Monday, November 11, 2013

Questions of Racial Formation on Veterans Day: What Have Black Americans and Other People of Color Really Gained From Service in America's Wars and Military?

Countries and leaders choose war. Its citizens are forced to carry the burden.

The "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" are words that marked the end of one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Veterans Day was originally intended to mark that armistice as a moment for public remembrance and respect. Now, because of time, distance, and intentional forgetting, Veterans Day is just one more moment when capitalism is made synonymous with democracy in America.

I am not sure if the men who died at the Marne or Flanders or Belleau Wood are happy or sad at how America's remembrance of their loss is now just one more opportunity to go shopping. I would not be so presumptuous as to speak for the dead. But I can wonder nonetheless.

World War One ended almost 100 years ago. It helped to shape the present, as many of the United States' troubles in the Middle East can be traced to the decisions made in response to the Ottoman Empire's death.

World War One's battlefields are still surrendering their secrets: for example, see this great piece on the excavation of the battlefields on and around Gallipoli. And there were still a few World War One veterans alive as recently as 2004, who were eager to tell their stories, stories which author Richard Rubin dutifully recorded and shared in his book The Last of the Doughboys.

[As a parallel thought, I often wonder about what it must have been like to be an American who saw the Civil War, then America's Imperial expansion, and World War One. What profound insights they must have had on those decades of blood-letting and seemingly inexorable growth of American power.]

If we are to truly honor America's veterans, it is not enough to have a day off, go shopping, attend a barbecue, or watch a marathon of "war movies" on cable television.

I would argue that true remembrance involves asking hard questions about how the United States, like most other countries, sends off its young people to die, for lofty goals of "patriotism", to then have them returned, abandoned, neglected, and the real reason for what was then framed as an inexorable and unavoidable conflict, later being revealed as a war of choice, for the enrichment of a few, sold as a lie by the press and politicians, and for the most part unnecessary.

Such an observation will be viewed as impolitic and "unpatriotic" by some less critical minded folks. I would counter that we do not do true honor to the memories of those who served in the United States military, and fought her wars, by denying uncomfortable facts.

In honor of Veterans Day, We are Respectable Negroes will be featuring several short posts this week (and next) related to questions of citizenship, racial formation, and military service.

Racial formation is a framework that tries to capture how "race" is a social fiction, one which is "made" by society, its members, social practices, laws, habits, and conventions. There are no biological races. Race has meaning only to the degree that it was created, responds to, has social currency, and is circulated as an idea that people and society take to be real, and which informs us about some type socially and politically meaningful problem or question.

Race is a true lie; race also structures life chances, opportunities, power relationships, wealth and income, and influences other social categories like gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity.

Military service, and limiting and defining who is allowed to formally serve and enlist, is one way that the United States has helped to create race at the intersection of citizenship. The latter is very important here: full citizenship means full access to the public goods and rights of the polity and political community.

People of color, women, gays and lesbians, and others who at one moment or another were considered "second class citizens", or members of the "out group", used military service as a way of making claims on full membership in American democracy. They were resisted precisely because those forces of power and social/political conservatism--both elite and "populist"--intimately understand that it is very hard, in the long-term, to deny communities their full citizenship rights if they have spilled blood under the banner(s) of patriotism and nationalism.

Thus, my questions about Veterans Day, military service, and race.

Black Americans served in the United States military while we were denied full citizenship, suffered under Jim and Jane Crow, and were wholly denied our "manhood rights" by the Racial State. One of the great stories of American history is how black folks (and other people of color) leveraged our fighting and dying in the country's wars (very often against other non-whites) to make our claims on liberty and democracy undeniable. I applaud those brothers and sisters who selflessly sacrificed for the Black Freedom Struggle. We/I are/am their children and legacy.

Their service can be viewed from a proximate and distal lens. At the the time, the hope was that military service would break down white supremacy by showing, repeatedly, that black Americans were "real" men, of "American stock", and not a "feminine" race, one intellectually and physically incapable of the rigors of modern war. However, black Americans would repeatedly see our citizenship claims violently denied and rebuffed by dominant white society.

In the long view, such sacrifices seem to have made sense. Black veterans became the foundation of the Civil Rights movement and used their leadership, martial, and other skills to buttress the Black Freedom Struggle. In the short-term, immediately after those conflicts, when black veterans returned home to recalcitrant white supremacy, I am not sure what the pay-off was for their service, and how history would have turned out differently had those black veterans refused to serve on principle.

Why fight for a country that does not love you? Why fight and die and kill and bleed for a country which considers you less than a full member?

These questions resonate in the post civil rights era and the Age of Obama as well: people of color, black Americans in particular, are still subjected to discrimination in the housing and labor markets, subjected to racial profiling, sentenced to harsher punishments for the same crimes as whites, die younger, are not as upward mobility, and their life chances, all things being equal, are in total less than those of white Americans.

Black Americans arrived here long before most white people; yet, we receive the fewest fruits for our role in building this country and contributing to make more perfect its stillborn and defective democratic project.

In all, what do you think of the bargain made, and return given to, black Americans and other people of color for their service in the United States' military over the decades and centuries?


sam enderby said...

For a seldom heard from source on "our" foreign adventures in empire building check out R.F. Pettigrew, former Senator from South Dakota. A book of his speeches and essays was assembled way back in the opening decades of the last century called "The Course of Empire". Lenin (on his death bed?) even mentioned it to journalist George Seldes. I found it online (how 'bout that internet machine). By way of a tease I would match the horror of that recent typhoon with the behavior of our American soldiers back during the Spanish-American War. Waterboarding? Concentration camps? American exceptionalism on the march.

chauncey devega said...

The occupation of the Phillipines was something else. Ain't nothing new in this game folks. I will check out that reading suggestion.

kscoyote said...

This is the thing, Chauncey. Imagine a United States without People of Color fighting in the 1st, 2nd, Native Home, and New Mexican brigades to deny the Confederacy access to Arizona and California.

Imagine the United States without us fighting for equality under the Law. What would women's lives be? What would Europe look like without African Americans fighting for the Spanish Republic prior to WWII?

What would the United States be, if the Birch Society had succeeded?

We aren't fighting for the US, per se - We are fighting for humanity.

Cutmaster Cool V said...

Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

"I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given' a damn - I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn't wit' it, but just that very minute...
It occured to me
The suckers had authority
Cold sweatin' as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been?
They got me sittin' in the state pen
I gotta get out - but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
I'm not a fugitive on the run
But a brother like me begun - to be another one
Public enemy servin' time - they drew the line y'all
To criticize me some crime - never the less
They could not understand that I'm a Black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the strength, the situation's unreal
I got a raw deal, so I'm goin' for the steel."

---Chuck D

chauncey devega said...

Ah the "golden age of hip hop". Folks were actually saying something--meaningful--and on the radio--and popular. The horror!

chauncey devega said...

And would those changes have come with our without the sacrifices of people of color? What did we get, directly, for our sacrifices?

Hard questions.

guest said...

lol, hot water, electricity, three-hots and a cot and the opportunity to
bitch and belly ache to your heart's content with nary a stitch of
productive output of value contribution.

KissedByTheSun said...

Troll Alert!

EarthTone said...

In August 1963, Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to his friend, James Conkling, which was to be read at a rally in Illinois. It reads in part:

"But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive--even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept."

During the American Civil War, some 200,000 African Americans served in the US army and navy. Their service and sacrifice helped the Union to defeat the Confederacy and win the war in 1865.

At the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed, which abolished slavery in all sections of the re-united United States. Your ancestors helped to ensure that people of African descent would no longer be enslaved, a stunning achievement which we should remember and celebrate.

- Alan

chauncey devega said...

I agree. But again, what did black Americans get for the deal in the present or near-present?

kscoyote said...

If we had not proven we were not "feminine and childlike" while fighting Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma Slavers? If it had not been established that Black People could lead troops in the Spanish Civil War?

What we got was Desegregation in the Armed Forces, which led to Desegregation in the classroom.

chauncey devega said...

What did integration get black people in public schools? Watching and thinking about the Red Summers and racial pogroms in light of Gates' new series. The fruits of integration? Not sure.

kscoyote said...

The largest Black Middle Class in history.

Largest number of College Graduates in History.

Your position.

chauncey devega said...

Caused by or correlation?

Blood in what gain out?

Wealth inequality, segregation, incarceration rates, etc. etc.?

A damn hard counter-factual!