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Red Badge of Courage: Earned and Ignored

November 05, 1987|HARRY G. SUMMERS JR. | Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. is a U.S. News and World Report contributing editor and a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Black soldiers got a bum rap in the Vietnam War. Not because they were "victims," as those who opposed the war would have it, but because their dedication, their valor and their outstanding performance under enemy fire did not win them the recognition that was rightfully theirs.

Douglas Pike, chairman of the Indochina research project at the University of California, Berkeley, calls it the "red badge of courage" syndrome, a phrase taken from the title of a Stephen Crane novel. Battlefield performance was one way that ethnic groups within the United States became fully integrated into a larger civilian society. This red badge of courage became their passport to success, for with their loyalty and dedication as Americans proven in the heat of battle, they could no longer be denied social, economic and political advancement.

This was true of German-Americans during the Civil War, and it was true of Irish-Americans (recall George M. Cohan or Father Duffy of "The Fighting Sixty-Ninth") in World War I. In World War II it was Americans of Mediterranean or East European heritage. No novel or movie about the World War II could be complete without at least one Italian-American, one Jewish-American and at least one character whose name ended in "ski."

While black soldiers fought in all of those wars, their service was generally overlooked. One reason was that until the latter stages of the Korea War, the military, like American society itself, was strictly split along racial lines. And while there were some segregated black combat units in those earlier wars--the Black Union regiments in the Civil War, the "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 10th U.S. Cavalry during the Indian wars, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry divisions in both world wars and the 24th Infantry regiment in the Korean War, to name but a few--they got little recognition from the white media. Further, during World Wars I and II and the Korean War the majority of black soldiers served in engineer, transportation, quartermaster, signal and other combat-support units. And combat-support units, whatever their racial composition, get precious few headlines.

But Vietnam was another story. Not only were black soldiers fully integrated in combat formations, at first they were overrepresented in the Army and Marine rifle companies that bore the brunt of the initial fighting. While this situation was soon corrected, during the course of the entire war 5,711 of the 47,244 U.S. service personnel killed in action were black. As any Vietnam veteran will testify, there is no doubt that black Americans earned their red badge of courage in Vietnam.

That fact was not lost on the military. They knew battlefield-tested leadership and managerial ability when they saw it. Today about 10% of the Army officer corps is black, including 30 of its general officers. These black Vietnam War veterans have served and are serving at the highest levels in the Army, including command of the Army's combat divisions and corps, as chief of the Army's multibillion-dollar logistics program, and as commandant of cadets at the United States Military Academy. And in addition to these 10,000 officers, there are some 94,000 black NCOs, including about 25% of the Army's sergeant majors, the highest enlisted rank.

But you'd never know that in civilian society. The black leadership is stridently anti-military, and they have consciously denied black Vietnam veterans their due. As the Wall Street Journal's Eduardo Lachica reports, the latest listing of the "100 most influential Black Americans" by Ebony magazine picked five sorority leaders, but not a single black military officer. How a sorority leader could be considered more influential than Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, for example, a former military assistant to the secretary of defense, a former commander of one of the Army's two combat corps in Europe and now reportedly the successor to Frank Carlucci as the President's national security adviser, defies logical explanation. It can only be a result of deliberate anti-military bias.

As a result of such bias within the so-called "black leadership," the social, economic and political advantage that the red badge of courage traditionally confers has been withheld. As Lachica found, even black senior officers with a wealth of managerial experience cannot find jobs in the civilian community worthy of their abilities.

Not only is this a disgraceful disservice to those who put their lives on the line to protect America's freedoms, it is also a terrible waste of talent that America can ill afford.

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