The Journal of Military History 68.2 (2004) 653-654
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The Brothers' Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience. By Herman Graham, III. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. ISBN 0-8130-2646-6. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 179. $55.00.
The Vietnam War was the first conflict in modern U.S. history fought by a fully integrated military, but few historians have examined military race relations during the period. The Brothers' Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience by Herman Graham, III, of Denison University is a groundbreaking work about a watershed development in American military history.
African American men, in Graham's view, approached the Vietnam War in terms of their own manhood—something denied to them in a racist society. He argues that black men volunteered for service at higher rates than whites because of the military's masculine image. "The U.S. military was selling manhood during the Vietnam War," he writes, "and African American men were eager to buy" (p. 15). In addition, blacks were more likely to be conscripted than whites due to economic disadvantages and the class inequities of the Vietnam Era draft. Despite pervasive racism within the military, Graham notes that many African American men nevertheless found military service alluring and draft resistance cowardly. Not only did the military provide opportunities for economic advancement and social mobility unavailable to them in the civilian world, but it also "offered elaborate rites of passage, rituals, and symbols by which a young man could measure masculine achievement" (p. 23).
As the American presence in Vietnam grew, so did opposition to the war. Resentment among black troops was also on the rise. African Americans, according to Graham, received the hardest fatigue duties and were less likely to be promoted than whites. Combat units were disproportionately black, leading some war critics to charge that the government was attempting to kill off black males. The Black Power Movement, a militant strain of Black Nationalism that emerged after 1965, attracted many discontented black troops. A key figure in the rise of Black Nationalism in the military, according to Graham, was boxer and draft resister Muhammad Ali. "As a symbol of black masculinity," he writes, "Ali possessed the authority to make opposition [to the war] a manly act" (p. 74). Black troops began to express racial pride and solidarity in various ways, such as by wearing the Afro hairstyle or by "dapping" (elaborate, ritualized handshakes). African Americans also became more strident in standing up for their manhood and demanding equality with whites. This occurred as overall morale in the military plummeted, leading to considerable tension in the ranks. Whites tended to ignore or resist black demands, sparking several racial incidents among the troops.
The Brothers' Vietnam War is an important contribution to our understanding of the Vietnam War and the social history of the U.S. military. The work's main problem is its brevity. In 138 pages (excluding notes) the author cannot possibly do his subject justice. Readers will note numerous points that could benefit from more data and discussion. To give just one example, [End Page 653] Graham mentions many racial incidents but explores only one—the 1972 disturbance aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. The book seems more like a work in progress than a completed monograph. Graham has opened the door—albeit only a crack—into a world largely unknown to historians. Because race relations remain an important concern for the military, it is important for others to walk through that door.
Queensborough Community College (CUNY)
New York, New York