One Opinion: The Many Myths of Inequality!

Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
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?"

Hi, Guest.

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 youth".

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 a demonstration."

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 Florida).

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,

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