Racism and the Military
Michael Letwin, Rutgers Law School
October 10, 1982
The military is racist in three related ways. First, it is used to violently maintain the economic, political and social domination of the U.S. government and the system it represents over nonwhite people internationally and at home.
Second, nonwhite young people are forced into the military where they are discriminated against and used as cannon-fodder.
And third, massive military spending drains the resources of society away from programs for human need and the economy, the burden of which falls most heavily on nonwhite people who are disproportionately and overwhelmingly working class and poor.
Nothing demonstrates this racism more clearly than the Vietnam era. In Vietnam, the U.S. government used the military to prop up a brutal and corrupt regime in Saigon which enjoyed no support within the country.
It attempted to destroy the national liberation movement by waging war against the population as a whole, which it correctly saw as opposing the U.S. Using “strategic hamlets,” “free-fire zones,” torture, napalm, Agent Orange and saturation bombing, the U.S. and the regime it represented were responsible for the death of approximately two million Vietnamese and many others in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. One Black G.I. described a typical operation against a Vietnamese village:
“The M.60 [machine gun] was set up outside the hootch . . . A Marine with his M.16 went in and forced these people out of the hootch at gunpoint . . . Just running them out and into the fire of the .60 . . . A complete slaughter. Every single one of those Vietnamese people were cut down. Not one had a chance to escape. That took care of most of the adult inhabitants of the village. The rest of that day was spent burning the hootches, killing anyone who was left and looking for Charlie’s [the guerrillas] supplies. We never found any.” (Terry Whitmore, Memphis-Nam-Sweden, Garden City, 1971, p. 62.)
Military training encouraged a racist view of Vietnamese so that G.I.s would more readily carry out their orders. As Ron Armstead, a Black Vietnam vet counselor in Boston, explained, “[t]he Vietnamese became less than human. They were called “dinks,” “slopes,” “gooks.” They were dehumanized in the war.” (Michael Letwin, “Reflection’s on a ‘Noble Cause’,” Wavelength Magazine, U. of Mass./Boston, Spring, 1982.)
Nonwhite G.I.s found that they were victims of the same racism used against the Vietnamese. The Department of Defense reported in the mid-1960s that Blacks were more likely than whites to be drafted, sent to Vietnam, serve in high-risk combat units and be killed or wounded in battle. In fact, between 1961-66, 25% of the Army’s casualties in Vietnam were Black, although Blacks made up only 11% of the population between nineteen and twenty-one. (Martin Binkin and Mark J. Eitelberg, Blacks and the Military, The Brookings Institution, Washington, 1982, p. 32.) The same general pattern continued throughout the war.
Those Black G.I.s who did return from Vietnam have suffered from exposure to Agent Orange (which among other things causes cancer), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (fastbacks and trauma) at a rate 20% higher than that of white vets (Center for Policy Research, Inc., “Legacies of Vietnam: Comparative Adjustment of Vietnam Veterans and Their Peers,” March 1981.)
Black vets came back to a racist society in which they, along with Latinos, Asians and Native Americans still faced segregation, the worst jobs, rotten housing and police brutality. When these grievances exploded into ghetto revolts between 1964-68, the military was called in to suppress them. Tens of thousands of Army and National Guard troops were used across the country in dozens of cities to “restore order.”
In Newark, for example, 3,000 National Guard troops were responsible, together with the police, for the death of more than 20 Black citizens on July 14, 1967. (Robert L. Allen, Black awakening in Capitalist America, Garden City, 1970, p. 134.) Scores of Black people were killed in other cities (Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, New York, 1968; Keesing’s Research Report 4, Race Relations in the U.S.A. 1954-1968, New York, 1970.) Later, U.S. troops were also used against other nonwhite people, as when Native Americans occupied Wounded Knee in 1973.
Throughout this period, the much-heralded “War on Poverty” gave way to ever escalating intervention in Vietnam. Poverty programs became increasingly smaller and insignificant when compared with the cost of the War.
How much has changed? The U.S. military continues to be used against revolutions and in favor of right-wing dictatorships in the Third World. U.S. troops are now stationed in Lebanon. They prop up the brutal government in South Korea. At least 50 U.S. military “advisors” are stationed in El Salvador where 35,000 people have been killed in the last three years, nearly all of them by the U.S.-backed government. The military is also training Honduran troops and Nicaraguan exiles for an impending invasion of Nicaragua. The Rapid Deployment Force is being prepared for places like the Middle East and southern Africa. The list goes on and on.
And who will fight these wars? Working class people in general, but especially Black and other nonwhite North Americans. In 1981, there were 410,000 Black enlisted personnel in the U.S. armed forces, 20% of the total military, although Blacks are only 11-12% of the population (Binkin, p. vii.) Black recruitment in 1979 hit an all time high of 37% of total enlistments (Binkin, p. 43.) Two out of five eligible young Black men now enter the military. (Binkin, p. vii.)
These Black “volunteers” have been conscripted by the Poverty Draft. Facing an urban youth unemployment rate of 60% and more, wages that are too low to live on, the elimination of job programs, and the prospect of no real future, Black and other nonwhite youth feel they have no choice but the military. As the Brookings study concluded, “Race discrimination figures prominently in explaining the high unemployment rate of young blacks . . . youth unemployment explains why so many have turned to the armed forces.” (Binkin, pps. 70-71.)
Black young people who join the military to get the job training the recruiters promise soon find out that Blacks are disproportionately placed in non-mechanical “soft” jobs where training is minimal and advancement slow. They are overrepresented in administrative, clerical, unskilled and supply handler jobs, as is the tradition of the military.
For example, while Black enlisted men are 50% of the cannon and missile crews, they hold only 16% of the computer programmer and analyst jobs (Binkin, pps. 55-7.) Blacks still make up only 5.3% of the officer corps in the military, and those who are officers are concentrated in the lower ranks, where they are over-represented in supply procurement and administration (Binkin, pps. 61, 59.)
All that Black soldiers can hope for in the military is what they got during Vietnam: the front lines. Blacks are concentrated mostly in the Army and Marines where they make up 33% and 22% of the enlisted force respectively (Binkin, p. 6.) Black membership in combat-ready units is much higher. In one such unit, the 197th Infantry Brigade, one artillery battery is 59.9% Black and 2.7% other nonwhite. In one of the Brigade’s infantry companies, Blacks make up 55% and other nonwhite 2.4% (Binkin, p. 181.)
The result, says the Brookings study, is that Blacks are likely to suffer between one-third and one-half of the initial combat fatalities in the next war (Binkin, p. vii.) “If that happened,” it concluded “the 20 percent casualty rate of Blacks that provoked charges of racial genocide in the mid-1960s could appear small” (Binkin, p. 78.)
Of particular interest to those law students considering the JAG Corps is the workings of the military “justice” system. For example, 0.14% of Black troops receive dishonorable discharges from the military, as compared with 0.03% of white soldiers (Binkin, p. 170.) As recently as 1978, there was only 1 Black Army judge, out of a total of 46. Four percent of Army lawyers and 13% of military police were Black (Binkin, p. 54.)
In light of this situation, it is no surprise that in 1979, 51.2% of Army prisoners were Black, 1.6 times their numbers in the Army. (Binkin, pps. 53-54.) To top all of this off, the military has seen a ma3or increase in Ku Klux Klan activity in recent years. (Binkin, p. 107.)
Even more so than during the Vietnam era, Blacks and other nonwhite people are paying for the military with the destruction of job programs, housing, transportation, food stamps, and welfare, as the military budget soars above the $200 billion mark. And there is every reason to believe that if they resist, the military will once again be used against them.
It is for all of these reasons that the Black Movement of the 1960s resisted the military. As early as December 31, 1964, Malcolm X told a group of Black teenagers in McComb, Mississippi, that, “they want to draft you and put you in the army and send you to Saigon to fight for them — and then you’ve got to turn around and all night long discuss how you’re going to get a right to register and vote without being murdered.” (Robert W. Mullen, Blacks in Americans Wars, New York, 1973, p. 65.)
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee endorsed draft resistance and coined the phrase “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” (Michael Ferber and Staughton Lynd, The Resistance, Boston 1971, p. 33.) One SNCC field worker summed this sentiment with the comment, “You know, I just saw one of those Vietcong guerrillas on TV. He was darkskinned, ragged, poor, and angry. I swear, he looked just like one of us.” (Mullen, p. 70.)
Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “I would be a conscientious objector. I would not even serve as a chaplin.” (David Lewis, King: A Biography, 2d ed., Chicago, 1978, p. 360.)
Black opposition to the war was most actively expressed in Vietnam among Black G.I.s who saw each other, poor white and Latino G.I.s and the Vietnamese killed and maimed, all despite the fact that, as the popular slogan went, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” Especially after the Tet Offensive and the assassination of King in 1968, Black G.I.s led Latinos and whites in their own antiwar movement.
By the early ‘70s, antiwar and Black countercultures, AWOLs, desertions, fraggings (blowing up officers and lifers with hand grenades), avoidance of combat and outright and sometimes large scale mutiny, along with an extensive G.I. movement around the world, had made the American ground forces militarily unreliable.
As one historian concluded, “The plague of disaffection and defiance within the ranks, most dramatically evidenced in fragging, crippled the infantry and left the once-proud American Army helpless — more a liability than an asset to U.S. purposes.” (David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, Garden City 1975, p. 47.)
Terry Whitmore, a highly decorated Black Marine, finally concluded, “Nobody can ever tell me that the war in Vietnam is not immoral. It was disgusting and I’m none too proud that I was once a part of killing women and their children . . . No more of that shit for me, Jack.” (Whitmore, p. 169.)