"They finally shot the n-word!" the sparrow-slight soldier whooped. Nicknamed "Georgia" for the obvious reason, that's what he apparently ran around shouting once word of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination wound its way out into the electric-green paddy fields of South Vietnam. I was told the story more than once by a member of his unit and often imagined what it must have been like, especially for his black brothers-in-arms, to be smacked with that news and that epithet all at once. Yet, on some level, it wasn't the least bit shocking. Labeled a "total racist" by a fellow member of his unit, Georgia was one of many white soldiers hailing from the former Confederate States of America whose bigotry was on full display during the Vietnam War.
As "soul brothers" and "bloods" across South Vietnam embraced emerging ideas about black consciousness, black pride, and black power, racist white troops responded by donning Ku Klux Klan robes, burning crosses, and embracing other symbols of white supremacy. Reflecting on his decision to join the militant Black Panthers after returning from Vietnam, Reginald Edwards, who served as a rifleman with the Marines, recalled: "We had already fought for the white man in Vietnam. It was clearly his war. If it wasn't, you wouldn't have seen as many Confederate flags as you saw." Dwyte Brown, who served in the Navy, told journalist Wallace Terry that, in the barracks at the U.S. base in Cam Ranh Bay, "there would be nothing but Confederate flags all over the place."
In the midst of the recent Confederate flag fallout following the massacre in Charleston, TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin revisits this much-neglected history and so much else that came before and after. Tracing the sordid story of the Old South's battle flag, that symbol of bitter-end racism, from its raising by Marines on Okinawa during the Second World War to more recent appearances in Iraq and Afghanistan, Grandin shines a light on a larger and more troubling military embrace of the Confederacy -- something the Pentagon would, no doubt, rather keep hidden from view.
Georgia, the soldier who cheered King's 1968 murder, seemingly conformed to all the stereotypes you might imagine. "He had a little tape player. And all he had was one tape of every Hank Williams song there ever was and he played them constantly whenever we were in base camp," I was told. But what he did out in the field -- where the stifling heat of the day gave way to dank nights in cool, clammy foxholes -- shocked me. "Georgia was this little white racist and Mitchell was this great big black guy, and when it would rain and get cold, they'd get in and sleep together to stay warm," a fellow unit member told me. Perhaps racists are like atheists and can't be found in foxholes. Or perhaps Georgia's and Mitchell's bunker brotherhood is a reminder that there's always reason for hope.
The Pentagon now stands where South Carolina did just weeks ago. With a groundswell of grassroots activism, the U.S. military's long-cherished symbols of racism and Confederacy-veneration might also be brought to the brink of welcome exile, if not banishment to history's dustbin. If that ever comes to pass, one person we'll have to thank is Greg Grandin, author of the much-anticipated Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman. Nick Turse
The Confederate Flag at War
(But Not the Civil War)
By Greg Grandin
The Pentagon just can't let go. In the wake of the Charleston Massacre, Amazon and Walmart have announced that they will no longer sell Confederate flag merchandise. Ebay says it will stop offering Confederate items for electronic auction. The Republican governor of Mississippi calls his state flag, which includes the Stars and Bars in the top left corner, "a point of offense that needs to be removed." Even Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, agrees that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his state's capitol building belongs in a museum.- Advertisement -
Yet the Department of Defense says it isn't even "reviewing" the possibility of a ban on the flag, deciding instead to leave any such move to the various service branches, while military bases named after Confederate officers will remain so. One factor in this decision: the South provides more than 40% of all military recruits, many of them white; only 15% are from the Northeast.
Filling the ranks isn't, however, the only reason for the military's refusal to act.
Over the last few weeks, there has been near unanimous agreement among liberal and mainstream commentators that the Confederate flag represents "hate, not heritage." The flag's current presence in American culture is ubiquitous. It adorns license plates, bumper stickers, mugs, bodies (via tattoos), and even baby diapers. The flag's popularity is normally traced back to the post-World War II reaction of the Dixiecrat South to the Civil Rights Movement. South Carolina, for instance, raised the Stars and Bars over its state house in 1961 as part, columnist Eugene Robinson said on " Meet the Press," of its "massive resistance to racial desegregation."
All true. But like many discussions of American conservativism, this account misses the role endless war played in sustaining domestic racism. Starting around 1898, well before it became an icon of redneck backlash, the Confederate Battle Flag served for half a century as an important pennant in the expanding American empire and a symbol of national unification, not polarization.
It was a reconciled Army that moved out into the world after the Civil War, an unstoppable combination of Northern law (bureaucratic command and control, industrial might, and technology) and Southern spirit (an "exaltation of military ideals and virtues," including valor, duty, and honor). Both law and spirit had their dark sides leading to horrors committed due either to the very nature of the American empire -- the genocide of Native Americans, for example, or the war in Southeast Asia -- or to the particular passions of some of its soldiers. And both law and spirit had their own flags.
Lost Cause Found- Advertisement -
"Northerners and Southerners agreed on little" in the years after the Civil War, historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, "except that the Army should pacify Western tribes." Reconstruction -- Washington's effort to set the terms for the South's readmission to the Union and establish postwar political equality -- was being bitterly opposed by defeated white separatists. According to Cothran and Kelman, however, "Many Americans found rare common ground on the subject of Manifest Destiny."
After the surrender at Appomattox, it was too soon to fly the Stars and Bars against Native Americans. And it was Union officers -- men like generals George Armstrong Custer and Philip Sheridan -- who committed most of the atrocities against indigenous peoples. But Confederate veterans and their sons used the pacification of the West as a readmission program into the U.S. Army. The career of Luther Hare, a Texas son of a Confederate captain, is illustrative. He barely survived Custer's campaign against the Sioux. Cornered in a skirmish that preceded Little Big Horn, Hare "opened fire and let out a rebel yell" before escaping. He then went on to fight Native Americans in Montana, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and Arizona, where he put down the "last of the renegade Apaches," before being sent to the Philippines as a colonel. There, he led a detachment of Texans against the Spanish.
With Reconstruction over and Jim Crow segregation installed in every southern State, the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. took Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, was a key moment in the rehabilitation of the Confederacy. Earlier, when slavery was still a going concern, southerners had yearned to separate Cuba from Spain and turn it into a slave state. Now, conquering the island served a different purpose: a chance to prove their patriotism and reconcile with the North.