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originally appeared in the Summer Issue of ColorLines
This commentary originally appeared in the Summer Issue of ColorLines magazine.
"Mama, when I get over there I have the feeling they are going to arrest me just because of the name that I have carried."
That’s how Quran Bilal remembers a parting conversation with her son, 31-year-old Sgt. Hasan Karim Akbar, now facing double murder charges in the “fragging” of three 101st Airborne (Assault) Division command tents in Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq invasion.
"He was never in trouble," said Abdul Karim Hasan, imam of the Bilal Islamic Center and longtime family acquaintance. "He was always standing on the outside of any kind of tussles between kids." Sgt. Akbar sometimes listed the Bilal Center as his Los Angeles address.
To date, we are told only that Sgt. Akbar had exhibited “attitude problems” and been “acting insubordinate” after the 101st’s deployment to Kuwait from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in February, leading superiors to hold him in the rear while elements of his unit set out for Baghdad. Doubtless we will learn that he was “troubled” – another readymade institutional absolution – as when he reportedly told Army authorities after his arrest, "You guys are coming into our countries, and you're going to rape our women and kill our children." Presumably, Sgt. Akbar meant Muslim countries.
Just a bunch of Hajis”
A murderously delusional American society and military are incompetent to judge Sgt. Akbar’s or any other Black soldier’s mental and emotional bearings. But they are right about one thing: Sgt. Akbar is not suited for their war. British reporter Mark Franchetti, embedded with the U.S. Marines during the battle of Nasiriyah, observed the “jittery aggressors who talked of wanting to ‘nuke’ the place” – a pathology that most of white America considers understandable, normal.
"The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre, in the midst of a firefight. "I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin' Iraqi. No, I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him." Cpl. Dupre, in Iraq for a little over one week, is predisposed to race hatred, an essential quality for an effective American foreign legion.
Franchetti’s March 30 account in The Times (UK) continues: “About 100 marines jumped out of their vehicles and took cover in ditches, pointing their sights at a mud-caked house. Was it harboring gunmen? Small groups of marines approached, cautiously, to search for the enemy. A dozen terrified civilians, mainly women and children, emerged with their hands raised.
"It's just a bunch of Hajis," said one gunner from his turret, using their nickname for Arabs. "Friggin' women and children, that's all."
After 30 years of fine-tuning the all-volunteer military, the Pentagon has finally gotten the perfect demographic mix, the human resources that uniformed brass and corporate civilian war planners believe will establish a New American Century in every corner of the globe by force of arms. Sgt. Akbar was lucid enough to recognize the purposefully hostile environment that confronted him. The “combat arms” of the U.S. military are packed with white sons of the South, led by Republican officers.
A Confederacy in arms
Forty-two percent of the U.S. military enlisted from southern states in 2000, up from 31 percent in 1980. Dixie’s military dominance dwarfs all other regions – the Northeast accounts for just 14 percent of recruits, the West, 23 percent, and the Midwest, 20 percent.
Although African Americans comprise 26 percent of the Army (and 22 percent of the combined services), that proportion is halved among the “combat” specialties such as infantry and armored gun crews, and sliced further in the elite units that form the cutting edges of war. The good old boys rule in these outfits – by design.
Just as ominously, the 80 percent white officer class has grown far more politicized than the public at large during the last few decades, according to the immensely valuable March 30 New York Times article, “Military Mirrors Working-Class America.”
“Those who warn of a warrior class cite a study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in North Carolina showing that between 1976 and 1996 the percentage of military officers who saw themselves as nonpartisan or politically independent fell from more than 50 percent to less than 20 percent,” said the NYT. “The main beneficiary of this shift has been the Republican Party.”
The Pentagon and the corporate War Party worked tirelessly to cultivate the current U.S. military demography, to suit the purposes to which it is presently deployed in Iraq, and for future aggressions and occupations throughout the non-white world. The volunteer force is the product of three decades of social engineering, designed to prevent a return of the Pentagon’s worst nightmare: a “critical mass” of Black soldiers in the combat arms, as occurred in Vietnam.
However, in the process of properly debunking the “myth” that Blacks died in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam, the Times and its favored experts distort history. They have misplaced critical facts, and depicted causes and effects in reverse, totally obscuring the central role Black soldiers played in dismantling the U.S. war machinery in Vietnam by refusing to act as an imperial army or to die in the numbers that the planners intended.
Black soldiers shut down the war
The Times concedes that Black casualties were high “in the early stages of the American ground war in 1965 and 1966, when there were large numbers of blacks in front-line combat units.” Here, the historical revision begins. “Army and Marine Corps commanders later took steps to reassign black servicemen to other jobs to equalize deaths, according to Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. in ‘Vietnam War Almanac.’ By the end of the war,” said the Times, “African-Americans had suffered 12.5 percent of the total deaths in Vietnam, 1 percentage point less than their proportion in the overall population, Colonel Summers wrote.”
Colonel Summers and the New York Times are talking nonsense. It is laughable to pretend that U.S. military brass acted at any time to limit Black casualty rates – What? In order to increase white death rates?! Commanders “took steps to reassign black servicemen” because African American soldiers collectively resisted Washington’s plans to make them the expendable casualties of Vietnam. They effectively shut down the war from within – a history that has never been fully told, but one that is seared in the memories of those in charge of America’s current and future imperial enterprises.
Despite horrendous Black casualties in the early Vietnam years, a whiter casualty list was the last thing on the Pentagon’s mind. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were most concerned about how to pull off a massive increase in U.S. troop strength without dipping too deeply into the white middle class youth pool.
So, in 1966, a year that began with 200,000 men in Vietnam, Secretary McNamara announced Project 100,000, the most cynical race-class ploy ever lumped under the umbrella of LBJ’s War on Poverty. As Defense Department manpower official Dr. Wayne S. Sellman explained to a congressional committee in February 1990:
“The manpower goal of Project 100,000 was to accept 40,000 men under relaxed standards during the 1st year and 100,000 per year thereafter. Approximately 91 percent of these ‘New Standards Men,’ as they were called, came in under lowered aptitude/education standards, and 9 percent entered under lowered physical standards.”
With a straight face, Secretary McNamara declared that Project 100,000 was intended for the benefit of the “poor of America [who] have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this Nation's abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their Country's defense.” Military testing standards were lowered, high school dropouts became eligible for service, and draft boards and recruiters were encouraged to overlook criminal justice offenses.
By 1971, when the U.S. ground war in Vietnam was sputtering to an end, “354,000 L/A men had entered the Services under the program,” Dr. Sellman testified. “Of these, 54 percent were volunteers and 46 percent were draftees. The men who entered under Project 100,000 were on average 20 years of age, about half came from the South, and a substantial proportion (about 41 percent) were minorities.”
This was the infusion that allowed the Pentagon to boost Vietnam troop strength to 540,000 in the peak year of 1969, while accommodating massive draft deferments among the comfortable white classes. Young Black draftees and volunteers flocked to elite outfits, comprising near or absolute majorities in “line” units of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 173rd Airborne Brigade (all now heavily white and Hispanic, and deployed in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.)
There was one problem with this Black “street” army. As a Black lieutenant put it in “Bloods,” Wallace Terry’s seminal oral history of African Americans in Vietnam, “They are the ones who ain't going to take no more shit."
The “commanders” that war historian Col. Summers credits with compassionately reassigning Blacks out of harms way in fact went to extreme lengths to break the spirits of Black soldiers and destroy any expressions of Black solidarity. Ultimately, the military established a mostly Black penal colony in Vietnam to enforce the terms of its internal race war. An online History of the Military Police cites 1969 as the “year the US military prisoner population peaks when 10,450 military prisoners are confined in Vietnam, most at the United States Army Installation Stockade at Long Binh, known as the Long Binh Jail (LBJ).”
In August 1968, Black inmates burned Long Binh Jail to the ground. Jimi Childress was 19 years old, locked up for going AWOL from his unit. He told his story to Cecil Barr Currey, author of “Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam's Notorious U.S. Military Prison” (1999).
“I can recall at one time they had eight of us in one [6' x 9'x 6' metal] conex box. A slit in the front and a slit in the back – and that was your air. And if you wanted to urinate, you had to go to the back to do it because they kept a chain on the front with a lock on it. This was in heat of more than 115 degrees .... You could see them treating prisoners that way, but not their own soldiers ....
“All these guys that was in these conex boxes were black. You see? White guys in the stockade had fringe benefits. We had none. It was just a hateful place. Hispanics stuck with blacks, just for safety reasons, but there was so few you hardly notice. It was a black prison. I will never forget how many blacks were incarcerated in that stockade.”
In 1968, combined Vietnam AWOLs and desertions reached over 150 per thousand soldiers. About 100 Black deserters established “Soul Alley” in a Saigon neighborhood near Ton San Nhut Airport. Fully armed Black and white troops faced off at China Beach, Danang.
The online military police site sketches the rough outlines of repression and resistance in Vietnam. Some entrees from 1971:
The MP’s give credence to a “fragging” study by historian Terry Anderson of Texas A & M University: "The US Army itself does not know exactly how many…officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1400 that died mysteriously. Consequently by early 1970, the army [was] at war not with the enemy but with itself."
The internal “war” was overwhelming racial in character.
Racism gets a beatdown
We were at war stateside, as well. I was among the 6,000 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division that occupied Washington, DC in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 1968. Black troops made up about half of the division’s line units. We were aware that the near-lily white New Jersey National Guard had gone on a killing rampage on the streets of Newark the previous year, and we made it unmistakably clear to white soldiers that no harm was to come to the DC population. Nobody got hurt.
At “home” in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, we bloodied the Division’s overwhelmingly white and southern MP’s at every nocturnal opportunity. While the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups ran amuck at nearby Camp Lejeune Marine Base, racists at Fort Bragg sulked in silence. Criminal Investigation Detachment personnel entered Black-dominated barracks in force, if at all.
In the fall of 1968, Commanding General John Deane, weary of racial strife, called the entire division to a parade field. “I give up,” he said, bluntly, then pledged to address a long list of Black grievances. He kept most of those promises. The Black soldiers of the 82nd had the “critical mass” to kick ass, if provoked.
The U.S. military never forgot their experience with the Vietnam-era Black “street army,” and would scheme and conspire for the next three decades to ensure that white supremacy would never again be threatened in the elite combat arms.
In 1995, the New York Times described the 82nd as the “whitest” division in the U.S. Army. Fort Bragg fell under national scrutiny following the murder of a Black couple by racist paratroopers on the streets of next-door Fayetteville. Subsequent investigation turned up 22 members and associates of white supremacist organizations in the division’s ranks.
Eight months prior to the killings, a paratrooper affiliated with the ultra-violent National Alliance rented a billboard near the main highway entrance to the base. The billboard read: "Enough! Let's start taking back America! National Alliance" and carried the telephone number of the group's local message line. Nobody seems to have thought the sign outrageous. There is no longer a Black “critical mass” of the kind that counts at Fort Bragg. But you can be sure there are plenty of “haji” killers.
Since the end of the draft in 1973 the U.S. military has succeeded in whitening the combat arms by excluding low test-scorers, high school dropouts, and people with criminal records – a huge chunk of African American youth. (Twelve percent of Black males in their 20s and early 30s are in jail or prison on any given day.) The remainder of the pool is actually more qualified for the “softer” military occupations such as administration than their white and Hispanic working class peers in uniform. In addition, the Black “support” specialty ranks are also bolstered by Black female cadre – a majority of enlisted women in the Army.
However, none of this explains the dearth of African Americans in units like the 82nd and Sgt. Hasan Karim Akbar’s 101st Airborne (Assault) Division. African American youth have always been drawn to the uniforms and cachet of elite units – unless they are made to feel unwelcome (as was the case for many years in the Marines). By my reckoning, about half of the Black paratroopers with whom I served were draftees who nevertheless volunteered for airborne duty.
It is apparent that the U.S. military has created an environment in the elite combat arms that is hostile to entrance by significant numbers of Black soldiers. Whatever personal problems Sgt. Akbar may or may not have had, on this score, he knew he was in the wrong place.
Pity the people of color who will live under occupation by the Dixie-dominated American legions – abroad or, one day soon, here at home.