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Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era.

Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era edited by Samuel W. Black. Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (, 1212 Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222, 2006, 218 pages, $29.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (softcover).

Whether it was the American Revolution, Civil War, Spanish-American War, or wars of the past century, African-Americans participated to gain full acceptance into society.

Divided into three sections and drawing upon the experiences of eight authors of various backgrounds who come together through the common threads of their views of the war in Vietnam, Soul Soldiers will galvanize readers. For example, in "Combat and the Interracial Male Friendship," Herman Graham III relives the history of African-American military participation and argues that the Vietnam War was the first engagement in which blacks and whites fought as equals. This sense of equality, he notes, enhanced a sense of camaraderie to support survival "so that each soldier would do his part to make the collective effort work" (p. 1). Yet he finds that the level of intimacy experienced by service members was socially unacceptable in the civilian world. Racial conflicts reemerged once service members returned to the rear, where they found drug use widespread.

In "Going to Mess Up Some Beasts Tonight," James E. Westheider describes racial conflicts wherein a distinct and nearly complete racial polarization existed at defense installations, where many Southerners provoked fights with blacks, especially those who they believed had become uppity. Other whites embraced notions of black inferiority, thereby helping to complicate the experience of black service persons. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also helped to increase racial antagonisms. Although some whites were sympathetic to blacks during this time, others openly rejoiced at the news that the troublemaker had been eliminated. At Cam Ranh Bay, for example, whites raised the Confederate flag in celebration.

In "And Sing No More of War," Kimberley L. Phillips uses poetry to illustrate the black woman's response to the war in Vietnam. She cites June Jordan's poem as an example of the black woman's vocal opposition to the war. Jordan vehemently disagrees with jazz singer Ethel Ennis, who sang the "Star Spangled Banner" at the inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1973, saying, "My sister/what is this song/you have chosen to sing?/ ... to celebrate murder?" (Ennis also sang at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter in 1977 and toured Europe for the State Department in the 1950s with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie.) Yet Phillips quickly reminds readers that many prominent blacks, including singer James Brown and actor Sammy Davis Jr., supported the Nixon administration. Other black poets, including Nikki Giovanni and Carolyn Rodgers, denounced the war. Dr. King's denunciation of the war in 1968, Phillips writes, made it easier for such blacks as actor and singer Harry Belafonte to bridge the gap between activism and civil rights.

Still, some black entertainers feared that open criticism of the government might brand them as Communist sympathizers and precipitate the end of their careers, just as the perception of radicalism ended the career of Canada Lee in the 1940s and that of Josephine Baker in the 1950s. Yet such singers as Nina Simone were galvanized by the violence in Birmingham in 1963 and the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the same year. Simone also collaborated with black poet Langston Hughes in 1968 to write music for his poem "The Backlash Blues." In late 1971, she teamed up with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda to perform music and comedy routines in protest of the war.

Heather Stur's contribution, "In Service and in Protest," examines the impact of the war on black women and the black community. Women such as Elizabeth Allen volunteered to go to Vietnam, reasoning that "I knew African Americans were most likely to end up in the battle units, in the death units, and I really wanted to do something [to help]" (p. xiv). The inclusion of black men and women in the military effort, especially after the Tet offensive of 1968, united them to oppose racism and sexism in the military and to view the "Vietnam War as an extension of the civil rights injustices African Americans fought at home" (p. 86).

Stur observes that in 1967 only 39 percent of the black male population was eligible for the draft as compared to 63 percent of the white male population, yet 64 percent of the eligible black males were drafted as compared to only 31 percent of the eligible white males. According to Stur, a knock on any door in any black community would reveal someone with a son, nephew, or cousin in Vietnam. The unfair draft affected not only the men who served but also the families they left behind. Some families had multiple sons as well as father-son and brother-sister combinations serving in the war. Other families may have had several generations committed to the war.

In "As I Recall ..." Samuel W. Black contends that the Vietnam War and the Korean War differed from previous military engagements in that they were the first ones fought with an integrated armed force, but the latter war was fought with greater civil and constitutional rights in society for African-Americans. The black military man went beyond the quest for full citizenship; blacks now wanted a redefined patriotism.

Soul Soldiers is a must-read text that provides an in-depth assessment of the military experience of African-American men and women. The installments were written by persons with impeccable credentials; each section is well written, thoroughly documented, and superbly illustrated.

The study nevertheless offers a revealing commentary of American society. It shows the continuation of the legacy of the separate-but-equal tenets of the Plessy decision of 1896 despite the signing of Executive Order 9981 by Pres. Harry S. Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948 and the role Truman's order played in paving the way for the Brown decision in 1954. Samuel Black charges that American society in the Vietnam War era remained "two separate societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal" (p. xi).

Richard Bailey

Montgomery, Alabama
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Author:Bailey, Richard
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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