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Black Leaders vs. Desert Storm

- Abstract

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.’ ”

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.