" You figure, Williams explained to the author, you don't like what's happening at home in Chicago, and now in the U.S. Marines "...you finally get a chance to get away." Those were Williams' reasons for joining the military and participating in the Vietnam War as an African-American youth. Indeed Williams saw the military as not just an escape, but as "a form of incarceration" - but the war might offer him "a fuller measure of freedom than the kind of imprisonment that seemed inevitable if he were to stay on the street" (Appy 78).
Another key reason the author discovered in terms of black youth volunteering for duty in Vietnam was for "self-advancement" (as was mentioned earlier in this paper). The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey in 1964 found that nearly twice as many blacks as whites offered "self-advancement" as their main reason for signing up for war duty in Vietnam. It was 37% of blacks using that justification, and 21% of Caucasians; and Appy reveals that "for some men," blacks included, the services was "a marked improvement over civilian life" and indeed their first ever experience with "secure housing, steady wages," and the chance to eat "as much as they wanted" every day. Blacks entering the service, particularly during the early stages of the war in Vietnam, were likely to be hopeful that being in the military "...might improve their social standing and provide more racial justice" than they had experienced in civilian life, Appy writes on page 62.
Speaking of the social standings of blacks - in terms of why going to Vietnam and being in the service might have appeal for some - on page 20, Appy quotes Dr. Martin Luther King (giving his speech in April 1967) putting a different spin on that issue. "We are willing to make the Negro 100% of a citizen in warfare," King stated at the Riverside Church in New York City, "but reduce him to 50% of a citizen on American soil." Half of "all Negroes" live in "substandard housing" and the average black person has "half the income of white" Americans, King went on. There is "twice as much unemployment and infant mortality" among the black population, and yet "at the beginning of 1967 twice as many died in action - 20.6% - in proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole," King is quoted as saying on page 20 of Appy's book.
An article in the New York Times (Johnson, 1969) pointed out that while many (including blacks) praised the military's efforts towards equal opportunity - and the re-enlistment rates were at that time "at least twice as high as the rates for whites" - racial discrimination was still part of life for soldiers. Moreover, "...the civilian patterns of discrimination prevail in localities close by the military installations." This article was based on part on racial violence at the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, which had flared up between returning black Vietnam veterans and white workers in jobs surrounding the sprawling base.
Times' reporter Johnson quoted the director for civil rights activities in the Department of Defense, Judge L. Howard Bennett, who said there "...is a far greater concern among young black marines for their brothers and sisters in the civilian community who are suffering discrimination." In other words, these black men put their lives on the line for their country in an ugly war America did not seem to be winning. They then return home after their tours of duty to find things haven't changed at all in terms of the social fairness they hoped they might see between the races.
Add to that problem the fact that young black returning soldiers were "...far more vocal in criticizing both the civilian community" and the Marines than had their black predecessors been. The tension at Camp Lejeune was not unexpected, given, Johnson writes, that "...some white officers and sergeants 'retain prejudices and deliberately practice them.'" There were rumors at Camp Lejeune - possibly just paranoid stirred up because of the militant stances taken by Black Panthers and other direct action black protest movements - that "black power" advocates had somehow "infiltrated the base" and were propagandizing young black men in order to have them do battle with white marines, Johnson continued.
To that "infiltration" charge, a black barber on the Lejeune base - Hurtis Coleman - replied to Times' reporter Johnson: "They always cry outside 'agitators' because they don't want to admit that they are prejudiced and mistreating black people." Another quote from Johnson's article was gleaned from a Marine colonel: The black soldier has been "screamed at" with no let-up on Paris Island (part of pre-Vietnam training activities); they were "pushed around and harassed during basic training"; and then there was "13 months in Vietnam, fighting a war, killing and seeing their buddies killed." Suddenly, the quote continues in the Times, here they are - "while they are still teen-agers" - they are combat veterans and "...expected to quickly and easily adjust to the spit and polish routine of Stateside." That "quick and easy" adjustment was too much for many of the returning black soldiers, Johnson's article implies.
But as to the assertions made by some writers and observers earlier in this paper, that the military had been fully integrated by the time the war in Vietnam was fought, Times' writer Johnson wrote another article (Nov. 29, 1070) in which he explained that black soldiers in "lower ranks" - who were becoming more militant and expressing dissidence - believed that blacks were on "the wrong end of a double standard...in terms of job assignments, promotions, and the dispensation of military justice."
To wit, there were only two black generals at the time of the mid-sixties, in the midst of the war in Vietnam; they were Air Force Brig. Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. And Army Brig. Gen Frederic E. Davidson. They were commissioned in the 1940s but only promoted to generals between 1968 and 1970. Those apparent inequities were noticed by young black soldiers who "grew to maturity during an era of protest and social activism" Johnson writes. These same young black me "grew accustomed to speaking out and acting against discrimination even before entering the military"; further, many of them refused to "allow the regimentation and isolation of the military" to water down their identification "with the black struggle's back home," Johnson wrote in 1970.
The Times article by Johnson featured a graph showing that in November, 1970, that black soldiers represented 10% of American forces in Vietnam, but blacks only had 2.1% of the total officers in Vietnam.
What was life actually like for black soldiers in Vietnam?
Meanwhile life in Vietnam for black soldiers - by the year 1970 - "was especially troublesome," Baskir and Strauss assert on page 138. Unrest among black troops "had begun to hinder the fighting effort," the authors continue. There was reported to be serious fear among some white officers that black soldiers "would turn their guns around..." and, as one soldier had indicated, "shoot at whitey" instead of the enemy, the Viet Cong. Indeed there was an incident in which "two white majors were shot" as they attempted to get some black soldiers to turn the sound down on a tape recorder.
When black soldiers were given a chance to air grievances, the authors report on page 138, the meetings with superiors often broke down into shouting matches. There were "harsh and shortsighted responses" from the protesting black soldiers that only "aggravated the conflict." In order to attempt to control black soldiers in Vietnam, and install discipline, officers and company commanders put a ban on acts that for blacks were symbolic of their cultural identity, the authors explain on page 138. For example, "dapping" (the "brotherhood" handshake between black young men) was outlawed by some officers; as hard as that was to believe for black soldiers (most of them continued shaking hands they way they have been for years), some officers also placed a ban on the "clinched fist salute" (Baskir 138), which Caucasian officers considered a "black power salute"; it reminded some authorities in the military of the salutes and power symbolism of the Black Panther movement back in the U.S.
On the subject of dapping, there is another side to that story, found in James E. Westheider's book Fighting on Two Fronts. Westheider writes on page 89 of his book that these handshakes, while a "meaningful affirmation of cultural solidarity and brotherly love," became a source "of racial friction." By that the author points out that blacks enjoyed dapping in chow lines, and whites in line "objected to being made to wait for their meals" while black soldiers ahead of them "went through lengthy daps."
Captain interviewed by Westheider claims that blacks sometimes "would go into a five or ten-minute dapping period... [and hence] dapping has become a source…