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War! What is it Good For?: Black Freedom Struggles & the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq. By Kimberley L. Phillips. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 343. $34.95 cloth)

Taking its title from the lyrics of Edwin Starr's 1970 Motown number-one hit "War," Kimberley L. Phillips's book examines how black veterans' and antiwar activists' struggle for equality in the 1950s and 1960s inspired a national antiwar movement that resonates today. War! provides a welcome new reflection on the freedom struggle because Phillips asks readers to view the fight for racial integration in the military with a much-broader and less-romanticized lens than previous civil rights histories. She urges readers to "rethink a narrative [End Page 117] of the civil rights movement that has viewed the military's integration as a decisive victory yet ignored ordinary African Americans' resistances to the racial and class inequalities that pulled them into the draft at high rates and compelled them to enlist" (p. 15). Phillips's narrative extracts a more nuanced history of racial inequality after the 1940s by exposing "how the military continually reorganized race, class, and gender inequalities" (p. 15). This retrenchment occurred despite the formal integration in 1948, as well as the way the black antidraft movement after World War II informed the broad antiwar movement in the United States by the 1960s and 1970s.

Phillips divides War! into three sections with two chapters, each exploring what she refers to as "the dynamic between blacks' experiences with and in the military, and their struggles for freedom in the larger society" (16). Section one focuses on the movement to desegregate the military from 1941 to 1948, and the paradox black soldiers faced while fighting for democracy in a segregated system. The second part examines how after the fifty-year struggle to integrate the armed forces, black soldiers questioned how they could fight the Korean War while the rest of society remained under Jim Crow. As black veterans returned home to a segregated America, they emerged as the vanguard of a grassroots civil rights movement that called for more than an integrated battlefield. The last section explores how the civil rights movement embraced the antiwar cause under the influence of black veterans from Vietnam, many of whom resented their disproportionate share of combat duty. Veterans helped to make the antiwar crusade one of the main platforms of the civil rights movement after years of resistance from more conservative leaders. Antiwar activism among grassroots black activists remains one of the legacies of the Vietnam period, and Phillips documents its continued support into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Phillips's use of a wide variety of sources enables her to weave the threads of black intellectualism, grassroots activism, and popular culture into one historical narrative. She draws from such manuscript sources as the NAACP papers, the SNCC papers, the Langston [End Page 118] Hughes papers, and extensively from black newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Daily Defender. And as indicated by the title, Phillips also draws upon popular culture, and especially music, as a reflection of black concerns over war and equality. In the Vietnam-era chapters especially, she draws upon the experiences of such popular antiwar icons as Muhammad Ali and Jimi Hendrix, while quoting songs from Marvin Gaye. In the final chapter, she explores the legacy of antiwar music in current hip-hop music composed by the contemporary soldiers.

So, what is War! good for? Absolutely everything if one is interested in historical revisions of the modern civil rights movement. Here Phillips delivers a new and refreshing view of the black freedom struggle, and the principal role that black veterans took in integrating the military and then taking the antiwar movement to the mainstream.

Charles D. Chamberlain

Charles D. Chamberlain III, PhD, is the museum historian at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of Victory at Home: Race and Manpower in the American South during World War II (2003), and is currently writing a social history of jazz in the South between...


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pp. 117-119
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