Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel

In the most reductionist and overly simplistic accounts, the military exists merely to kill people and to break things. However, the armed forces are also a location where citizenship is negotiated and claims on justice and belonging are made.

For example, the Irish deeply understood that their transition to full whiteness would be expedited by service in the Union Army during The Civil War. Likewise, Black Americans did not separate "freedom at home" from "freedom abroad." Returning from the killing fields of World War One and World War Two, African American soldiers paid a bloody tax on their full citizenship dues towards a check that was stamped insufficient funds. These deposits into the account of freedom would eventually be cashed, in no small part because of the honorable duty of those brave men and women.

I have long thought that the real stakes at hand in the opposition by Conservatives to our gay brothers and sisters serving openly in the armed forces is prefaced on an understanding that military service is often a pathway to full and equal citizenship in the polity. While these debates are couched in the language of "military readiness" and "unit cohesion," they are ultimately about belonging and citizenship. Some Americans simply do not believe that gay folks ought to be part of our political community. Most certainly, they ought not to be treated equally. In this imaginary, if "those people" openly die in the trenches and battlefields (as they have for centuries), then God forbid those same folk may actually both demand and deserve their full rights as citizens.

I have grown a bit in my thoughts on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. At first, I tolerated the policy and thought it an imperfect solution to a practical dilemma. I bristled at comparisons of Jim Crow segregation in the military to that of the discriminatory practices faced by gay and lesbian soldiers. In my mind, race is not a predilection or orientation that innately predicts anything about human behavior. By contrast, sexuality because of its very nature--a preference for and attraction to some types of bodies--is quintessentially about behavior.

However, over time I came to realize that the logic of segregation in the military was a near mirror for the logic of segregation against gay and lesbian soldiers. Black people were imagined not as individuals where race works as a social fiction made real by law, habit, and tradition. No, in the logic of the Jim Crow, black folk behave differently, are inferior and alien in their life practices, precisely because they are not white. Insert "gay" in place of "black," "straight" in place of "white," and the logic possesses an eerie parallelism.

Here, history is once more the greatest of teachers. In 1945 the Navy Department published a pamphlet entitled, "The Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel." Some of its suggestions:


Racial Theories Waste Manpower
In modern total warfare any avoidable waste of manpower can only be viewed as material aid to the enemy. Restriction, because of racial theories, of the contribution of any individual to the war effort is a serious waste of human resources.

Be Skeptical About Ready Generalizations
More dangerous than careful experiment is reliance on untested theories. There are many current theories about the Negro can or cannot learn, about what work he can or cannot do, about the likelihood of conflict or cooperation between Negro and white personnel in school or on the job, and about all other questions with which an officer may be faced. All of them should be viewed with skepticism until there is evidence that they have been thoroughly tested under practical conditions as found in the Naval Establishment.

Symbols That Irritate

High or low morale has been said to result from a lot of little things. Among the little things of great importance to Negroes are words, jokes and characterizations which white people use on occasion unthinkingly. They can be such sources of irritation that leadership becomes difficult, and continued use of them has on several occasions invoked serious incidents.
Negroes prefer to be referred to in their individual capacities as Americans without racial designation. The word "nigger" is especially hated and it has no place in the Naval vocabulary. Negroes are suspicious that the pronunciation of the word Negro as though it were spelled "Nigra" may be a sort of genteel compromise between the hated word "nigger" and the preferred term "Negro." The terms "boy," "darkey," "coon," "jig," "uncle," "Negress" and "your people" are also resented. If it is necessary to refer to racial origin, "Negro" and "colored" are the only proper words to use...
More than a historical curiosity, this publication signals how far we have come as a country where a black man could a few decades prior be judged not fit for equal service by the mere fact of his skin color, and now a Black man is the Commander in Chief. Ironically, in the 21st century some of the Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel's advice could still be benefited from--especially by the New Right, Tea Party, Fox News, race bating scions of white bigotry and racial resentment.
The policy of racial segregation in the U.S. military was a national shame, a stain on this country until it was ended by the Truman administration.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a similar embarrassment.

A segregated U.S. military was thrown into the dustbin of history and the United States is long better off because of it. Ultimately, Don't Ask, Don't Tell is long overdue to join the Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel as a historical artifact and curio, one best suited for a museum or archive.


fred c said...

Great lesson, Professor. An important lesson with a well crafted, lucid message, all in a five minute read. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making clear what I should have already realized. This would probably explain the small but vociferous attempts to exclude athiests and Pagans from being able to practice (or refrain from, as the case may be) their religion, and why the contributions of Muslims in the US military before and especially after 9/11 have been so studiously ignored by a certain body of pundits.

stephen matlock said...

I like the logic of your thinking of military service as the path to citizenship and acceptance in society.

Let's hope the process to recognize and accept is shorter this time. After all, shouldn't we be learning from our mistakes?

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred--Thanks. Professor. You flatter me.

@Anon--The parallels are clear. This is about belonging. The opposition knows it. We need to fight fire with fire and not sticks and stones to win.

@Mt--Appreciated. I don't know how far we have come to be honest.

Oh Crap said...

I have been looking for that manual for purchase (I have a buncha stuff like this in my collection.)

Part of where the comparison fails is very basic: there is no equivalent of DADT for nonwhite and Negro soldiers, sailors, etc.

In other words, one would not get kicked out for "being Negro", one gets put in Negro units with whites-only as officers.

The equivalent would be non-hetero units with heteros-only officers. True, the warped logic of discrimination and supremacy is identical. But the way it plays out is very different.