Black Leaders vs. Desert Storm
On the surface, the controversy over the role of black servicemen in the Gulf War revolved around complaints that black men and women were “disproportionately” represented among the troops assigned to Operation Desert Storm. Although blacks make up just 13 percent of the American population and approximately 15 percent of the age group from which most servicemen are drawn, their percentage in the armed forces is higher: 20 percent throughout the services; 33 percent in the Army; 20 percent in the Marines; and 15 percent in the Navy and Air Force. As for Operation Desert Storm, blacks were some 25 percent of total forces and 30 percent of the ground units thought to be most vulnerable to heavy casualties.
Again and again, black elected officials, clergymen, editors, educators, and community activists pointed to these figures in opposing the war, and most Americans thus came to perceive the issue of disproportionality as central to the relative lack of black support for President Bush’s policy as indicated by every opinion poll taken during the crisis. Black leaders were not, of course, the only prominent Americans to object to that policy in the days prior to the outbreak of hostilities. But with the possible exception of the mainline Protestant clergy, black leaders stood out for the uniformity and intensity of their opposition to the use of force in the liberation of Kuwait. Black leadership was also notable for the stridency of its criticism and for its willingness to attack America’s prosecution of the war after hostilities had been initiated. At least one prominent figure, Martin Luther King, III, the son of the martyred civil-rights leader, went so far as to urge black troops to refuse to fight. “We’ve been fighting a war we’ve been told to fight, and right here we don’t have rights,” King told a Chicago audience several days after the war had begun. “Every black soldier ought to say, ‘You all do what you want to. I’m not going to fight. This is not my war.’ ”
While King’s advocacy of mutiny by soldiers in time of war represented an extreme position, his claim that blacks are systematically denied equal rights was often reiterated in commentaries which invariably cited President Bush’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act as justification for black coolness toward the war. Yet it should not be thought that the antiwar attitudes of the black leadership were solely, or even primarily, motivated by narrowly racial concerns like the veto of the civil-rights measure or the high percentages of black combat troops. In fact, the statements of black leaders often dwelt on such broad, non-racial questions as the nation’s role in the post-cold-war world, the nature of the Kuwaiti government, America’s alliance with Israel, even the legitimacy of war under any circumstances. And on these central foreign-policy concerns, the views of black leaders often proved radically at variance with the views of the American people.
This was especially true of the Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus. That only the lone Republican member of the Caucus, Gary Franks of Connecticut, should have supported the Solarz-Michel resolution giving President Bush sanction for the use of force comes as little surprise, considering the antiwar sentiment which prevailed among all but a few Democratic liberals in the days prior to the war. However, a clear difference between black and white liberals was revealed, in stark terms, several days after the war began, when the House of Representatives took up a resolution supporting the troops and commending President Bush in his role as commander-in-chief. While before the war 183 House members had opposed authorizing the President to use military force, only twelve voted “no” or merely “present” on the measure commending the troops and the President after the war had begun. Of those dozen Congressmen, ten were black; the two others were Henry Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, and Bernard Sanders, Vermont’s freshman Socialist Congressman.
Nor did the war’s quick conclusion, or the fact that American casualties were minimal, or the fact that black combat deaths (at 15 percent) were proportionately much lower than the black troop presence in Desert Storm, or the glowing national tributes to black military performance, move the black congressional delegation from its all-out antiwar stance. This was vividly demonstrated by the response of black Congressmen to yet a third measure relating to the Desert Storm operation, a routine $15-billion supplementary appropriation overwhelmingly approved after the war’s successful conclusion. Of only eighteen Congressmen who opposed the appropriation, fully fifteen were members of the Black Caucus.
Aside from their votes, black Congressmen were also notable for the harshness of their attacks on the war—and on President Bush personally—and, at the same time, for their seeming lack of concern about Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait, the plight of the Kuwaiti people, the threat posed by Iraq to Israel and other friendly nations in the region, or the implications of Saddam’s past use of chemical weapons and his drive.
Like other critics, most black Congressmen saw the war as hinging almost exclusively on control of the Gulf’s oil wealth. Congressman Charles Rangel of New York declared that the crisis was the result of “dipstick diplomacy that says we must expose our young people to death for oil.” Congressman Floyd Flake, also of New York, asserted that “American blood should not be spilled for not [sic] one drop of oil.” Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California went a step further, advancing the thesis that the war was about America’s “having the ability to leverage this country against the European [oil] market . . . and Japan.” A more radical note was struck by Congressman Gus Savage of Illinois, who argued that the real problem was not Saddam Hussein’s aggression but rather
resource exploitation . . . where developed nations exploit the resources of undeveloped nations so that the undeveloped nations suffer increasing poverty . . . while the developed nations with the Eurocentric culture, the capitalist economy, prosper.
Another favored, if worn-out, cliché dragged in during the congressional debate was the notion of war as nothing more than the young being dispatched to slaughter by tired old men for the enrichment of elites or to further a pointless geopolitical goal. Congressman Ron Dellums of California stated that, in the end, “old men will sit down around a table to solve political problems after young men have died.” To which Congressman Charles Hayes of Illinois added his opposition to the idea that “a bunch of old men should be determining whether our young men should risk their lives in an attempt to preserve revenue for mega-rich oil companies and Arab royalty.”
Some Black Caucus members seemed close to embracing a pacifist stance. “Only a madman would want to go to war,” Dellums said, “because war is killing, death, and destruction, nothing more, nothing less.” Congressman Major Owens of New York saw war as useless slaughter: “My conscience tells me that if I vote for all this unnecessary killing, this mass murder, I become an accessory to murder.” (Owens cannot be accused of inconsistency: after the war, he charged the United States with having behaved “almost the way we behaved at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”)
As for the fate of Kuwait, then groaning under Iraqi control, in speeches during the crucial debate prior to the war authorization, most Black Caucus members simply avoided the subject—an unusual omission given that this was the very issue which had provided the basis for the approval by the UN Security Council of the use of force. But several spoke of the Kuwaitis in tones of derision. “Two of the most undemocratic, oppressive nations on the face of the earth,” was the description of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait given by William Clay of Missouri, while Kweisi Mfume of Maryland noted that “Kuwait by no means represented Jeffersonian democracy.” And Hayes, after dismissing Kuwaitis as “wealthy people who inherited their wealth,” managed to sneer at the foreigners, including hundreds of Americans, who had been held hostage by Saddam Hussein during the first months of the crisis as “people who were over there, making money.”
It is, of course, true that neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia qualifies as a democracy. But Kuwait had made important concessions to democratic forces in the year prior to its occupation, and had earned a reputation as one of the more tolerant societies in the Middle East. In any event, the same black Congressmen who held Kuwait’s human-rights record up to scorn were hardly known in the past for applying strict democratic standards to third-world countries. The Black Caucus, for instance, had been an enthusiastic supporter of Grenada’s New Jewel Movement, an organization openly disdainful of parliamentary niceties, and individual members of the Caucus—among them Ron Dellums and Gus Savage—have expressed highly favorable opinions of Fidel Castro despite the Cuban dictator’s totalitarian rule and the pervasive militarism of Cuban life.
In contrast to the confused logic and the double standards which marked their comments on the nature of the various Middle Eastern countries involved in the crisis, prominent blacks seemed genuinely moved by the prospect of heavy American casualties, especially during a ground campaign. Such fears were understandable in view of the widespread, and, as we now know, widely inaccurate predictions of tens of thousands of dead and wounded American soldiers issued both by the antiwar movement and by various military analysts. And the sincerity of black fears stood in notable contrast to the hypocrisy of peace-movement spokesmen as they anticipated massive U.S. combat deaths: how often did we hear one or another antiwar leader link the success of his cause to the return of thousands of body bags?
Yet even on this score there were hints that blacks, too, were not above exploiting war casualties to further political objectives. Thus, an activist black clergyman was quoted in the Washington Post as suggesting that black war dead might fuel a revival of the civil-rights protest movement:
Funerals become by nature political events, similar to what has happened in South Africa, and there would be tremendous growth in the antiwar movement in the black community [in response to massive black casualties].
And, in fact, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and other well-known figures shamelessly used the occasion of a funeral for a black New Jersey soldier killed in action as a forum to attack the government’s prosecution of the war and to demand enactment of civil-rights legislation.
In General, for blacks of a leftist or strongly black-nationalist bent, the war functioned as a convenient weapon for the advancement of any number of ideologies or causes. Jesse Jackson told a rally that every bomb dropped on Baghdad deprived blacks of roads and schools. For Jack O’Dell, international-affairs director of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the war’s lesson was that “racism has become the central ingredient in the idea of national chauvinism.” Ron Daniels, former national director of the Rainbow Coalition, viewed the conflict through both nationalist and Marxist prisms, a perspective which led him to praise Saddam Hussein. Saddam, Daniels wrote, was being put down because he had tried to “break the back” of colonialism in the Middle East, in the course of which he had become a threat to “Uncle Tom” regimes like Kuwait. For Daniels, President Bush’s New World Order amounted to “a new system of global white power and supremacy with the United States at the helm.” As for Molefi Asante, an influential figure in the movement for an Afrocentric curriculum, Iraq was the latest in a long line of third-world victims of American imperialism. Meanwhile, the Amsterdam News, New York’s leading black newspaper, managed to link the war to a plan to “re-whiten America by luring more and more Eastern Europeans to these shores, thereby reducing employment opportunities for black Americans.”
Probably no group opposed to the war could equal the black clergy for bitterness and moral castigation. The Reverend Calvin O. Butts, III, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem’s most prestigious parish, told his congregants that President Bush had lied about the war, and he accused the media of working with the government to conceal the facts. The Reverend Herbert Daughtry called President Bush “the invader,” and said the U.S. was a “greater monster” than Saddam Hussein. Father Lawrence Lucas declared at an antiwar rally that “there is no reason to justify the killing of people by George Bush because of oil.” And a statement issued by a group of black leaders, but spearheaded by activist clergymen, described the war as “immoral and unspiritual” as well as “wrong, unnecessary, unprincipled, and dirty.”
America was not the only target of criticism; a number of black clergy and other high-visibility black figures seized the opportunity to restate their distaste for Israel and for Israel’s close ties to the United States. Father Lucas, for example, theorized that the war had been declared in order to “improve U.S. support to Israel,” while the Reverend Ben Chavis, executive director of the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, declared that blacks should be in solidarity with Palestinians because “undergirding the whole conflict in the Gulf is the unresolved issue of the rights of the Palestinian people.” In New York, Mayor David Dinkins drew sharp criticism from a number of prominent blacks for having joined Congressman Rangel in a wartime visit to Israel, a step Dinkins explained as a gesture of solidarity during a period when Israel was under Iraqi missile assault. Dinkins, it should be stressed, had strongly opposed the war, but this fact was deemed irrelevant by critics like Reverend Butts, who accused the mayor of being more concerned with New York’s Jewish voters “than with his own community,” or like the radical attorney Colin Moore, who blasted Dinkins for having failed to visit “South Africa or other countries on the [African] continent where people are involved in liberation struggles.” Congressman Rangel, a consistent and outspoken opponent of the war, was nevertheless forced to end his speech prematurely at ending Israel.
In the midst of hostilities, Jesse Jackson was heard to complain that the views of black leaders were being ignored by the Bush administration in its making of war policy. Whether Jackson was serious in suggesting that Bush consult with those who share the global outlook of Dellums, Butts, or Jackson himself is unclear. In the past, of course, wartime presidents did meet with civil-rights leaders over the denial of basic rights suffered by the country’s black citizens. But during World War II, the issues which Walter White and A. Philip Randolph raised with President Franklin D. Roosevelt were altogether crucial for blacks and for the successful prosecution of the war; one of those issues, ironically, was securing the right of the black soldier to fight for his country. To be sure, Randolph threatened a protest march in response to the widespread exclusion of black workers from defense-industry jobs. But Randolph was also committed to an Allied victory; and he acted in the hope that in addition to gaining crucial rights for blacks, his wartime crusades would strengthen the patriotic bonds between blacks and their country. The message of Randolph’s generation of civil-rights leader—“Give us our rights and we will gladly fight for our country”—was far different from the embittered refrain of today’s black leadership: “This is not our war.”
Jesse Jackson, of course, believes he should be recognized as a foreign-policy expert as well as a protest leader. Yet statements he made before and during Desert Storm suggest his grasp of world affairs remains essentially the same as in 1984, when as a presidential candidate he delivered himself of absurd chants which likened Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega to Christ. “There were no troops in Canada on our border about to bomb us,” Jackson said shortly after the war began, summing up his grasp of the Middle East. To an antiwar rally, Jackson screamed that “When that war breaks out, our youth will burn first.” And in the most tortured reasoning, Jackson announced that the establishment of the January 15 deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal “makes no sense” since President Bush “did not confirm a date for the liberation of South Africa or the liberation of Central America.”
Unfortunately, the perspective on world affairs revealed in Jackson’s various pronouncements prevails among those within the black political establishment who focus attention on foreign-policy issues. Insofar as there exists a distinctly black global view, it is not merely at variance with the American people’s concept of their country’s place in the world, but wildly so. The assumptions which instruct this mindset are a jumbled and often contradictory combination of selective pacifism, profound mistrust of American goals, and lingering identification with radical, anti-democratic third-world regimes and liberation movements. These assumptions led during the 1980’s to a harshly critical response to the invasion of Grenada (heedless of the action’s popularity in Grenada itself), an unrelenting animus toward defense spending, and an opposition to American support for anti-Communist insurgencies, including the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In a sense, then, the passionate opposition to the Gulf War conforms to a pattern of hostility to the exercise of American power, whatever the context. Nevertheless, the unrelenting opposition to the war remains highly unsettling due to its fervor and near-unanimity. Of generally recognized black leaders, only a few—Congressman William Gray of Pennsylvania, John E. Jacob of the Urban League, and Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP were among the most prominent—acknowledged the moral and political importance of responding to Saddam Hussein’s aggression. Furthermore, segments of the leadership seemed to find the issue of black military “overrepresentation” less a cause for complaint than a weapon in the promotion of an anti-interventionist foreign policy.
The question of who fights for America is, in fact, worthy of serious examination. Blacks, Hispanics, and whites from modest economic backgrounds predominate in today’s armed forces, and will continue to do so as long as America opts for a volunteer military. Although the awesome performance of U.S. forces in Desert Storm should go a long way toward resolving the debate over the battlefield effectiveness of the volunteer force, an argument against the current arrangement can still be made on the grounds that a volunteer force is incompatible with the country’s democratic traditions.
But the alternative remains a reinstitution of the draft, an option which no black leader, or any antiwar stalwart, has endorsed. Here it is worth recalling that blacks were among the most fervent champions of the volunteer force during the debates which preceded its adoption in 1973 and which then focused on its troubled first years. In response to misgivings expressed by white politicians and military authorities that the composition of a volunteer army might be “too black,” prominent blacks, like then-Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, responded with barely concealed rage. Mrs. Chisholm, herself no hawk, fumed: “All this talk about a volunteer army being poor and black is not an indication of ‘concern’ for the black and the poor, but rather of the deep fear of the possibility of a black army.” As for the critical question of how black troops might react to suffering “disproportionate” casualties, Ron Dellums, no less, issued a statement distinguished by an uncompromising emphasis on individual responsibility:
Black volunteers understand what joining the military means. If, through exercise of free choice by individuals, there are [proportionately] more blacks in the military than in the population, we should expect a proportionately greater sacrifice. The whole idea of a volunteer army is that the individual will take this risk and this responsibiltiy by his or her free choice.
Speaking around the same time, the civil-rights leader Vernon Jordan detected a double standard in white fears about the possibility of high black casualty rates:
It is interesting that while American servicemen were fighting and dying in Vietnam there was little concern about the disproportionate numbers of blacks in front-line combat units and the casualty lists. Criticisms of the armed forces should be based on real issues, not on false racial concerns.
Black leaders were equally adamant on the sensitive issue of how black soldiers would react if assigned to “restore order” in riot-torn American inner cities, or in some controversial third-world setting, such as a civil war in Africa or Latin America. Margaret Bush Wilson, then-chairman of the NAACP, regarded suggestions that blacks might balk at such assignments as a “smokescreen thrown up by more subtle, sophisticated racists.” Similarly, Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., who served as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Army, dismissed as racist the notion that blacks would refuse duty in certain parts of the world, including even South Africa.
Thus, right up until the Gulf crisis, the public posture of America’s black leadership toward the volunteer army was one of wholehearted endorsement. In part, this was due to the fact that the volunteer military functioned as an instrument of upward mobility for thousands of black youths. There was also an understandable defensiveness over the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle mutterings that a heavily black military would be an inferior or even disloyal military. In 1978, for example, then-Congressman Paul N. McCloskey, Jr. told an audience of Stanford alumni that it was “dangerous to have an all-black army,” and added, by way of amplification, that “the Mafia was able to maintain its political and financial success by infiltrating the New York police department.” Blacks, of course, were all too aware that the apprehensions which McCloskey was injudicious enough to express in a semi-public forum were being echoed, sotto voce, by other political and military officials.
There was, however, something a bit too glib in the assertions of Chisholm, Jordan, and others that the racial composition of the military was a subject not worthy of discussion. Jordan was not altogether accurate in declaring that the country had been unconcerned with the rates of black casualties during the Vietnam war. In fact, after civil-rights groups complained about the high percentages of black casualties suffered during the war’s early years, military authorities took measures affecting the assignment of combat troops which substantially reduced those rates.
Nor were black leaders guiltless of obstructing the military’s efforts at racial harmony. Martin Luther King, Jr., in addition to deploring Vietnam as a distraction from President Johnson’s domestic agenda, came to accept the interpretation of that war as a form of racist imperialism, and urged blacks to boycott it. There were, as well, the demagogues of Black Power, ready to charge, as Stokely Carmichael did, that the war’s hidden purpose was to “get rid of black people in the ghettos” by using them as “cannon fodder.” While the degree to which Black Power ideology infected the troops is unclear, both black and white observers agree it was a force during the war’s later years, particularly among black draftees from the Northern inner cities. At the same time, white-supremacist groups also gained a disturbingly wide following in the Army and Marines.
In contrast to all this, today, in the wake of Desert Storm’s success, the military is being hailed as the most successfully integrated institution in American society. “The Army is the only place in America where a white will routinely be bossed around by black superiors,” comments Charles Moskos, an authority on military-society relations. Journalists investigating the state of race relations in Desert Storm found a level of cooperation that was an inspirational story in itself. Repeatedly, black servicemen and -women stressed that in the armed forces they were treated with respect; that prejudice, if it existed, was much less significant than in civilian life; and that those assigned to Desert Storm had been too busy doing their job to worry about matters like skin color.
An obvious question is whether American society can learn anything from the military’s success in race relations. Some civil-rights leaders have already announced the lesson: affirmative action works, and what is needed is passage of the latest version of the Civil Rights Restitution Act.
Now, it is true that the military has adopted a number of measures specifically designed to stimulate integration and tolerance: modest efforts to encourage the promotion of minorities into the officer ranks, special race-relations training courses for officers, and a strict policy of not tolerating prejudice within the various forces. These measures have been important, particularly as they send a reassuring signal to minorities about the atmosphere awaiting them during their service.
Ultimately, however, the military has become a racial success story primarily because of certain characteristics inherent in a volunteer service. To begin with, the abolition of the draft has eliminated those who resented service or the close interracial cooperation which the military demands. More to the point, the enhanced pay, benefits, and educational opportunities ensured that the military would draw better-educated, highly motivated enlistees, something which in turn has enabled it to strengthen already tough enlistment standards. If affirmative action has played a modest role in the successful integration of the armed forces, a much greater share of the credit belongs to the military’s commitment to merit and standards, a quality sharply at odds with the logic of affirmative action. Black servicemen, in fact, boast higher educational credentials than white enlistees, and there are no special racial or ethnic admissions tracks of the type which have contributed to the unhealthy state of race relations on the nation’s college campuses.
Reflecting on the controversy over the role of black troops in the Gulf, Edwin Dorn of the Brookings Institution has observed:
Man for man and woman for woman, this military is much better than the draft-era military of Vietnam—and I say that to address all those who think blacks and women have ruined standards in the military. The fact is that if you go out and talk to those soldiers at the 82nd Airborne or talk to the soldiers in the tank units at Fort Knox, they don’t think of themselves as cannon fodder or victims, they think of themselves as professionals doing a job they are very well trained to do.
The esprit de corps which impresses Dorn, and which was vividly on display in interviews with Gulf War participants, reflects more than anything else pride in an institution which demands a high level of performance and rewards it when delivered. When asked their attitude toward military service, black troops invariably mention the opportunity to accomplish a mission they consider important; they mention fair treatment and an atmosphere of relative equality; they mention self-respect. They do not mention affirmative-action programs, racial preference, or reverse discrimination. Nor does anyone think that affirmative action is responsible for the emergence of such high-ranking black officers as the commandant of West Point, the deputy commander of Desert Storm, and, of course, Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By any standard, Powell would seem an ideal figure of inspiration for black youth. The son of Jamaican immigrants, both of whom worked in New York’s garment district, Powell received his early military training not at West Point or Virginia Military Institute but through the ROTC program at the City College of New York. Although officially integrated, the military Powell entered during the 50’s was by no means the equal-opportunity employer of today, and Powell encountered his share of discrimination during stints at Southern bases like Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Fort Benning, Georgia. Yet Powell’s credo on racial matters has been to regard his color as other people’s problem, not his—an optimistic philosophy which helps explain his rise within the military.
For many black leaders, however, General Powell’s commanding and articulate presence has posed something of a dilemma. By all accounts greatly respected by America’s black population, Powell was generally ignored by black war opponents, many of whom in other forums have bitterly lamented the dearth of strong, successful, black men who could serve as examples for troubled youth. But the problem presented by Powell’s highly visible role went much deeper than his association with a war of which black leaders disapproved. For as we have seen, many black leaders considered that war not just wrong, but immoral. By extension, Powell might well be regarded as a war criminal; he was not, after all, an infantryman just following orders, and if he did not make the political decision to declare war against Iraq, he was a crucial participant in the formulation of war-fighting tactics and strategy, including the bombing of Iraqi cities, the very thing Congressman Owens must have had in mind when he compared America’s tactics in the Gulf to the use of atomic weapons against Japan.
Powell was also unsympathetic to complaints about the high percentage of blacks in the armed forces. Typically, he did not shy away from the possible consequences once war broke out:
If one out of four, roughly one out of five, is black, if the whole force accepts casualties, what would you wish me to do? Move the blacks from the positions they’re in so that they will have a lower percentage of casualties? Every part of the force, whether it’s Hispanic American, Pacific American, or lower-income white soldiers will probably sustain casualties in relationship to the percentage that they represent in the overall force.
What you keep wanting me to say is that this is disproportionate or wrong. I don’t think it’s disproportionate or wrong. I think it’s a decision the American people made when they said have a volunteer army and allow those to serve who want to serve.
Powell also tartly noted that some of those complaining about disproportionality had, a few months before the crisis, complained to him that proposed reductions in the post-cold-war armed forces would disproportionately injure blacks by denying them the opportunity for advancement through military careers. And as for the argument that the high black military presence was due to a semi-involuntary “economic draft,” Powell noted that blacks, as well as other groups (he might have mentioned poor Southern whites), had traditionally favored military careers for such reasons as education, advancement, “adventure,” and simply because the military life appealed to them.
This was so even though, historically, blacks were treated no better by the military than by other American institutions. Throughout the first half of this century, quotas ensured a relatively low percentage of black troop representation, few blacks were promoted to the officer ranks, and no black officer was placed in command of white subordinates. Influenced by its strong Southern traditions, the military accepted as fact just about every racial myth of the day: that blacks were lazy and insensitive to racial slurs, that they preferred white to black officers, could not be taught to fly, or lacked the reflexes for armored combat (a special prejudice of General George Patton). As one historian put it, the prevailing attitude of the military establishment at the beginning of World War II could be summed up in the crud are.”
Testimony to the depth of such prejudice is the shameful treatment of retired General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. during his years at West Point, from which he was the first black to graduate in this century. Davis, who went on to become the commander of the Black Eagles, the legendary World War II flying unit, has just published his memoirs.1 In them he recounts that, while at West Point, for no other reason than race, he was subjected to “silencing,” a practice otherwise reserved for cadets found guilty of honor-code violations. Except as required in the course of duty, no cadet would speak to Davis, and no one would share his room. After graduation, Davis’s encounters with racial discrimination continued. A commanding officer encouraged him to enroll in law school and seek a political career; it was not “logical,” the officer explained, for a black to command whites.
Infatuated with airplanes, Davis was initially rejected for training as a pilot since it was Army policy that blacks not be admitted to flight school; once, an Army doctor invented a history of epilepsy to justify rejecting Davis. Eventually, however, a group of black flyers was trained and sent into action in North Africa and Europe. Still, recalcitrant commanders attempted to have the unit reassigned to non-combat duty, reasoning, as a report from a high Army Air Corps official stated, that “The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.” In spite of everything, however, Davis and his comrades prevailed, and their record of distinguished service was ultimately hailed throughout America.
The heroism of the black flyers, Davis believes, advanced both the Allied cause and the cause of the Negro, whose just demands for equality were growing more insistent as the war progressed. And there was a third cause to which Davis was deeply and personally attached: the cause of blacks in the military. Bolstered by an unyielding personal code which forbade his reacting with bitterness to acts of prejudice, Davis nevertheless remembers every insult, and he candidly admits to a preference for overseas assignments because of the American racial environment. At the same time he remains devoted to the military; in his view there is no more honorable profession. And he believes that America, with all its faults, is worth fighting for.
Davis and his Black Eagles served as an inspiration to past generations, and Colin Powell and the black troops of the Gulf conflict stand as a source of national pride today. As Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post wrote: “Black combat veterans [can serve] not only as role models for other blacks but also for whites.” Yet few black leaders seem to have been shaken from their fixation on the theme of blacks as cannon fodder, or as victims of an economic “draft.” No wonder, then, that one already sees evidence of black military resentment at the lack of support from black civilian leaders. Hearing criticism where they strongly believe that praise is warranted, black military men are beginning to ask, as the deputy commander of Desert Storm, General Calvin Waller, did: “What are our leaders doing in our communities to get our young black men off drugs? What are they doing to the streets?”
There has been much speculation about the broad political and cultural repercussions of the American military performance in the Gulf. President Bush’s assertion that the war has enabled America to get out from under the Vietnam syndrome implies much more than a renewed respect for the military. Broadly speaking, the Vietnam syndrome entailed a reduced faith in America, in its world role, its key institutions, in its ability to solve its domestic ills, of which race relations counts as among the most important. Certainly one positive effect will be a diminution of negative views about blacks among whites. Future opinion polls will probably not find, as did a National Opinion Research Center poll taken before the war, that 51 percent of white Americans question the patriotism of blacks.
We do not know to what degree the whites in that poll were responding to statements by the nation’s black leaders, although it seems reasonable to suppose that this was a significant factor. Unfortunately, a change in the perspective of the current black political leadership is highly unlikely. In contrast to many Americans who initially opposed the war but eventually came to identify with the goal of freeing Kuwait and handing Saddam Hussein a resounding setback, most black leaders seemed as dismayed by America’s winning the war as with its having entered it in the first place. On the other hand, while polls showed blacks consistently less supportive of the war than other Americans, ordinary blacks were much more likely to support it than were their leaders. Indeed, an ABC-Washington Post poll taken after the war registered a stunning 77-percent black approval rating for President Bush, a figure which principally reflects deep pride in identifying with an American victory and a repudiation of the slogan: “This is not our war.”
That this pride is not shared by most black leaders is tragic—tragic mainly because it betrays a view of world affairs preposterous in many of its essentials and ultimately irrelevant to the future course of American political life.
1 Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American. Smithsonian. Institution Press, 442 pp., $19.95.