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Gail Buckley: American Patriots

July 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Tonight our author is Gail Buckley. Her book is “American Patriots: A History of Black Americans in the U.S. Military.” And by calling them patriots right from the cover, you’re reclaiming these men, who are often dismissed, derided, resented. It’s a tough story.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes. It’s a celebration of patriotism. We are in a period right now of rediscovering past heroes, and these are some of America’s greatest heroes, whose stories have been forgotten or lost because of past racism. While it’s important to remember past injustices, it’s even more important to remember and celebrate the heroism. And that’s what I tried to do in this book.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s written in chronological fashion, taking us roughly from Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell as our bookends. And with each war, there is a tremendous idealism on the part of these men…

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: …That is dashed right after the war is over.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes, always, always, until the late 20th century. But even with Desert Storm, there’s a sense of hopes a little bit being dashed, what with less enlistment and cutting back, and things like that. But this is a history always. In the revolution, for example, slaves who fought as substitutes for their masters did not receive the promised freedom they were supposed to get at the end of the war. In the Civil War, blacks got… All blacks, from chaplains to privates, got $7 a month for most of the war, while white chaplains got $100, and white privates got $13 a month. So you always had these promises made, promises broken. You always had… Actually you always had black soldiers fighting two enemies: The enemies at home and the enemies abroad.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet it seems, no matter what war you pick, that the men fighting don’t give in to the darkness.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: They never hate their country.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: They never hate the army.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Even though it is this system that’s forcing them into sort of these terrible struggles, they remain upbeat.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes. This is the amazing thing about this story, that these… This is why I call it “American Patriots,” because it celebrates people who love their country so much, and love what their country stands for, despite what their country is doing at the time. It’s politics; it’s not the American ideal that they’re fighting. They’re always fighting politics. They’re not fighting America. They’re fighting the people who are really un-American, the people who say that this is a country where there should be second-class citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re reminded… The reader is reminded again and again of how, depending on where you were stationed and in what branch of the service you were serving, it was a schizophrenic experience. It was like serving in two different countries.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Exactly, exactly. Well, if I can talk about my mother, for example…

RAY SUAREZ: Sure.

GAIL BUCKLEY: …Lena Horne, who, when she entertained… She went to Camp Robertson, Arkansas, in 1944 to sing for black troops, and she looked out in the audience and she saw that there were a whole group of white soldiers, she thought, in the first three rows. So she asked someone, “who are these white soldiers?” It was meant to be a black camp. These were the German prisoners of war who were placed in front of the black soldiers in the audience. She said, “I’m not going to sing. Bring me the NAACP; I demand to see the NAACP.” And the NAACP Arrived in the person of one woman, Mrs. Daisy Bates, who later was a hero of Little Rock. But this was the kind of thing that went on all the time. She was kicked out of the USO for saying, why should German prisoners of war be put in front of black soldiers?

RAY SUAREZ: But in an odd way, ended up going to war anyway, right?

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: By having a wonderful cannon named after her.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Right, right, through marines in world war II. But it’s an amazing story. I mean, I want everybody to… This isn’t just black history. This is complete American history. These are the stories that we never knew. These are the stories that were out of the textbooks and out of the histories. We’re rediscovering them now a little bit, thank goodness.

RAY SUAREZ: And serving gave you standing back in your community when the war was over, when your hitch was over.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of men– and a lot of women later in the story- – have their lives accelerated, transformed by military service.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes. Absolutely. There were people… Veterans of every war made progressions in civil rights, became activists in their community, became community leaders, made the next step towards moving race relations along, from the revolution on. Revolutionary veterans became abolitionists. Veterans of the Civil War became reconstruction politicians and wrote civil rights laws. Veterans of World War I became very angry with their country, and went off. Some of them became expatriates. Some of them fought in Spain as Communists. And some of them also went on to World War II. Veterans of World War II were the first martyrs of the new civil rights movement. So there’s always this progression from the veteran to the next stage.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a story with these progressions that you mentioned, but there’s a middle passage that is very, very hard to take. In effect, there’s a whole central chunk of the story of blacks in the American military when decade after decade after decade, they lose ground.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: On the day of Pearl Harbor, there are two black officers in the United States Army.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes. It’s amazing, it’s amazing– father and son. That’s what made it even sort of… You know, they sort of got two for one. But it’s absolutely true. The 18th and 19th century were far better for black American soldiers than the first half of the 20th century. The first half of the 20th century saw a far more racist military. This began with Woodrow Wilson, who was an arch racist, an unapologetic racist.

RAY SUAREZ: And let’s move forward to today.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: The military today is often celebrated by minority people in America as being one of the great equalizers, one of the great levelers in society.

GAIL BUCKLEY: It’s an amazing story in itself, because the military wanted to change. It went from the most racist public entity in America to the least racist public entity. It came full circle in Desert Storm, where you had Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; you had General Cal Waller, who was second in command to Norman Schwarzkopf; and the first American to shoot down a Scud missile over Riyadh was a black woman. So you had the whole story right there. And the military now is a place of greatest opportunity for young black people. I think as of 2000, when blacks are 12% of the population, 29% of enlisted people in the military, 36% of the highest NCOs, 18% of commissioned officers, 12% of generals.

RAY SUAREZ: But why do you think that is? Because some critics say it’s because of a lack of opportunity in the wider society.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Oh, I think that that’s true. I think it’s absolutely true. This is an all-volunteer… These people aren’t drafted. These people choose to go into the military because they know they are going to be allowed to progress on the merits. This is the one place where the playing ground is totally equal. It’s an equal economic playing ground. It begins with affirmative action. Doors are opened, but you go through on your own steam. And you know that if you’re good enough, you’re going to make it. Colin Powell ranked one or two in every military test of skill given him since he was 17 years old, whether it was intellectual or physical. In the old army, he would have been lucky to be a first lieutenant. Now, I mean, this is what happens when you go through on the merits and you win on your ability– what you can do when you prove what you can do. It’s a great success story. The black story is successful, is a success story, and the military story itself, in terms of the progress in the racial situation, is a success story.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “American Patriots.” Gail Buckley, thanks a lot.

GAIL BUCKLEY: Thank you.