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The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. – book reviews

Precious few books address or do justice to the role of African
Americans in the evolution and development of the most powerful
democracy in history, the United States of America. Even less attention
has been paid by historians to the role and contributions of African
American soldiers, sailors and airmen in providing for the security of
that democracy.

Colonel Michael Lanning’s book, The African-American Soldier: From
Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell, will make a major contribution to
filling that void. Indeed, his book will go a long ways toward
correcting major distortions – some of them by historians whose
omissions were deliberate attempts to discredit or devalue the
historical contributions of African American military men and women.

Lanning traces the participation of African American military men
and women in every major conflict that Americans have fought in from
the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War. His historical
accounting of the struggle of African Americans to gain equality and
full citizenship on two fronts – in the military and in civilian life –
is quite moving. He blends historical facts and statistics into a
highly readable chronology. It becomes quite clear very early in the
book that there exists a dichotomy between the promises of democracy
and the reality of military life.

Throughout the book, one can detect several themes that have
persisted for African Americans for the more than two hundred years
that African Americans have fought in America’s wars.

The first theme is one of acceptance and rejection. Acceptance on a
limited scale during times of crisis and near-total rejection when the
danger passes is a common feature of the African American experience.
This pattern repeated itself during and after each conflict from the
Revolutionary War to Vietnam.

Writes Lanning: “While the United States ultimately benefitted by
the war, African-Americans did not. Once again Blacks had to fight for
the right to fight. And once again, after they had fought and many had
died, their country neither recognized nor rewarded their service.”

Another theme is the myth that honorable military service will lead
to decreased discrimination – both in the military and in civilian
life. Throughout the book, Lanning describes this as a predominant view
among African Americans.

Describing the view of many African Americans during the
Spanish-American War, Lanning writes, “Once the United States actually
declared war against Spain, Blacks as a whole united in support of the
war efforts. Individual Black men volunteered in the same spirit of
patriotism, adventure, and opportunity to prove themselves that has
motivated soldiers of all races and causes since the beginning of time.”

And he continues, “In addition, they continued to believe, as had
Black men in every prior American war, that honorable service would
decrease discrimination and improve their qualify of life.”

General “Black Jack” Pershing and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt both
acknowledged the heroic contributions of African Americans during the
Spanish-American War – Roosevelt called the Black soldier, “an
excellent breed of Yankee.” However, for political reasons, the author
suggests, Roosevelt’s praise would become far less enthusiastic when he
returned to political life.

“Prompted by a desire not to alienate White voters and [on] a
crusade to make the Rough Riders the absolute heros of the war,”
Lanning writes, “Roosevelt began to downplay the performance of the
Black regiments and ultimately to challenge their bravery and loyalty.”

Thus, despite his statements that Black soldiers were “brave men
worthy of respect,” and “I don’t think any Rough Rider will ever forget
the tie that binds us to the [all-Black] Ninth and Tenth Cavalry,”
Roosevelt’s actions continued the general pattern that had
characterized White America’s appreciation – or lack of appreciation –
for African American military contributions since the Revolutionary War.

Yet another theme looked at the perception that the military,
despite its authoritarian structure and nature, is the most egalitarian
sector of American society. Strange as it may seem, many African
Americans saw the military – despite its caste system of officers and
enlisted personnel – as offering “the opportunity to learn skills,
receive fair compensation, and serve their country in the most
integrated society in America,” according to Lanning, who added that
“Blacks viewed the military as a way to enhance their current status
and build their future.”

It is also interesting to note that opposition to African Americans
serving in the military was not limited to Whites in the general
population. It also reached into the highest levels of government.
Lanning writes about the views of many high-level government officials
who opposed the entry of Blacks into the military and their
participation in combat on a level equal to White Americans.
Governmental officials such as Henry Stimson and General George
Marshall, just to name a few, are discussed.

There were a number of White Americans who accepted the Black
American’s right to serve in the military. However for many, their
reasons for acceptance were less than honorable.

During the Civil War, “a majority of White Northern soldiers and
civilians, however, accepted African Americans as a part of the army.
Some did so from a sense of morality, but far more advocated the
‘Sambo’s Right to be Kilt’ belief, which held the Black man had as much
right to die as anyone else.” But apparently, the right to die was not
a precursor to other rights for African Americans because, “While they
gained equality in facing death, Blacks still found racism entrenched
in other areas…”

Lanning’s book traces the progress made by African Americans despite
tremendous odds. Even though “equality by birthright for African
Americans has taken much too long,” through perseverance and the
support of parents, religious and political leaders, newspaper
publishers, and others, Blacks have broken through racists barriers to
produce the finest military in existence – a fact proven by the
100-hour victory of the Persian Gulf War.

While America cannot deny its history, a word of caution to the
readers. Lanning’s book must be viewed as a historical study that
brings to every American an opportunity to learn and understand a part
of American history that has long been neglected. It should be viewed
as ammunition to condemn.

“As the United States approaches the twenty-first century, African
Americans serve in every specialty and in every rank in defense of this
country. Their long struggle is not yet over,” wrote Lanning.

Until and unless the civilian sector truly represents the ideals of
democracy, the military – that most undemocratic organization in our
liberal-democratic society – will continue to be, in the eyes of many
minorities, the most egalitarian sector.

Dr. Willie Curtis is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval Academy

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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