A Sharp Contradiction of the U.S. Military—Some Historical Perspective

Letter from a Reader

Editors’ Note: There is a lot of talk now of very sharp polarizations in society overall. This also extends to the ruling institutions of this country, including those that concentrate the monopoly of legitimate armed force, like the U.S. military. These have strategic implications for revolution, including possible splits as these divisions and crises intensify, as the letter below references, “with some parts siding with the fascists and others with those on the side opposed to the fascists.”1 In this context, we share this Letter from a Reader focused on one aspect of this divide—the large number of non-white people in the U.S. military and some historical perspective on previous experiences with this potentially sharp contradiction.

Bob Avakian, in referring to his own experience and more broadly regarding peoples’ widely felt sentiment in the sixties and during the Vietnam War about the rulers of this country, described it as “My god, these are the people running the country? This can’t stand! This is not what we need!” As he describes in Hope for Humanity on a Scientific Basis:

And, as I pointed out in Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution, by the end of the 1960s this [sentiment] had spread broadly and deeply throughout society, even into the armed forces of the very system, the capitalist-imperialist system, in this country itself. I remember, for example, that there was a poll taken by the military which, among other things, asked the question: whom did the soldiers, rank-and-file soldiers, of the U.S. army look to for political leadership—and, particularly among the Black soldiers, the president of the United States was way down on the list. The plurality, the highest “vote-getter,” if you will, was Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party. So when you have things like this, you have a real problem for the system. Even with Eldridge’s weaknesses and limitations, which were very real, this reflected something very, very positive.

Black GIs refuse to return to combat in Vietnam, September 1969.

 

AK Valley, Vietnam: Black GIs refuse to return to combat, September 1969.   

The U.S. military is the bulwark of the U.S. empire, with its 1.3 million trained and heavily armed active-duty service-people.2 In the last few years, deep contradictions within the military, and struggle between different sections of the ruling class over control of the military, surfaced in a dramatic way—including in its response to Trump’s election, the George Floyd protests, the January 6 attempted fascist coup, and the mandate that all active-duty personnel be vaccinated against COVID—“with some parts siding with the fascists and others with those on the side opposed to the fascists.”3

Here, I want to focus on one aspect of the contradiction:

The U.S. military relies heavily on people of the oppressed nationalities. About 40% of active-duty and reserve service people are nonwhite,4 and in the Army in particular, nearly one fourth of enlisted personnel and one eighth of officers are Black.5

This is a very contradictory situation. A major part of the role of the U.S. military is enforcing white supremacy and neo-colonialism at home and around the world—including carrying out genocidal wars against Native American people, and in the Philippines and Vietnam, and suppression of rebellions of Black people in Detroit and other cities in the 1960s. Internally it is shot through with racism and white supremacy—until 1948 the military was segregated, and even after that was “officially” ended, it took six more years to actually desegregate.

This became literally explosive during the Vietnam War. According to an op-ed in the New York Times, Black soldiers made up 11% of the total force, 16% of draftees, 23% of combat troops, 34% of all courts-martial and 58% of the prisoners in Long Binh Military Jail.6 The polarization and divide was volatile: in some units the Confederate flag was openly displayed, and after MLK was killed, white servicemen at the Cam Ranh Bay base celebrated by marching around in KKK outfits.7

This gave rise to tremendous struggle and resistance, which was interwoven with the growing anti-war movement among GIs, which sometimes included support for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF), the supposed enemy.8 And it had a big influence on servicepeople of other nationalities. This whole mix of things, coupled with the military defeat, was a very big part of why the U.S. military came to the brink of collapse. (For more, see “On Watching the Film: Sir! No Sir”!” and go to the Sir! No Sir! website.)

Sir! No Sir! The suppressed story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam

 

In the period since Vietnam, the military has tried to “address” the problem of racism and white supremacy in the military and keep the contradiction at a “manageable” level. But Trump’s determination to deploy troops against anti-racism protesters during the Beautiful Rising had obvious potential to blow up in their faces. (A survey of active duty military personnel taken a few months later found that a large proportion disagreed with using active-duty troops against anti-racism protesters, and almost half said that “white nationalism” in the U.S. was a major problem.)9

In the face of an ever-sharpening polarization in society, and the need for a Re-Polarization for Revolution, some of this matters greatly, and is worth paying attention to.

Announcing New work by BA, SOMETHING TERRIBLE, OR SOMETHING TRULY EMANCIPATING:

 

_______________

FOOTNOTES:

1. See SOMETHING TERRIBLE, OR SOMETHING TRULY EMANCIPATING: Profound Crisis, Deepening Divisions, The Looming Possibility Of Civil War—And The Revolution That Is Urgently Needed. A Necessary Foundation, A Basic Roadmap For This Revolution. by Bob Avakian, Revolutionary Leader, Author of the New Communism at revcom.us. [back]

2. Plus around a million more in the National Guard or Reserves. [back]

3. See SOMETHING TERRIBLE, OR SOMETHING TRULY EMANCIPATING:Something Terrible Or Something Truly Emancipating at revcom.us. [back]

4. See “Esper Breaks With Trump on Using Troops Against Protesters,” New York Times, June 3, 2020. [back]

5. See 2018 Demographics Report, page 26, at MilitaryOneSource. [back]

6. See “Black and White in Vietnam” by Gerald F. Goodwin, New York Times, July 18, 2017. [back]

7. See “Decades of Pentagon efforts fail to stamp out bias and extremism in the military, AP report finds,” CBSNews.com, December 29, 2021. [back]

8. To a certain degree this is captured and concentrated in Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. military and his many statements along the lines that the enemy of Black people was the U.S. and not the Vietnamese people, that “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” etc. While extremely controversial at the time, Ali did galvanize and become a hero to very broad sections, and not only to Black people. Partly in response, the NLF began appealing to Black GI’s with leaflets and in other ways, calling on them to return to the U.S. to fight the real enemy. [back]

9. See “Trump’s popularity slips in latest Military Times poll—and more troops say they’ll vote for Biden,” by Leo Shane, Military Times, August 31, 2020. [back]

Your financial support for revcom.us makes a world of difference

The revolutionary leader Bob Avakian (BA) has analyzed that this is one of those rare times when revolution and getting to a whole different world becomes more possible—and revcom.us plays a crucial role in preparing the ground for revolution.

This is the only website that shines a light on the deeper reality behind what people confront and connects people with the revolutionary alternative; it is the only website that features the work and leadership of BA.

Your financial support makes that possible.