[sixties-l] War Within War (fwd)

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    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: War Within War


    The Guardian (UK)

    September 15, 2001

    The Vietnam war saw countless numbers of America's young men
    -- both black and white -- thrown into combat. They were
    there to fight the Vietcong but, as tension grew in their
    ranks, they turned on each other. James Maycock reports on
    how racism, prejudice -- and Black Power -- were transposed
    to the battlefield.

    War Within War

    By James Maycock <james.maycock@guardian.co.uk>

    At the height of the Vietnam war in 1969, John Lee Hooker
    recorded I Don't Want To Go To Vietnam. In the song, he
    moaned grimly, "We've got so much trouble at home," before
    adding simply, "We don't need to go to Vietnam." But the
    black American soldiers already in Vietnam, trudging
    tirelessly across that country's saturated rice fields or
    creeping through its elephant grass and sticky, airless
    jungles, were understandably more explicit in expressing
    themselves. Wallace Terry, the Vietnam correspondent for
    Time magazine between 1967 and 1969, taped black soldiers
    airing their anger in the summer of 1969. Throughout the
    recording, their rage is tangible. Speaking about his
    team-mates, one black soldier declares, "What they been
    through in the bush, plus what they have to go through back
    in the world [America], they can't face it. They're ready to
    just get down and start another civil war." Another adds,
    "Why should I fight for prejudice?" When Terry inquires,
    "Tell me what you think the white man should be called?" a
    chorus of "devil... beast" erupts from the group.

    Although President Johnson predicted that the Vietnam war
    would create a political nightmare, he neglected to foresee
    the racial one. The ongoing domestic conflicts between black
    and white Americans were reflected and exacerbated over in
    Vietnam, principally because the very apex of this
    increasingly unpopular war, between 1968 and 1969, coincided
    explosively with the rise of the Black Power era in America.
    In these years, there was a surge of inter-racial violence
    within the US forces in Vietnam. Discrimination thrived and,
    as in America, a racial polarisation arose out of this
    tension. Black soldiers embraced their culture as well as
    the emerging Black Power politics and its external symbols.

    In fact, the war in Vietnam was America's first racially
    integrated conflict. Black soldiers had fought in all of
    America's preceding military engagements, but in segregated
    units. Although President Truman put pressure on the US
    armed forces to integrate in 1948, some units in the Korean
    war were still divided by race.

    Prior to 1967, racial animosity had been negligible within
    the US armed forces in Vietnam because the black men
    stationed there were professional soldiers seeking a
    permanent career. Generally, if there were racial slights,
    they were quietly ignored by these men. On his first
    exploratory trip to Vietnam in the spring of 1967, Terry
    today concedes that he sensed "democracy in the foxhole --
    'same mud, same blood'." Within a year, however, his
    feelings had been transformed.

    At the beginning of 1965, there were about 23,300 US
    servicemen in Vietnam. By the end of 1967, this number had
    jumped to a phenomenal 465,600, the result of Project
    100,000, initiated by Johnson in 1966. This dramatically
    increased the number of US troops in Vietnam by dropping the
    qualification standards of the draft. Many black Americans
    who had received an inferior education and, consequently,
    had evaded the draft, discovered, like Muhammad Ali, that
    they were now eligible. Of the 246,000 men recruited under
    Project 100,000 between October 1966 and June 1969, 41% were
    black, although black Americans represented only 11% of the
    US population. With a bitter irony, the other group that
    Project 100,000 condemned was the poor, racially intolerant
    white man from the southern states of America.

    In a country riddled with institutional racism, the draft
    boards were naturally infected. In 1967, there were no black
    Americans on the boards in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi
    and Louisiana. In fact, Jack Helms, a member of the
    Louisiana draft board, was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux
    Klan. In one fatuous outburst, he described the NAACP
    (National Association for the Advancement of Colored
    People), the highly respected and conservative black civil
    rights group, as "a communist-inspired, anti-Christ,
    sex-perverted group of tennis-short beatniks." Although a
    poll in 1966 established that three out of four black
    Americans supported the draft, by 1969 56% of the black
    American population opposed the Vietnam war.

    In 1967 and 1968, indignation against the war accelerated
    among both black and white Americans. Some thought the draft
    was simply a covert mode of genocide instigated by the US
    government, while others watched aghast as monstrous sums of
    money that could ease the impoverished black communities
    such as Watts in Los Angeles, were pumped into the war
    machine. The Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, denounced
    these repellent contradictions, stating that black Americans
    "are asked to die for the system in Vietnam, in Watts they
    are killed by it."

    The perception that the Vietnamese were parallel sufferers
    of white colonial racist aggression also flourished in the
    late 1960s and was reflected in a comment made by Muhammad
    Ali on the TV programme Soul! "They want me to go to Vietnam
    to shoot some black folks that never lynched me, never
    called me nigger, never assassinated my leaders." Before his
    murder in 1968, Martin Luther King also damned America's
    foreign policy. He charged the US government with being "the
    greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", and urged
    those against the draft to seek the status of conscientious

    Although the image of a white hippy tentatively depositing a
    flower in the barrel of a rifle is one of the most potent
    icons of anti-war sentiment from the 1960s, black Americans
    also fought against the draft. Groups such as the Black
    Panthers and the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating
    Committee) denounced the war, black Americans burned their
    draft cards in public and one man escaped to Canada,
    exclaiming: "I'm not a draft evader, I'm a runaway slave."
    Robert Holcomb, one of those interviewed in Bloods, Terry's
    oral history of the war by black veterans, describes how,
    after being hounded by the FBI, he was "sworn into the army
    in manacles." Like other young black Americans, he diagnosed
    the Vietnam war as "an attack on minority people, minority
    people being used to fight each other."

    Robert Holcomb perhaps personified what Terry describes
    today as "a different breed of black soldier entering the
    battlefield" in the latter half of the 1960s. Terry adds
    that these hostile black recruits were "veterans of the
    civil rights movement or the urban upheavals, the riots in
    the streets. They were being told by judges: 'You'll either
    join the Marines or go to jail.' " In 1969, during a
    conversation with Terry, a black naval lieutenant stationed
    in Vietnam also characterised these black men forced to
    fight in southeast Asia as "a new generation." He added:
    "They are the ones who ain't going to take no more shit."

    In the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination on
    April 4, 1968, black Americans rioted in more than 100 US
    cities. But in Vietnam many white soldiers flagrantly
    applauded his murder. At Cam Ranh Bay, a group of white men
    wore Ku Klux Klan robes and paraded around the military
    base. At another compound, the Confederate flag, so symbolic
    of racial persecution, was hoisted for three days. Don
    Browne, a black staff sergeant in Vietnam, overheard a white
    soldier protesting that King's image was always on TV. "I
    wish they'd take that nigger's picture off," the soldier
    said, a moment before Browne granted him "a lesson in when
    to use that word and when you should not use that word -- a
    physical lesson." King's demise was, of course, a pivotal
    incident in the 1960s because it represented the switch from
    the nonviolent civil rights movement to the more militant
    and aggressive Black Power era. James Hawkins, a black
    soldier in Vietnam, understood this: "Dr King's death
    changed things, it made a lot of people angry, angry people
    with weapons."

    At this stage, with the extraordinary increase of mostly
    reluctant troops -- black and white -- to Vietnam, covert
    and overt racism was now rife. The fledgling black American
    conscript was expected to endure the sight of the
    Confederate flag painted on Jeeps, tanks and helicopters,
    and sometimes encountered menacing graffiti, such as "I'd
    rather kill a nigger than a gook", scrawled on the walls in
    the latrines of US bases. Other grisly practices, such as
    cross burnings, were uprooted from Alabama and Mississippi
    to the war theatre of Vietnam, and some commanders tolerated
    Ku Klux Klan "klaverns" on their bases.

    Young black soldiers also discovered that white soldiers,
    notably at Da Nang, repeatedly refused to pick up exhausted
    black soldiers in their Jeeps and that army barbers were not
    trained to cut black hair, although the merest hint of an
    Afro was penalised. In Terry's recording from 1969, one
    black sailor describes how, "when they caught a brother with
    an Afro, they just took him down to the brig and cut all his
    hair off and throw him in jail. All these beast
    motherfuckers walking around with their hair looking like
    goddamn girls and we can't wear our hair motherfucking three
    inches long." White officers were either sympathetic to or
    simply disregarded white soldiers who printed "Fuck the war"
    or "Peace" on their helmets, yet black Americans were
    disciplined for comparable offences. One black soldier was
    ordered to remove a "Black is beautiful" poster from the
    inside of his locker.

    The post exchanges and libraries on the bases did not stock
    black hair products, tapes of soul music or books on black
    American culture and history. Magazines such as Ebony and
    Jet were also scarce, as one black private grumbled: "Every
    time a soul brother over here gets an Ebony or Jet, there is
    a waiting line of at least 30 to 50 soul brothers waiting to
    read it." Terry once stated, "If blacks can account for up
    to 22% of the dying, they should at least have 22% of the
    jukebox or the music on Armed Forces radio." Yet black
    American music was neglected by the Armed Forces Radio
    Network and in the enlisted men's clubs in preference for
    country music.

    Today, Terry comments, laughing: "I find it amusing to see a
    Vietnam movie and the white guys are popping their fingers
    to black music. That just didn't happen. This is
    revisionism." In fact, Terry Whitmore, the author of
    Memphis-'Nam-Sweden: The Story Of A Black Deserter,
    witnessed a minor riot in the Freedom Hill post exchange at
    Da Nang after the manager of the beer garden, irritated by
    the number of black marines socialising there, promptly
    withdrew all soul music from the jukebox. But such incidents
    weren't confined to land. Off the coast of Vietnam, on the
    USS Sumpter, Captain JS Keuger also banned the music of the
    Last Poets, whose recordings included When The Revolution
    Comes. The affronted black sailors subsequently signed a
    petition, a fight erupted and they were charged with mutiny.
    Dissension over music resulted in a multitude of other
    brawls and Jet magazine reported that a white officer was
    killed in Quang Tri after ordering black soldiers to turn
    down their music.

    Military justice in Vietnam was also rarely racially
    impartial. Black servicemen were frequently sentenced to
    longer terms than their white counterparts and, once inside
    a military prison, black Muslim inmates were refused copies
    of the Koran. During this period, one black marine pointed
    out, "The Corps says it treats all men just one way -- as a
    marine. What it actually has done is treat everybody like a
    white marine." But, most disturbingly, black Americans were
    dying at a disproportionate rate and this only inflamed
    their indignation, as one black private remonstrated: "You
    should see for yourself how the black man is being treated
    over here and the way we are dying. When it comes to rank,
    we are left out. When it comes to special privileges, we are
    left out. When it comes to patrols, operations and so forth,
    we are first."

    Their predicament was aggravated by a weakening in the chain
    of command. Many of the very young, naive white officers
    were incapable of diffusing the racial tension and, at
    times, white privates informed their superior black
    officers, including Allen Thomas, that they "weren't going
    to take orders from a nigger."

    But, as the naval lieutenant informed Terry back in 1969,
    these black soldiers were "the ones who ain't going to take
    no more shit." The black Americans who were drafted from
    1967 to 1970 called themselves Bloods, and many were
    influenced by the teachings and politics of Stokely
    Carmichael, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.

    Terry explains: "They would wear black amulets, they would
    wear black beads, black gloves to show their identity and
    racial pride." Some wore "slave bracelets" made out of boot
    laces and walked with "Black Power canes", sticks with the
    nub carved into a clenched fist. To offset the oppressive
    ubiquity of the Confederate flag, these soldiers flew black
    flags from their patrol boats and Jeeps. Another group of
    black servicemen, who were followers of Ron Karenga's US
    (United Slaves), created a flag that asserted in Swahili "My
    fear is for you." The "dap", a complicated ritualised
    handshake that changed from unit to unit , was also common
    among black personnel in Vietnam. Black privates and
    officers, too, acknowledged each other in public with a
    Black Power salute.

    One black soldier, drained by the tense racial atmosphere in
    the enlisted men's clubs, commented: "Chuck's [euphemism for
    a white man] all right until he gets a beer under his belt
    and then it's nigger this and nigger that, and besides, to
    be honest, Chuck ain't too much fun, you dig?" Indeed, by
    the late 1960s in Vietnam, black and white soldiers were
    socialising in separate bars and clubs. In Saigon, the black
    servicemen congregated in the Khanh Hoi district and,
    sometimes, protected their preferred venues with signs that
    warned "No Rabbits [white soldiers] Allowed."

    To increase their racial solidarity, some black troops also
    started semi-militant bodies. Blacks In Action, the
    Unsatisfied Black Soldier, the Ju Jus and the Mau Maus were
    just some of these groups that, as Terry explains,
    "supported each other and studied black history and talked
    about events in America and were willing to support each
    other in an enlisted club over black music. If they wanted
    something in the post exchange, they would collectively
    request it."

    The tension between the races, though, was not tamed before
    it erupted into violence. White officers who didn't offer
    lifts to black marines were attacked, there was a major riot
    at the principal military prison, the Long Binh Stockade, in
    October 1968, and a critical inter-racial clash on the Kitty
    Hawk aircraft carrier in October 1972. At China Beach, some
    white soldiers started flinging rocks and abuse at black
    servicemen. Soon, the two racial groups were nervously
    facing each other with loaded weapons.

    However, most assaults involved only a few participants,
    generally in a deserted corner of an army base at night.
    Such conduct was wholly advocated by members of the Black
    Panthers in America. Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Eldridge
    Cleaver, urged black soldiers: "Right inside of the US
    imperialist beast's army, you are strategically placed to
    begin the process of destroying him from within." Huey
    Newton, the founder of the party, also suggested that black
    army personnel turn their weapons on white officers.
    "Fragging" was the term used to describe either wounding or
    killing an officer by rolling a fragmentation grenade into
    his tent. But both black and white soldiers were involved in
    this and only some of these attacks were racially motivated.

    A few black soldiers chose to desert, and while some, like
    Terry Whitmore, were smuggled through the USSR to Sweden,
    most fugitives hid within Vietnam. By 1971, about 100
    deserters were living furtively in a district of Saigon
    nicknamed "Soul Alley", beside Tan Son Nhut airport.
    Understandably, though, some of the young black troops
    cracked. Robert Holcomb recalled in Bloods: "This black
    soldier had taken some drugs and he just sort of went crazy.
    A lot of his anxieties and hostilities came out. He got an
    M-16 and he sprayed a sergeant, killed him and two others."

    The Vietcong were quick to detect and exploit the racial
    conflicts within the US forces. They dropped thousands of
    propaganda leaflets on the battlefields. A typical one read:
    "If you go AWOL because you don't want to fight or because
    you can't put up with the army racism, the NFL will get you
    out of the country." But authentic images of US policemen
    beating black civil rights workers were also scattered
    across the war zones to undermine the black soldier's
    morale. Today, Wallace Terry recalls that, bizarrely, the
    Vietcong sometimes screamed, "Go home, soul man", at the
    black soldiers during combat and Browne, who was interviewed
    in Terry's Bloods, described how, "to play on the sympathy
    of the black soldier, the Vietcong would shoot at a white
    guy, then let the black guy behind him go through, then
    shoot at the next white guy." Other black servicemen,
    including the deserter Whitmore, reported identical cases.
    But the huge number of black soldiers killed in action and
    the maltreatment of black prisoners of war was ample proof
    that the Vietcong and the NVA were simply manipulating the
    racial discord within the American ranks.

    Amazingly, though, it was in these very war zones that the
    antagonism between black and white infantrymen dissolved, as
    the black soldier James Hawkins admitted: "In the jungle,
    you don't think in terms of black and white." Another said:
    "When I'm out in the bush carrying a grenade launcher, no
    white man is going to call me nigger." Arthur Woodley, a
    black long-range patrolman interviewed by Terry, explained:
    "No matter what his ethnic background is, or his ideals, you
    start to depend on that person to cover your ass."

    In fact, Woodley rescued a wounded member of the Ku Klux
    Klan in his unit who had been discarded by his white
    team-mates. The man was forced to re-examine his bigotry
    and, throughout the war, there were other examples of white
    men whose racial prejudices were shattered by the selfless
    acts of black soldiers. Although, in 1969, one black
    lieutenant commented somewhat cynically that the "threat of
    death changes many things, but comradeship doesn't last
    after you get back to the village", the disparity in
    inter-racial hatred at the rear army bases and in the war
    theatre itself was immense.

    Initially, white army officials reacted aggressively to both
    the potent exhibition of black unity and to the racial
    turmoil within the US army in Vietnam. They ordered crowds
    of black servicemen to be broken up, a few symbolic
    gestures, such as the "dap", were banned, numerous soldiers
    were disciplined and the more radical militants were
    presented with dishonourable discharges that subsequently
    disqualified them from financial aid back in America.

    Ultimately, however, the military authorities were compelled
    to confront the deepening crisis, and in 1969 General
    Leonard Chapman conceded: "There is no question we've got a
    problem." Surprisingly, and to its credit, the army
    responded with impressive speed and instigated myriad
    reforms. It investigated and addressed each field in which
    discrimination and prejudice had thrived, from the post
    exchanges to the dearth of black officers. Mandatory Watch
    And Action Committees were introduced into each unit, and
    today, Terry confirms, the US military authorities "make it
    clear to their top officers that racism can cost you your
    career." He adds: "I call it the last civil rights movement.
    It started in the armed forces in Vietnam, and it spread
    into revolts on the high seas on certain ships and then to
    air force bases in the States and army bases in Germany."

    In fact, in 1972 Wallace Terry was hired by the US Air Force
    to examine parallel racial predicaments in Germany; and
    today he is adamant that "Colin Powell would not have become
    chairman of the joint chiefs had it not been for those black
    kids protesting in Vietnam. You can draw a direct line."

    But although the defiant black servicemen in Vietnam at the
    end of the 1960s created a robust and positive legacy for
    the next generation of black soldiers and sailors, it was,
    of course, forged at a price. If they survived their tour of
    duty, they returned to a frigid, indifferent America, the
    country for which they had risked their lives. Sadly, the
    extraordinary unity that Terry had witnessed among the black
    soldiers in Vietnam crumbled. "They didn't come home
    together, they went to different cities and they returned at
    different times." Forty per cent of black veterans suffered
    from post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with 20% of
    white veterans, and in the early 1970s Richard Nixon's
    policy of "benign neglect" was dismantling the progress of
    the civil rights movement. One black veteran with an
    administrative discharge said bitterly,"I've got friends
    who've robbed liquor stores who can get jobs easier than

    Arthur Woodley had enlisted in the US army to "escape from
    my environment and get ahead in life." On his return to
    America, he worked sporadically in miscellaneous jobs
    throughout the 1970s but, when interviewed by Terry in the
    early 1980s, he was unemployed. He had recently met, quite
    by chance, a South Vietnamese man he had befriended during
    the war and who was, years later, residing in Baltimore.
    "He's got a business, good home, driving cars, and I'm still
    struggling," he reported angrily. "Living in America in the
    1980s is a war for survival among black folks, and black
    veterans are being overlooked more than everybody."

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