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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .

Fighting on Two Fronts
James E Westheider

(New York: New York University Press, 1997)
238pp. Index. Bibl. Hb. ISBN 0-8147-9301-0.

When the philosopher (and noted pugilist) Muhammad Ali told the US Army draft board in 1967 "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger" he encapsulated in just seven words the utter irony of forcing black Americans to put their lives on the line for a country which treated them as third-class citizens.
But while Ali evaded the draft and, eventually, the five-year prison sentence handed down to him, other followers of Elijah Muhammad were not so lucky. Nearly 100 black Muslims went to jail for draft evasion during the Vietnam War, their appeals for conscientious objector status brushed aside because of the racial misconceptions shared by many white draft board members - misconceptions that seemed to arise much less often when the objector was a member of mainstream pacifist sects such as the Amish or Mennonites.
Westheider shows these misconceptions on the homefront, when added to preconceptions in the war zone, made the Vietnam War a particularly peculiar experience for may black soldiers.
He exposes the myth that racial tensions and problems permeating society didn't matter so much in the military because white and black shared a common enemy and relied on each other to stay alive for the duration of their tour of duty. In fact, American soldiers in Vietnam had to confront the exact same racial problems being experienced by their fellow countrymen and women back home. It's not difficult to understand how dangerous a cocktail these tensions in this particular setting represented.
Tensions which were made even more stark, as Westheider shows, by some pretty ridiculous suspicions between white and black.
For instance, the - on the face of tit - unthreatening habit practised by black soldiers of cutting each other's hair was seen by many of their white colleagues as an act of defiant separatism rather than an act of necessity prompted by the inexperience of military barbers to cope with black hair.
Then there was the ritualised handshake - the 'dap' - which black soldiers invariably greeted each other with and which caused such consternation among whites that it was eventually outlawed in 1973.
Black solidarity grew significantly within the ranks of the Army therefore it is wrong to believe racial conflicts were whipped up by a few hot-heads.
The reasons for this conflict were only addressed by the Pentagon when they had threatened military discipline and, of course, bad publicity.
Westheider's most telling contribution is by arguing convincingly that it was the black soldier in Vietnam who performed the critical roles in bringing about today's more egalitarian military by helping to puncture for good institutional racism within the US Army.

Damian McArdle, Journalist - Telegraph Newspapers (Belfast)

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