African-American Soldier's Experience in Vietnam Term Paper

Pages: 15 (5555 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 15  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Military

African-American Soldiers in Vietnam

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,

Just who do you think I am?

You raise my taxes, freeze my wages,

Send my son to Vietnam..." Langston Hughes ("The Backlash Blues")

War is hell. The cliche still works, years after someone first uttered those words. It always will work whether it is Iraq, Vietnam, or Omaha Beach. But when you're black and fighting a war for a nation that excludes you from the mainstream of its social and political life back home, as it was true for many blacks in Vietnam, it's a double dose of hell. Because, you know that jobs for African-Americans will not offer the same opportunities for advancement when you get home, and schools for your children may not be as modern as schools for white children. All those unpleasant realities notwithstanding, the African-American soldiers in Vietnam fought and died along side their comrades-in-arms of all nationalities, albeit at the end of the day blacks had their part of town and white soldiers had theirs. And blacks died in disproportionate numbers to whites, as the institutional racism that flourished in America was transplanted to the soggy mosquito-ridden landscape of Vietnam.

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Professor William M. King of the University of Colorado (Boulder) - a member of the Ethnic Studies Department since 1993 - claims that of the 58 thousand Americans that were killed in Vietnam, "...almost seven thousand of them [were] black Americans." King, the author of numerous books on the black experience adds: "There was no time for racism in the bush," because for the first time, " and white had shared the same foxholes, cheek by jowl, and become dependent on each other for survival." The worked well on the front lines, but in the "...rear it was a different story. Blacks had their part of town where whitey wasn't allowed...and white boys had theirs too."


Term Paper on African-American Soldier's Experience in Vietnam Assignment

There was an enormous amount of tension and turbulence and racial strife in the U.S. In the 1960s. That tension and turbulence carried over to the men of color and to the white troops in the Vietnam war, and this paper will point to the manifestations and ramifications of that tension and turbulence, through first person accounts, oral histories, and the historical record.

It is important to set the stage in terms of the social and economic dynamics in the nation black soldiers were leaving when they were shipped to Vietnam. Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong in the early 1960s, which according to scholar Willie J. Harrell, Jr., who reviewed Herman Graham's book - the Brothers' Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience (which will be amply reviewed later in this paper) - helped the black GI "force a sense of male prowess, racial identity, and homosociality that they used for survival." Harrell points out that Graham's book was "...deeply attuned to the ways African-American GIs acquired manhood." Moreover, Graham's work allowed that racial conflict was nothing new in the black experience, but it would become "more defined through the evolution of the war, as African-American GIs forged stronger ties to black solidarity." Harrell, continuing to critique and review Graham's book, offers this overview into what he believes was the positive result of the Vietnam experience for black troops:

While African-American warriors of the Vietnam era were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of their forefathers and the lobbying of the civil rights community, many of the problems that had confounded previous generations of black military men...burdened the Vietnam generation as well. These GIs, however, had greater resources at their disposal. Within the military institution, their numbers and their collective identity...gave them a sense of power."

Graham writes in the journal article that Muhammad Ali's draft resistance greatly contributed to black soldiers' solidarity; Ali chose to create an identity " odds with the government's national ideas about freedom and war," Graham continues. That protest by Ali inspired hatred on the part of whites and admiration on the part of black soldiers, and was just one of many high-visibility events back in the States that had an impact on black soldiers in Vietnam.

What was it like for African-American soldiers serving in the jungles of Vietnam? First, it is instructive to review the way the war in Vietnam was fought (from the point-of-view of the United States), and who fought it, including the disproportionate number of black soldiers that served - and died. In their book, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation, authors Lawrence M. Baskir and William a. Strauss write that most of the draftees who were sent to Vietnam to die were "society's 'losers,'" the type of gents who were always left in the dust when it came to the educational advancements along with economic and social kinds of competition. and, the authors go on, "...the discriminatory social, economic, and racial impact of Vietnam cannot be fairly measured" against the other wars Americans have fought overseas.

Indeed, "racial inequities became a major scandal" in the late 1960s, the authors explain. And on page 8 the authors offer a quote from Army General S.L.A. Marshall, who said "too many" Army battalions are suffering "heavy losses," and those battalions are made up of "50% Negroes, Southwestern Mexicans, Puerto Ricans...but a real cross-section of American youth? Almost never" (Baskir p. 8). A comparison with blacks serving in WWII is appropriate: 12% of all combat troops at the end of WWII were black; by 1965, heavily into the Vietnam War, blacks made up 24% of all Army combat deaths, according to Baskir on page 8.

Poorly educated low income Caucasians and poorly educated low-income African-Americans "...together bore a vastly disproportionate share of the burdens in Vietnam," the authors continue on page 9. And indeed among those who were drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War were included 18-year-olds from numerous cultures and ethnicities.

Another aspect of the draft is alluded to by Nancy Gentile Ford in the Journal of American Ethnic History (Ford, 1998). She writes that "...discrimination kept many blacks out of colleges," and hence, they became raw meat for the draft boards. Part of the reason that Ford claims discrimination is that blacks often scored lower than whites in standardized tests (that were designed by whites for whites, in many cases), and so while many white students could keep 12 units going and hence avoid the draft, for black students they wound up drafted. And then, once in the military, "lower scores for black soldiers" kept many black soldiers out of decent educational opportunities in the service, and in many cases they wound up on the front lines as cannon fodder for the politicians back home that were supporting the war effort.

But why did black young men enlist? On page 125 of their book the authors Baskir and Strauss reflect that "Nearly 40% of young blacks questioned in a 1965 survey game self-advancement as the reason for enlisting." That is about twice the proportion of Caucasians who said "self-advancement" was their primary reason for enlisting. Patrick Moynihan, a member of Richard Nixon's White House staff and author of a controversial report on black families in America, made headlines by declaring that the Vietnam War would be a good thing for young black men. Given that the military was "an utterly masculine world," Moynihan insisted, the "armed forces" (i.e., the war in Vietnam) would be "a dramatic and desperately needed change" from "disorganized and matrifocal family life."

The point made by many journalists during this period was that blacks were fortunate to have a chance to be part of the "...first truly integrated war" that U.S. soldiers had fought in. This fact was heralded by black media members since, as author Christian Appy points out, "For generations black had been struggling for equal participation in all American institutions, the military included." And so ironically, now that the Army was fully integrated, it meant a chance for young men to enlist and get off the mean streets, and move into a far more dangerous realm.

Appy points out an example of young black man named Dwight Williams who lived in Chicago and had become a member of the street gang the "Blackstone Rangers" for five years. After Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Williams claims that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley "...decided that he was tired of this gang-banging stuff" and so Daley gave orders to his police officers "to shoot to kill." The police put lights into the dark alleys in Chicago's low income neighborhoods, and indeed began killing suspected gang members on a regular basis, according to Williams' story on page 77 of Appy's book.

So Williams decided that "the best thing to keep me from going to the penitentiary" or to be shot on the street was to join the military. "Marines were dying by the hundreds in Vietnam," Appy explains on page 77, but Williams did not give consideration to the fact that the dangers in Vietnam… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

African-American Soldier's Experience in Vietnam.  (2007, November 23).  Retrieved September 19, 2020, from

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"African-American Soldier's Experience in Vietnam."  November 23, 2007.  Accessed September 19, 2020.