Passports to Adventure: African Americans and the US Security Project
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Passports to Adventure:
African Americans and the US Security Project

This forum asks three questions: what is at stake in the convergence of militarism and tourism; when and where can we see militarism and tourism constituting one another; and how do these questions shape our thinking and practice. I am going to take a roundabout route to answering these questions, by comparing the stories of two men who fashioned themselves through their participation in American militarism, or more precisely the US security project, and tourism, or overseas travel.

My initial engagements with the US military empire were familial, not intellectual. As an infant, I lived in the Panama Canal Zone where my father—drafted during the waning years of the Vietnam War—was first deployed. A native of Monroe, Louisiana, Thomas Smith had graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1972, just months before Black Power protests sparked violent repression from Baton Rouge and Louisiana state police. By then, Smith was in the army, but his wife had to navigate the aftermath for herself and young daughter after authorities shot two student protestors and shut down the school for two months.1 Smith does not state it this way, but it seems that Panama offered him a way to skirt the tensions of Black Power politics and the demands of adulthood. A little wild, and interested more in personal than political freedom, he took to the Canal Zone so completely that he opted to remain in the army after his initial enlistment had ended. A nearly thirty-year career it would turn out to be, born of the fact that Panama in the early 1970s seemed like a good place to be a young black man: it had “good fishing,” good-looking people, and good fun.2 When he talks about the Canal Zone, Smith sounds like he is describing an extended vacation more than conscripted service in a wartime army. Whether the tales match his memory and whether his memory aligns with experience are open questions; what he chooses to say about being drafted is that it drew him out of the south and placed him into new worlds of pleasure and leisure.

By remembering himself as tourist first and soldier second, Smith unconsciously echoes a retired navy admiral who described a tour in the Canal Zone [End Page 537] as a “two-year vacation.” Or, more baldly, the army colonel who said the Zone offered “a party every night” to officers and enlisted men.3 Smith threw himself into the party—drinking, carousing, and skirting trouble. He thinks of this as a last hurrah before settling into fatherhood, a grand tour for the common man. Framing his years in the Canal Zone as such let my father retain a sense of his travels as an individual adventure, distinct from the project of American rule. Smith never probed the histories of imperialist presumption, technological ambition, and black labor migration that made his sense of belonging in Panama possible.4 His narrative of encounter remains untouched by the geopolitical arrangements that made Panama available to him in the first place and by the tensions over white supremacy and negotiations over sovereignty that ultimately led President Jimmy Carter to cede control of the canal to Panama just a few years later. Smith placed himself outside the exercise of US power even as he celebrated the privilege that power conferred on him. His voluntary reenlistment notwithstanding, he thought of the army as something imposed on him rather than something he was a constituent part of.

The historian in me cannot help but notice how historically embedded are these remembrances that seem on the surface so stripped of context. Smith arrived in the Canal Zone in 1972, just eight years after riots in Panama killed more than twenty people and spurred Americans to debate relinquishing the Canal Zone. In part a protest against military occupation, the riots also stemmed from what one Afro-Panamanian reporter likened to “apartheid,” a system of classification by race and nationality that determined access to jobs, housing, and other resources.5 Even as it helped perpetuate what the president of...