged on, many began to question this idea.

Graham begins his tale with a discussion that echoes Forum for Protest. Blacks, especially in the press “devised the “Double V” campaign—victory against racism at home and against fascism abroad—to articulate war aims in language that was meaningful to African Americans.” (10) Even though blacks failed to achieve this double victory during the Second World War, they saw war as a way to gain respect—and employment.

By 1966, the draft system was in place. “Black men enjoyed military service. With high unemployment and racial discrimination in the civilian society, soldiering have them a chance to express themselves through a familiar masculine occupation.” (15) Like Foley in Confronting the War Machine, Graham views the Selective Service as fundamentally flawed, “exempt[ing] certain classes of men so as not to deprive industrial managers of employees whom they deemed important to their operations. As marginal men in American society—men who often lacked marketable skills—African American males were left extremely vulnerable to the draft.” (16) Men who had had more educational opportunities could avoid the draft, but not these men, who faced high casualty rates and continued discrimination when they reached the front.

Despite the inequities, joining the armed forces did offer some opportunities for young black men. Graham asserts, “each branch offered elaborate rites of passage, rituals, and symbols by which a young man could measure masculine achievement.” (23) This sense of manhood declined once the Black Power movement took hold. “Radicalized by their heightened racial consciousness and their frustration with racial discrimination in the armed forces, many black GIs turned to cultural celebrations of blackness and collective demonstrations of racial solidarity to define their masculinity.” (24) But while they still identified manhood with defending their country, blacks had chances to bond both other blacks and white servicemen as well.

Basic training was an experience shared by all raw recruits, irrespective of race. In this environment, blacks and whites experienced similar training—and abuse from their superiors. They bonded under the rigors of war, using drugs and swapping stories of sexual conquest. “Young GIs socialized in “pot parties” in which they passed around marijuana or heroin-laced cigarettes and shared their food. It was not unheard of for black and white GIs to fraternized together in this way.” However, “once troops returned to the rear, racial animosities that were suppressed on the front lines reemerged.” (63) This animosity gave rise to alienation from the military establishment and white soldiers. Graham asserts that Muhammad Ali became the icon of the emerging Black Power movement, serving as a model for restless young black men to emulate.

Graham devotes a chapter to Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance. Ali’s refusal to go to war on religious grounds captivated many black soldiers. They began to question whether fighting a war against the oppressed Asians really made them men. “As a folk hero, a world-class athlete, and symbol of black masculinity, Ali articulated antiwar politics in an idiom that appealed to black soldiers of his generation.” (84) The government failed to intimidate Ali into repudiating his position—“in his steadfast pursuit of a religious exemption, this African American pugilist personified a “rugged individual” standing alone in his opposition to the war.” (85) As black GIs listened to Ali, they noticed that the armed forces had failed to make them into first-class citizens.

In both the civilian and military worlds, blacks began to question the ideals of integration. The Black Power movement spoke to their frustrations. “In order to reverse their powerlessness, African Americans would have to replace middle-class notion of individual achievement and acquisitiveness with the Black Power ideal of racial solidarity.” (99) They began to engage in “soul sessions” during which they would discuss racial issues. Older black officers disdained this newfound black collectivism, fueling tensions between the older and younger generations. Interracial problems increased as blacks began to wear their hair in the afro style and engage in elaborate greeting rituals known as daps. Suddenly, the troops began to wonder why they should fight for democracy abroad when they experienced discrimination both in the army and at home. Simmering tensions continued into the 1970s, black soldiers experienced unequal treatment. When black soldiers would protest, such as during the Kitty Hawk riot, they would be punished to a more severe degree than white soldiers, a reality that perpetuated racial tensions.

Graham uses a wide array of sources to tell his story of the ordinary black man struggling to make a better life for himself in the United States armed forces. He employs archival evidence and government sources to make his point. Despite its small size, The Brothers’ Vietnam War makes an interesting read.

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