Herman Graham, III. The Brothers' Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood and the Military Experience. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. ix + 192 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2646-6.
Reviewed by Janet G. Valentine (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Published on H-1960s (October, 2005)
Black Masculinity and the Vietnam War
This book does many things. Its primary purpose is to examine the experience of African-American combat soldiers in Vietnam. In doing so, the author deftly places that experience within the context of the broader American response to Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Black Power ideology, and the larger history of blacks in the American military. As a result, the author treats readers to a superior study not only of the military experience of African Americans, but of the intersection of war and society.
In the early years of the Vietnam War, as in previous American wars, African Americans generally believed that by demonstrating their patriotism and courage through military service they ultimately would be rewarded with civil equality. Indeed, despite continuing racism within the military, the armed forces offered young black men real hope for economic advancement and introduced them to "meaningful equality and male power" (p. 23). Military service was likely the first time young black soldiers had interacted with whites as peers or been exposed to African-American men who held positions of authority over white men. Soldiering also offered "the experience of life in a homosocial world," where demonstrating one's masculinity and proving one's manhood were not only acceptable but an inherent characteristic of the job (p. 23).
Masculinity as taught by the military, however, was a "hegemonic" manliness, rejected by increasingly influential, assertive proponents of "black consciousness and resistance to racial subordination" (p. 29). As a result, Graham argues, African-American G.I.s were confronted with two conflicting concepts of manhood. Ultimately, black soldiers melded the notions into an understanding of masculinity that allowed them to function as part of a close-knit combat unit, while establishing or maintaining a contrasting identity as independent and socially and politically equal black men. The homosociality peculiar to combat soldiers dominated when units were in the field, deflecting the friction between "Black Power" G.I.s and white soldiers.
Tensions manifested, however, when soldiers moved back to the relative safety of what passed for rear areas. There, African-American soldiers typically withdrew from the company of whites, spending their leisure time with other black soldiers in whose solidarity they could reaffirm their sense of what it meant to be a black man. White soldiers often resented and feared this exclusivity, exacerbated by black soldiers' expression of racial pride through afro hairstyles and the "dap," an elaborate handshake exchanged only with other black soldiers as a statement of brotherhood (p. 105). White attempts to reassert the hegemonic masculinity were typically confrontational and often resulted in brawls. In a brief discussion of black sailors, the author argues that racial tensions were even greater in the Navy, because initial training was shorter, and seamen did not have to rely on their fellows for survival as did combat soldiers.
An emerging black consciousness also informed how African-American soldiers understood the war in Vietnam. Angry at the continuing racism at home, black soldiers began to question why they should be fighting to protect democracy in Southeast Asia when African Americans in the United States were still struggling for civil rights. They also identified with the Vietnamese struggle against colonialism, and came to see the people of Vietnam as comrades in a fight against white domination. Many black soldiers began to see the conflict as a race war in which they were fighting both white Americans and the Vietnamese. Ultimately, the race consciousness of African-American soldiers inspired them to question seriously American values.
Graham's work is well-researched, carefully documented, convincingly argued, and cogently written. It is a "must read" for understanding the experience of American combat soldiers in Vietnam, as well as the influence of the black power movement during the Vietnam era.
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Janet G. Valentine. Review of Graham, Herman, III, The Brothers' Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood and the Military Experience.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
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