One Opinion: The Many Myths of Inequality!
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights
reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
Before I became involved in the 1st Battalion,
50th Infantry Association website, I spent over twenty years largely
ignoring any outward sign that I was a Vietnam Veteran, but I never
forgot that fact.. Then about four or five years ago, when the years
of suppression stopped working, I started looking for constructive
ways to deal with it. One of the best was writing responses on the
excellent site for high school and college students, Vietnam 101.
Of course, I'd be less than honest if I denied that sparring with
antiwar Dr. Ed wasn't itself one of the more interesting perks.
While poking around on my computer, I came across this question
and answer and thought that I'd share it here. It brought to mind
some of the very interesting conversations that I'd had with one
of my RTOs who was into Black Power, often as we were sitting in
the track monitoring the radios in the still of the dark nights;
I learned a lot from those chats.
"Guest" wrote, "I need information on African American
soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Were they treated equally in the field,
as well as from a formal military perspective?"
There are a great many myths about Blacks in Vietnam, many started
and spread within the Black community itself as an extension of other
ongoing activism at the time. Eldridge Cleaver, for example, said,
"The American racial problem can no longer be spoken of ... in
isolation. The relationship between the genocide in Vietnam and the
smiles of the white man toward Black Americans is a direct relationship.
Once the white man solves his problems in the East he will then turn
... on the Black people of America, his longtime punching bag."
He also claimed that the United States had a deliberate policy of
sending Black troops to Vietnam to "kill off the cream of Black
Ron Brown said, "in my mind Vietnam has killed a lot of young
Blacks in this country, eliminating them, as if the war was a plan
to do so." (Boston Globe, June 18, 1972)
In a much publicized statement at the time, one Black who refused
to serve in the armed forces said the Vietnam War was nothing more
than using "nigger against chink." (Ronald Snellings, "Whitey:
I will not serve," March 1966, wire services).
Even Martin Luther King, who was against the war, in part because
he felt that it disadvantaged Blacks, said, "there were twice
as many Negroes as whites in combat in Vietnam at the beginning of
1967, and twice as many Negro soldiers died in action in proportion
to their numbers in the population."
Some Black soldiers and Marines wrote letters to Black publications
claiming mistreatment and discrimination, particularly as the Black
Consciousness movement in the States heated up. When I served in Germany
in 1968-69, "Black Power" was just starting to make a statement,
just enough that some Black soldiers were carrying a growing chip
on their shoulders. By 1970, the CG, 7th Army in Europe noted that
"Black dissident organizations could turn out 1500 soldiers for
Some Black protest activities were openly coordinated with German
radical student groups and other radical groups also courted (or should
I say "targeted") Black soldiers. A Black SP4 in a Ranger
buddy's infantry company was seduced into the underground railway
to Sweden; my friend flew to Sweden to bring him back (one day before
he would have been declared a deserter) and I (successfully) defended
him in his court-martial (my friend couldn't because as his CO he
had had to bring the charges). The former SP4 (well, at least he didn't
get any stockade time) was a nice guy with nothing against whites
or the Army or Vietnam, but (1) he had felt pressured by his peers
and (2) beautiful white girls (German, Danish, Swedish) had miraculously
appeared at key times and "fallen in love" with him, moving
him along the pipeline and getting him in deeper and deeper (ironically,
that pipeline dried up once he got to Sweden).
If you think that the Soviet Union was unaware of the Black Power
movement (and other radical dissident anti-Vietnam groups at home
and abroad), think again. Significant support was forthcoming in a
variety of ways, both overt and covert.
The one-thing-leading-to-another got so bad in Germany that over 200
Black servicemen even signed a petition to the Soviet and East German
authorities asking them to act on their behalf against the discrimination
of Black GIs in West Berlin.
What can we make of all this? Were the Blacks just stirring up trouble?
No, there were real discrimination issues in American society that
were being addressed in a variety of ways, just as there was growing
dissent against the Vietnam War... and just as there was a very real
Cold War against the Soviets, etc. The amalgamation of (and conflicts
among) so many, many social, economic and political issues reached
boiling point on many occasions. In such a supercharged environment,
it can be very difficult to separate out truth from misunderstandings
from falsehoods from deliberate lies.
Indeed, it's ironic that the U.S. military services which, other than
the Navy, were among America's leaders in overcoming racial discrimination,
were themselves the very visible (and easy) targets for social and
political action (largely because of the Vietnam War).
Back on personal answers to your questions, I count myself lucky that
I came along when I did, late enough to see these dynamic issues developing
and yet early enough that polarization of diametrically opposing viewpoints
was not so complete as to preclude dialog and well-meant attempts
to find common ground (such as happened recently in an election in
In Vietnam in 1969-70, my unit did not experience extreme racial segregation
- particularly not in my infantry company in the field. I gave Article
15s (or even courts-martial on occasion), promotions and medals to
people based upon their actions, not their race; and no one protested
the unfairness on grounds of discrimination. Even so, I was aware
of the potential for racial problems, and not just because I'd come
from Germany, but I could say the same thing about drugs or alcohol.
Several years later, because I came from a "minority" background
or whatever, I was appointed and given training as a (part-time) Race
Relations Counselor while stationed in Hawaii. Don't mean nothing,
I was also a Sexual Discrimination Counselor and other touchy feely
things (pun not intended, of course). After a long and hopefully continuing
career of working with people around the world in many developing
nations, I can honestly say that that training and experience was
invaluable and gave me real life skills.
A final word of wisdom, Guest, don't believe everything that you read
or hear... things aren't always what they seem. Many people do have
agendas, you know.
I have no doubt that some (many) Black Americans were discriminated
against in various ways in the military, just as many Asian Americans,
Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and White Americans were too.
It's just that the Blacks were finding their voice to address their
legitimate grievances throughout American society at the time, and
some (many) were pushing the limits. The military is a human organization
that tends to reflect the society from which it springs.
What I do doubt is that there was a systematic oppression of black
brothers by whites throughout the military; I never saw it. Indeed,
what I saw was an imperfect (but better than most) organization doing
a tough job under inhuman conditions (the antagonism of the media
and American people, etc.) as well and fairly as could be expected
(and better than most organizations would have coped).
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
Permission is hereby granted to copy this
story to print or
on web pages at no charge provided the line below is included:
Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website http://www.ichiban1.org/
( web sites should make the url a link or may also just link to this