[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our newly-released collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]
In the first months of 1991, the United States military annihilated the Iraqi army. After several weeks of air raids and only three days of ground combat, American forces had little more to do but pack up and prepare for a victory parade. More than any other branch of the service, the Army had made the hard climb from its Vietnam abyss to the triumphant force of Desert Storm.
In the Vietnam era, the Army suffered from three major flaws: poorly trained non-commissioned officers, drugs, and racial tension. The victory in the Gulf suggested to the American public that these flaws were fixed and, indeed, two were. The post-Vietnam army started an intense training program for sergeants, and the schooling gets tougher as they move up the ladder. The military also invested heavily in drug screening, and entire units, including senior officers, were put through random drug tests. Specialists were hired to deal with addiction. The last problem, racial tension, however, has been only partly solved.
As 1960s-style integration is increasingly shown to be a myth, the military remains the last bastion of racial mixing, but a thin veneer masks serious trouble. Politicians and pundits brave the wrath of the thought police to keep women out of combat and young troopers away from practicing homosexuals, but no one talks about the problems of race. Despite Hollywood clichés like Glory, blacks have often been at best a mixed benefit and at worst a burden to the service. Racial conflict is out of the limelight, and the US Army is an effective fighting force, but trouble can erupt any time.
Non-whites in the armed forces cause three problems. The first is unit and soldier indiscipline. In the past, entire black regiments have behaved badly, and individual blacks often follow the same pattern. Second, blacks and whites sometimes think and behave differently. Bridging the gap is costly and never entirely successful, and racial divisions sap unit morale. Third, there is the added trouble of other non-white troops. An increasing number of racial and religious minorities can give rise to unique kinds of trouble.
The military was officially desegregated by President Truman in 1948, but segregated regiments weren’t broken up in earnest until the first year of the Korean War. The catalyst for this was the poor combat record of black units. Most of the men with World War II experience had left, and the army conscripts were often from the bottom of society. Discipline was poor. Task Force Smith, the first ground combat units to face the North Koreans, was wiped out as an effective fighting force. The white regiments were bad but the black ones were worse. One cannot read about the Korean War without running into tales of black units that were unable to hold together under fire.
The all-black 24th Infantry was notorious for hasty retreats. This unit performed so badly that according to Max Hastings in The Korean War, General Walton H. Walker, commander of ground forces in Korea, “recognized that it was possible to use the 24th only as an outpost force, a trip wire in the face of Communist assaults. It proved necessary to maintain another regiment in reserve behind the front, to conduct serious resistance when the 24th broke.” (p. 81.) Another all-black unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 9th Infantry, performed disgracefully at the battle of Bloody Ridge in August 1951. In fact, “the 3/9 had done nothing. It had failed miserably in the only real attack it had attempted, and its C.O. … had been on the bottle.” (T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, p. 359.)
After the disaster of Bloody Ridge, the Army desegregated its units so that blacks would make up roughly 10 percent of each company, and black soldiers were spread out one or two per squad. This meant no single regiment could be expected to do poorly in combat, but “the social problems, of course, were not solved.” (T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, p. 359.)
The Vietnam War was the low point for military race relations, and by 1971 there was conflict wherever soldiers were stationed. Robert Heinl, Jr. described the crisis in an article called “Collapse of the Armed Forces” in the June 7, 1971 issue of Armed Forces Journal:
Racial conflicts (most but not all sparked by young black enlisted men) are erupting murderously in all services. At a recent high commanders’ conference, General Westmoreland and other senior generals heard the report from Germany that in many units white soldiers are now afraid to enter barracks alone at night for fear of ‘head-hunting’ ambushes by blacks. In the quoted words of one soldier on duty in West Germany, ‘I’m much more afraid of getting mugged on the post than I am of getting attacked by the Russians.’
Other reports tell of jail-delivery attacks on Army stockades and military police to release black prisoners, and of officers being struck in public by black soldiers. Augsburg, Krailsheim, and Hohenfels are said to be rife with racial trouble. Hohenfels was the scene of a racial fragging last year—one of the few so far recorded outside Vietnam. In Ulm, last fall, a white noncommissioned officer killed a black soldier who was holding a loaded .45 on two unarmed white officers.
Elsewhere, according to Fortune magazine, junior officers are now being attacked at night when inspecting barracks containing numbers of black soldiers. Kelley Hill, a Ft. Benning, Ga., barracks area, has been the scene of repeated nighttime assaults on white soldiers. One such soldier bitterly remarked, ‘Kelley Hill may belong to the commander in the daytime but it belongs to the blacks after dark.’
Even the cloistered quarters of WACs have been hit by racial hair-pulling. In one West Coast WAC detachment this year, black women on duty as charge-o-quarters took advantage of their trust to vandalize unlocked rooms occupied by white WACS. On this rampage, they destroyed clothing, emptied drawers, and overturned furniture of their white sisters …
As early as July 1969 the Marines (who had previously enjoyed a highly praised record on race) made headlines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when a mass affray launched by 30-50 black Marines ended fatally with a white corporal’s skull smashed in and 145 other white Marines in the sick bay. That same year, at Newport, R.I., naval station, blacks killed a white petty officer, while in March 1971 the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, was beset by racial fighting so severe that the base enlisted men’s club had to be closed.
Today, tensions are not nearly so bad. An all-volunteer army with standards that weed out the worst offenders is no longer the battleground it once was, but by the late 1990s black and Hispanic gangs were a serious problem. In Killeen, Texas, (outside Fort Hood) military gang members were a danger to civilians. The Army made a thorough effort to stamp out gangs, but the Department of Justice’s National Gang Intelligence Center released a 2007 report covering nearly all the notorious non-white street gangs:
[They] have been documented on military installations both domestically and internationally. These members are present in most branches and across all ranks of the military, but are most common among the junior enlisted ranks. The US Army, Army Reserves, and National Guard are likely to have the most enlisted gang members because they are either the largest branches of the military, the service is part-time, or they tend not to be as selective as the other branches of the armed services.
The report noted that white extremists in the military did kill a black couple in 1996, but after an extensive investigation, the authorities concluded that “there was no widespread or organized extremist activity in the Army,” and that “gang-related activities appear to be more pervasive than extremist activity on and near Army installations and are becoming a significant security concern for many soldiers.”
Probably the greatest problem with blacks in the Army today is lack of ability, despite armed services qualification tests that wash out a considerably greater proportion of black applicants than white. Before my combat tour I found that blacks only slowly grasped the complex skills necessary for modern warfare. Once, as a passenger on a military bus, I overheard a group of blacks talking about something they all had in common: re-training. If a recruit fails a task, such as assembling a machine gun or operating a radio, he is culled from his squad for re-training. I never heard a knot of white soldiers discussing their common experience of re-training.
Blacks also fail the Army’s quite challenging field artillery training course at an appalling rate. Statistics aren’t public, but when I was learning the dark voodoo of artillery gunnery at Fort Sill’s Officer Basic Course I was surprised that all of the blacks in my platoon who started with me flunked out or “recycled.” Likewise, all who graduated with me were “recycles” from earlier courses. These men were not raw 18-year-olds; to get in you had to be a college graduate and get through pre-commissioning training.
This lack of ability makes for problems. One black lieutenant who worked for me in the US needed special training to keep a monthly budget. Although he was a college graduate, he could not figure out how to pay his bills. He made enough money, but he couldn’t manage his finances. Soon, creditors were calling the unit, and the situation was an embarrassment for the chain of command.
When I was stationed in Korea, a black major I worked for lead his troops from his barracks room. He would give a few directions by cell phone, and spend the rest of his time watching movies. This lack of face-to-face leadership led to disaster. In the office his outfit used, the ceiling tiles were rotting or missing, with exposed wires hanging down; the desks were covered with dust and garbage. This shabby ethos spread out to the men. The captains were demoralized, new lieutenants untrained. The sergeants worked uphill to maintain standards. Because there was no plan for combat training, the troops were available to be sucked into meaningless work details, such as grass trimming at the base post office.
When I first arrived in Iraq, my night-shift counterpart was a black man with more than 20 years of experience. He had been diagnosed with serious sleep apnea and needed a special breathing machine to help him sleep. A man with this condition should not be in a war zone, but large black men are physically imposing, and often get their way. At his pre-deployment medical screening, he was naturally marked as not-deployable. He took exception to this and nearly came to blows with the doctor. The doctor cleared him.
During the night shift, he collected routine reports and did typical staff work. In the morning I based my work on what he had done, but I wasn’t getting the information or cooperation I needed. I began getting criticism for my section’s work, and soon every shift-change briefing became a heated argument.
One day this man took offense when I pointed out that every time an artillery shell is fired, it uses up a corresponding powder charge, and that we needed to order both replacement items together. His reply to this centuries-old observation was to insult me and remind me that I wasn’t as “experienced” as he. Matters just got worse. Finally I cornered him on an easy thing he missed, and furiously asked him if he actually understood what he was doing. Unable to look me in the eye, he stormed out of the tent.
He got a medical evacuation from Iraq that very day because his breathing machine for sleep apnea suddenly “broke.” An enlisted man later told me he had innocently lent the officer a screwdriver that day. In any case, my section was never accused of sloppy work again.
That experience with the black officer was my racial awakening. He was the first of a host of blacks I saw in Iraq who suddenly discovered they had angina, breathing problems, or other hard-to-see “ailments.” I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know if their complaints were valid, but I always had a gut feeling they were a trick to go home early. Once they are in a war, few people want to stick around, and even fewer want to come back, but in general, the whites I knew left the service only after they had honorably finished their combat tours.
In Iraq, I was repeatedly stunned by the inability of many senior black officers to think through problems. In one case, I asked for increased close air support for an area commonly used by insurgents to fire mortars at American bases. A black officer refused air support, suggesting that we “put snipers in trees” to deal with the mortars. Iraq is a barren desert. The trees are mostly irrigated date palms and cannot support a sniper. That black officer worked hard and was certainly brave, but I am still amazed he came up with that foolishness about snipers. Bad staff work is a tremendous opportunity cost. It took me hours to get fighter-bomber coverage. This was valuable time wasted, and lives were needlessly endangered.
Likewise in Iraq, I had to cool tensions between a white Air National Guard lieutenant colonel and a black warrant officer. The white colonel was a Vietnam vet who had bitter memories of black behavior when he as a young draftee. The warrant officer was essentially worthless. I finally solved the problem simply by keeping the two men apart. I gave the black man no work, and he spent his waking hours playing video games.
Once I saw a black major so befuddled by the unit’s vehicle bumper number standard that a five minute maintenance meeting turned into an afternoon marathon. What was the problem? Every combat vehicle in a unit gets a number. It is painted on the front and rear bumpers, and conforms to a standard that places the vehicle in its exact squad. For example, 1-300 IN K-6 would be the Kilo Company, First Battalion, 300th Infantry Commander’s Vehicle. Different units have slightly different numbering standards, but they are not hard to figure out—except for this black major, who was stumped.
He was the operations officer, and his failure to grasp the obvious spread out to more important areas. Soon, battalion-level staff functions slowed to a crawl or just stopped. Routine procedures such as coordinating with Range Control when firing artillery became difficult operations. Eventually nothing worked right. When the head of a 500-man outfit does not have the brains to make common tasks routine or enough respect to make orders stick, things go wrong. The men become grouchy and troublesome. During several training exercises, 155mm artillery shells hit dangerously close to forward observers. Junior officers nicknamed the major “Abortion.” He was quietly replaced, but in a way that let him keep moving up.
Not all blacks and other non-whites were disruptive. Many were fantastic soldiers. But I did discover that nearly every major problem, accident, or scandal I saw in the service had a black or Hispanic at the bottom of it.
Black officers are often unsatisfactory but at least they do not usually commit the kinds of crimes common among young black enlisted men. As a peacetime platoon leader, I was always being roped into rape investigations. Invariably the suspects were black. Whites would get drunk and rowdy, but I never knew one to be a rapist. Thanks to these investigations, I learned a new expression: “running a train.” This means gang rape, and comes from men standing in line waiting their turn. It is strictly black slang.
One black soldier in my platoon was a good soldier and a hard worker, but he had heavy baggage. He was picked up by the military police for drunk driving, and once he had to have all his combat gear reissued. He said it was stolen, but I suspect he pawned it. Still, he did his job well, and I worked hard to help him when he was indicted for rape in a civilian court. We even sent him home from a deployment a week ahead of his comrades so he could attend court hearings.
On the day of his trial, his platoon sergeant and section chief arrived in court, resplendent in their uniforms, to show support for their man. The judge informed the chain of command that the suspect had not met any of his preliminary court dates, and that he was going to be locked up. We never learned where he had gone when we sent him home, but he didn’t go to court. His commander had to start writing up the paperwork to kick him out of the Army.
Sometimes black officers and leaders do fall into the error of their younger brothers. The Army covered up a serious gang rape scandal when a group of black officers in the 10th Mountain Division videotaped themselves ravishing some female soldiers. The officers were alumni of a black fraternity, and they brought their victims along as part of the entertainment for the fraternity’s reunion party. This was on the heels of the Navy’s Tail Hook scandal in 1991, so the bad press and the racial angle made for a quick high-brass silencing. The black officers were relieved of duty, but the cover up was so effective that I cannot find any trace of this incident on the Internet. I learned the facts from two different veterans of the unit who did not know each other, and who were an ocean apart when they told me their tales.
The 1997 sex/rape scandal at Aberdeen Proving Grounds was widely reported, however, and involved black drill sergeants shaking down female recruits for sex. The same year, the Sergeant Major of the Army, the highest-ranking enlisted man, was court marshaled when six women accused him of pressuring them for sex. Gene McKinney, the first black to serve in that position, was acquitted of sexual harassment but convicted of obstruction of justice.
The military has the same racial crime-rate discrepancies as civilian life. However, the Army has a job to do, and dealing with crime chews up resources. An enormous amount of effort went into the McKinney trial. Is there an important innovation that was not thought up as a result?
In a free society one would expect “whistleblowers,” but they are rare because of the equal opportunity bureaucracy. The consequences of failing an EO rating are worse than failing the annual marksmanship test. Every evaluation for leaders has a section on support for equal opportunity. A “No” ends a career.
Blacks know this, and some are tempted to make false charges of “racism.” One quartermaster captain told me he narrowly avoided a serious drubbing after a black first sergeant accused him of calling her and her troops “monkeys.” Her outfit ran a warehouse in Iraq, which he was responsible for inspecting. He said the warehouse was a “disaster,” and he thinks the “monkeys” accusation was meant to be a cover up. The accusation didn’t go very far, but only because there was a black soldier with the captain who saw it all, and testified that the accusation was false. After that, the captain dealt with the warehouse supervisors through a black subordinate. As he explained to me, he “didn’t need any more headaches.”
Race causes other wastes. Colin Powell writes in his memoirs about a division commander who ordered every dogface to watch the movie Brian’s Song. It is about an intense friendship between two football players—one white, the other black—and the commander thought the movie would ease racial tension. The division even sent MPs to round up idle men and bring them to theaters. What counter-insurgency book wasn’t written because of Brian’s Song duty?
There is a different problem with our increasingly “diverse” army. Many non-whites simply don’t put forth much effort, and in extreme cases they can be more hostile to whites than to the enemy. A Korean West Point graduate pulled strings to leave his Iraq-bound unit for garrison duty near Seoul, where he became a multicultural “director of community outreach.” We were in a war, but he used up taxpayer dollars to take an unnecessary diversity job in Korea.
There are far worse problems than sloughing off. A serious fragging nearly decapitated a brigade of the 101st Airborne at the start of the Iraq War. An American-born black convert to Islam, Hasan Karim Akbar, killed two officers and wounded the brigade commander. In another fragging incident, Staff Sergeant Alberto B. Martinez, posted to Tikrit, Iraq, allegedly rolled a hand grenade into a room and killed two officers. His trial is hung up in legal motions.
Non-whites have caused other trouble. There have been serious fears of spying among the Muslim troops at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All charges were later dropped against West Point graduate and Muslim chaplain, Captain James Yee, but he raised enough suspicion to be arrested. Several Arabs were arrested along with Captain Yee. They weren’t convicted of spying but received convictions for lesser, but serious infractions.
Espionage cases are hard to prove. Accomplices can vanish back to their native lands, witnesses can be assassinated, and fingerprints, DNA, and other physical evidence can be more easily explained. Sometimes counterintelligence discovers evidence inadmissible in court. Often spies can be convicted only if they are caught in a sting where the evidence is overwhelming and can be used in court.
America now fights its wars in the Third World, and our policy of putting Third World people in the military is dangerous. It is only a matter of time before a Somali, Kurdish, Laotian, or Hmong “refugee” has the authority to call in air-strikes or command riflemen. Like the Romans who were destroyed by their Germanic mercenaries, Americans could find that their army is a foreign viper.
Diversity has been turned against us in the past. During the Philippine Insurrection early in the 20th century, the troublesome, all-black 24th Infantry produced a renegade named David Fagen. He deserted from the American side and accepted a Philippine Army commission as a captain. The Filipino insurgents had offered such a deal to any black deserter. Captain Fagen was not the only black turncoat, but their numbers were small, since Filipinos and blacks are a world apart. If the fighting had been in Africa things might have been different. Still, the Fagen incident caused a decline in trust between the races, and even a certain hysteria. After American setbacks, one journalist concluded that Filipino successes were the result of, “the scheming of American deserters, who were so familiar with army routines.”
Successful military operations must be glued together with trust, and diversity destroys trust. In diverse groups, the tendency is to hunker down, avoid making friends, and just try to survive. Instead of quickly starting from a common point, American soldiers must spend time developing trust. Some black senior officers cannot quite believe that white subordinates aren’t ready to blast them; the ghosts of Reconstruction and Jim Crow rise easily at a forward operating base filled with muscular, blue-eyed white men with assault rifles.
Likewise, white soldiers may not trust black officers, since they are often baffled by simple problems and quick to be swept up in vice. Too often, black leaders and enlisted men can appear to be nothing more than the gangster types who were despised back in a white’s home town.
Instead of working through problems, developing innovative tactics, or focusing on training, soldiers must spend time smoothing wrinkles and dealing with tensions that otherwise would not exist. The alienation, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug-taking, and other pathologies commonly found in veterans since Vietnam are probably related, at least in part, to this lack of trust.
The unwillingness to recognize desegregation’s failures may even influence strategy at the highest level. In its August 8, 2003 issue, the British newspaper, the Telegraph, quoted from a speech by Condoleezza Rice:
“‘Like many of you, I grew up around the home-grown terrorism of the 1960s. I remember the bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963, because one of the little girls that died was a friend of mine,’ she said.
“Black Americans should stand by others seeking freedom today, she went on, and shun the ‘condescending’ argument that some races or nations were not interested in or ready for Western freedoms.
“‘We’ve heard that argument before. And we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it,’ she said. ‘That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East.’”
In fact, Iraq has no history of democracy nor any real prospects for it, and more than 50 years after Birmingham, American jails are filled with blacks. Delusions always come back to haunt the deluded.
America’s position at the top is lonely and precarious. Any military slipup can embolden our enemies. Pol Pot was certainly aided by America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and Osama bin Laden was inspired to strike after our failure in Somalia. Any lack of trust within our fighting formations, any lost opportunity, any crime, any bad judgment makes the worst more likely.
But the most important danger is domestic. It is simply a matter of time before whites vote clearly for their own interests. At that point, an alien army could spark a serious domestic and Constitutional crisis. To avoid such a calamity, Uncle Sam needs an army loyal to Americans and sympathetic to their institutions.
Duncan Hengest served as a company-grade field artillery officer in the United States, Korea, and Iraq. He was on active duty for seven years.