By Carlito Rovira
THE U.S. MILITARY REFLECTS THE RACISM IN CAPITALISM
African Americans’ role in the military during the Civil War was wholly progressive. Indeed, Black soldiers had a vital stake in smashing the hideous system of slavery.
While President Abraham Lincoln often expressed his indifference to the issue of emancipation, he was forced to recognize the absolute necessity of arming African Americans.
Black soldiers soon became feared by the Southern slave-owning class. Their tenacity, skill and valor as soldiers proved decisive to the North winning the Civil War. For instance, when General Ulysses S. Grant was sent to fight Gen. Robert E. Lee’s military forces in Virginia, he requested Black regiments as his principal shock troops.
Then there was Harriet Tubman. A former slave, she became an intelligence officer for the Union Army, operating behind enemy lines. Tubman’s courage made possible the capture of Confederate garrisons and by working with the “Underground Railroad” she led hundreds of slaves to their freedom.
But Tubman’s boldest and most successful mission is when she led many Black Union soldiers on the daring raid at Combahee Ferry on June 1863. In this courageous action Tubman and Black soldiers under her command were able to free 700 slaves while under fire from charging Confederate troops.
The Civil War was the last time African Americans had a positive stake in a U.S. war’s outcome. It was the only time in U.S. history when the interest of the capitalist class coincided with the aspirations of Black people.
After the Confederacy was militarily defeated “colored” volunteer units of the U.S. military were disbanded. All told, 200,000 African Americans served in the Army and Navy. Thirty thousand Blacks in uniform died in combat.
After African Americans were betrayed during Reconstruction, they were further undermined and impoverished when the South was overrun by capital investments in manufacturing, lumber and agriculture. The capitalist rulers began to cast their eyes abroad.
By 1870 four regiments of Black troops were re-organized, but were used for the vicious campaign to annihilate tribal Indigenous nations in the “Indian Wars” of the West and Southwest United States. In 1898 all four of these re-organized Black regiments were sent to be among the invading forces in the Spanish-American War. African American soldiers were used for conquering other oppressed people. The U.S. became a world imperialist power.
BLACK SOLDIERS IN THE IMPERIALIST ERA
The mysterious explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana, Cuba on Feb. 18, 1898, served as an excuse for Washington officials to declare war on Spain. The U.S. invaded the Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, colonizing them anew. The Monroe Doctrine had already reserved all of Latin America and the Caribbean to be exploited exclusively by U.S. capitalists.
In 1899 under the leadership of Aguinaldo, the Filipino people furiously fought the new invaders. They inflicted many casualties on the U.S. Army, which falsely claimed to be “helping the people’s quest for freedom.” The U.S. government retaliated by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Filipino women, men and children.
This genocide was not passively accepted inside the United States, as mainstream historians contend. The Anti-Imperialist League held many mass protests in major cities throughout this country.
Significant anti-war sentiment was also expressed widely in the Black community. The Black press as well as other representatives of the African American people vigorously denounced the war. The great historian, socialist and African American leader W.E.B. Du Bois played a notable role in this anti-war movement.
Most important, Black resistance surfaced inside the U.S. military. Four Black regiments sent to fight in the Philippines established a bond with the Native people there, who also were dark-skinned. These Black troops resented white officers and soldiers describing Filpinos with the same racist slurs applied to African Americans in the United States.
Filipino insurgents appealed to Black soldiers not to fight on the side of U.S. imperialism. Posters denouncing racist lynchings in the United States were placed throughout the islands, as a show of Filipino solidarity with African Americans. This political agitation helped lead to many Black troops deserting the U.S. military.
Some of these African Americans soldiers went over to the other side, joining the Filipino guerrilla army. The most notable was David Fagan, formerly of the 24th Infantry Division. The Filipino freedom fighters so respected Fagan that he was made a commander in their army. David Fagan’s example demonstrates how unity among different oppressed people is possible.
BLACK RESISTANCE & IMPERIALIST WAR
In the post-Reconstruction period, as Jim Crow laws re-introduced the “Black Codes” throughout the South, top military officials were contemptuous to the idea of having large numbers of African American recruits. But in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson conveniently signed the Selective Service Law. The U.S. entered World War 1.
The two world wars in Europe created circumstances that demanded the recruitment of large numbers of soldiers. African Americans were now accompanied by Puerto Ricans, Indigenous, and Mexican Americans as oppressed nationalities looked upon as cannon fodder. Military recruits from these sectors of society faced disproportionate casualty statistics while continuing to confront racist segregation, discrimination and violence, during and after their service.
Although African Americans made an exerted effort to prove their bravery and diligence as soldiers during war they were unable to escape discriminatory practices and customs deemed “normal” in the United States. An example was the Tuskegee Airmen, known as the “Red Tails.” These African American pilots proved their bravery and skills during World War 2 in aerial combat with Germany’s Luftwaffe. Until the end of the war they were denied recognition to avoid acknowledging that they were Black.
On June 24, 1943 racism within the U.S. military showed its ugly head once again. But this time the dignity and defiance of Black people also showed it’s face in the form of armed resistance at the Battle of Bamber Bridge.
England did not have racist segregation laws like the United States. Black soldiers were embraced in social settings by British citizens. However, white U.S. military officers, especially those from southern states, objected to racial interactions involving Black servicemen under their command.
In one particular instance military police were sent to Bamber Bridge, in the township of Lancashire to absurdly enforce segregation laws. African American soldiers from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment were abruptly confronted by MP’s in pubs and restaurants. Before long a deadly clash ensued between Black and White men wearing the same uniform.
AFRICAN AMERICANS & THE VIETNAM WAR
By the second half of the 1960’s the Civil Rights movement began to gather widespread approval and support while anti-war sentiments grew in response to U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Washington and Pentagon officials had unleashed a massive military campaign in an attempt to crush the Vietnamese revolution, which defeated the French in 1954.
The outcry opposing this war increased in Black and Brown communities, especially due to the aggressive political agitation of the Black Panther Party and Dr. Martin Luther King’s open condemnation of the war in 1968. Growing resistance to the military draft paralleled the rise of the Black power movement. Black and Brown resentment to racism was now accompanied by widespread opposition to conscription.
The Vietnam War was the first U.S. military incursion where units were no longer racially segregated. However, white racist die-hearts among officers and enlisted soldiers continued with their traditional outlook towards Black and Brown people.
In addition to mistreatment, Black and Latino soldiers were usually ordered to carry out life threatening tasks, usually suicide missions. Although they comprised less than 30% of the U.S. population combined at the time their death toll was 3 out of 5 killed in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese understood quite well the plight of Black people in the United States and sympathized with their struggles against racist oppression. In 1924 Vietnam’s iconic revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh wrote his famous pamphlet titled “On Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan” which served as a condemnation of the racism in U.S. society and outlined the commonalities between the Black and Vietnamese liberation struggles.
It was no coincidence when Vietnamese insurgents (National Liberation Front) released Black and Brown G.I.’s captured in battle. After having political exchanges with the prisoners Black and Brown soldiers were usually released and not held as POW’s.
As the war intensified many Black and Brown soldiers rebelled by collectively refusing to obey orders, and in many cases causing injury or death to white officers themselves. In every objective sense the rebelliousness of Black and Brown servicemen, along with the spread of the anti-war movement at home, aided the Vietnamese liberation struggle in its quest to rid U.S. imperialism.
Being aware of internal friction and demoralization within the U.S. military while the Vietnamese People’s Army and the National Liberation Front gained the upper hand militarily, compelled U.S. rulers to withdraw from that war in 1975.
Throughout the history of Black people serving in the U.S. military there has never been a period where they were free of the same racist oppression they faced in civilian life. The U.S. Armed Forces were created to preserve a system of inequality and for securing U.S. domination throughout the world. The U.S. military’s ideological guide is also based on what has justified Black oppression since it began — white supremacy.
Since the Civil War the presence of Black people in the military has presented a paradox to U.S. rulers. Out of necessity government and Pentagon officials welcomed the enlistment of people of color while fearing the possibility that the skills they learned would eventually be used against this system in revolutionary struggle. And understandably so.
When oppressed and exploited people find common ground in their quest for freedom unity can be established, as what occurred in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and in other instances where Black soldiers were sent to shed blood. Social movements throughout U.S. history have proven that oppressors are only as strong as we allow them to be. Those who occupy the position of power need us more than we need them.
Working class people of all races and nationalities in this country comprise the majority and are in the position to put a stop to the chaos that now exist. Such is what will lay the basis for ending Black oppression and the reign of U.S. imperialism. It is the only way that we can bring into existence a world without continual war and suffering.