Black-and-whitewashing the US military

Championing the US military as a catalyst for social change and development seems a touch disingenuous, writes author.

    US Special Forces may well have a multi-ethnic composition as Tom Friedman points out, however the US military is hardly a bastion of racial harmony, writes Fernandez [GALLO/GETTY]
    US Special Forces may well have a multi-ethnic composition as Tom Friedman points out, however the US military is hardly a bastion of racial harmony, writes Fernandez [GALLO/GETTY]

    In his alleged masterpiece on environmentalism, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, undeservedly decorated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes:

    “Just as the [US] army showed blacks and whites that they could work together, the army can be the laboratory that shows people how to go green together”.

    Of course, the US military’s qualifications for service as green laboratory appear to diminish in light of its contemporary distinction as top polluter on the planet.

    As for the institution’s supposed role in prompting the racial desegregation of America, a review of history as it transpired outside of Friedman’s head suggests that army-imparted lessons regarding black-white collaboration were slightly less than cheerily uplifting.

    For example, a 1986 dispatch in Friedman’s own newspaper acknowledges that “[y]oung black men… served in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers” and that “Confederate flags appeared at some of the base huts” following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

    Air Force discovers MLK

    Despite King’s 1967 condemnation of the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”, journalist Glenn Greenwald has documented a recent US military effort to co-opt the memory of the anti-war icon.

    In his January 22 piece for the Guardian, Greenwald outlines this particular bout of blasphemy:

     “The US Air Force's Global Strike Command [AFGSC] yesterday posted a truly vile bit of propaganda in which it appropriates King's image, name and words in order to claim that he would ‘be proud to see our Global Strike team . . . standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the US arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense’”.

    The propaganda initially appeared on the AFGSC website under the title “Dr. King’s Dream for the Global Strike Team”. Perhaps in an effort to appear less patently absurd, the title was amended on January 23 to “Dr. King Legacy of Equality, Diversity Strengthens Command”.

    According to the AFGSC ode, the Command’s strength derives from the fact that the Global Strike team is “comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion”—an inspirational melting pot committed to “overlook[ing] our differences to ensure perfection as we maintain and operate our weapon systems”.

    Friedman, too, has invoked the multicoloured composition of the US armed forces as evidence of the nation’s moral superiority and a sacrosanct license to engage in wanton destruction abroad, swooning during a post-9/11 visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan over “the fact that these Special Forces teams each seemed to be made up of a collection of black, Asian, Hispanic, and white Americans”.

    Needless to say, the multicoloured humans on the receiving end of the “weapons systems” celebrated by the AFGSC are not encouraged to recall King’s legacy or his suggestion that “all men are created equal”.

    Greenwald aptly marvels:

    “The US military is actually publicly claiming that the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and steadfast critic of US imperialism would be an admirer of its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, its global assassination programs, and its covert use of violence in multiple countries around the world, including where no wars are declared (in fairness, though, its Commander in Chief is himself a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize)”.

    Free at last?

    Among other features on the AFGSC website are handy guidelines for avoiding post-holiday stress (“Practice gratitude”, “Pay off bills”, “Develop sensible eating habits”) and an extensive section commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the B-52 Stratofortress last year. We can only assume this is one of those weapons that would have carried King’s endorsement provided it was operated in interracial fashion.

    The section promises a “celebratory campaign” focused on the strategic bomber’s “long and rich heritage” and its “distinguished career, in conflicts from Vietnam to Operation Enduring Freedom”.

    The B-52’s distinguished trajectory has of course already been amply documented elsewhere, such as in a 2002 article by Yale University professor Ben Kiernan highlighting the up to 150,000 civilian deaths that resulted from the secret US carpet bombing of Cambodia as well as the civilian collateral carnage that constituted Afghanistan’s Enduring Freedom.

    That foreign citizens are not the only victims of US militarism is meanwhile clear from the ubiquitousness of rape and sexual assault in the armed forces as well as the skyrocketing suicide rate among troops and veterans. Such statistics negate the image of the military as a bastion of equality and teamwork, as does US Representative Charles B. Rangel’s complaint in the New York Times prior to the launch of the war on Iraq:

    “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent”.

    In inauspicious news for foreign and domestic populations alike, investigative journalist Matt Kennard’s recent book Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror reveals the extent to which racist extremists have been welcomed into the nation’s armed forces despite the fact that they openly view enlistment as a means of training for a race war at home.

    The AFGSC website praises King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as evidence of “the freedom that equality brings” and quotes from his hope for “that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

    Any shot at eventual freedom, however, will require us to stop celebrating the US military as a pioneer in racial cohesion and to call it what it is: still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. 

    Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications.



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