Today is Memorial Day. Who do we honor? Everyone who served and died in America’s various wars. Or do we? All we see in the media are old white men, who we are told fought for our “freedoms.” Of course they were not necessarily fighting for the “freedom” of everyone in this country. In the Civil War, most in the North were fighting for Union, not for the end of slavery; for clear-sighted Northern leaders, it was less a moral imperative than ending the scourge of the country, and insure that it would never again be the cause of division again. Of course, the South was fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. In the Mexican and Spanish wars, it was a fight for territorial and colonial expansion.
In World Wars I and II, it was about the balance of power and who would have the upper hand in the control of resources; the extent of or even the recognition of the Holocaust was not an over-riding motivation to enter the latter war against the Germans for most Americans. Fighting for “freedom” was just a useful catchphrase and public relations move to provide a moral purpose to fire the spirit of the country and individual soldiers to back the war effort. The Nazis were not nice guys, but outside of Jewish groups, the plight of European Jewry was insufficient cause to fight and die in Europe for most Americans; even in countries allied with or occupied by the Germans, if “freedom” could be purchased by cooperating with the deportation and mass slaughter of Jews, then they would do so, with only slight reservations (as an aside, I was listening to the vaguely anti-American and anti-Israel BBC World News the other morning; I can’t help but to observe that there wouldn’t be a Palestinian problem today if Europeans had not maltreated Jews to the extent that they did).
Another reason why I am off-put by the media’s focus on white soldiers of a bygone era is the fact that it gives the impression that only whites fought for our “freedoms.” Well, it is true that many more white soldiers died in America’s wars (but only per their proportion in the ranks), and it is also true that they had no interest in anyone’s freedom but their own. For too much of this nation’s history, black and Latino soldiers fought and died for what they saw as their duty as Americans, perhaps in the hope that their sacrifice would provide some recognition of their human rights and dignity. Instead, many only wondered why they are fighting the white man’s war when they are losing another war back home. This question frequently came-up for black soldiers during the Vietnam War, and is certainly a question for Latino soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Both black and Latino soldiers are virtually invisible in the annals of World War II, but for different reasons. While there were some black units both in the Army and the Air Corps that have become famous (such as the Tuskegee airmen), the vast majority of black soldiers were prevented from serving in frontline duty, mainly because of white animosity prevalent against black soldiers during World War I and the mainstreaming of the Ku Klux Klan and it’s segregating “philosophy” after that war. As for Latino soldiers, most of them (save for all-Puerto Rican units) were invisible because they were classified as “white”—which did not prevent them from frequently being the target of discrimination in their units. No one knows the precise number of Latino soldiers killed during World War II—the high range is 5 percent of the total—because no one thought their sacrifice was worth noting. And this after the forcible “repatriation” of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent into Mexico in the 1930s. During the Iraq War, the media focused on supposedly all-white Marine and Ranger units, ignoring black and Latino soldiers—at least insofar as the direction they turned their cameras; white reporters generally only think the views and service of other whites is worth noting.
It is also interesting to note that during the Civil War, immigrant soldiers were recruited right off the boat with promises of instant citizenship if they served in the Union Army; during the Iraq War when recruits were difficult to find, Latino immigrants were promised citizenship if they enlisted for combat service—which is why Latinos were twice as likely to serve in combat units as white soldiers, and had a fifty percent higher death rate per their representation in Iraq. Does this do anything to reduce the anti-immigrant hysteria in this country? Of course not. Many who served in Iraq are also reporting that the citizenship they were promised is a mirage, with delaying tactics used by the FBI conducting “background checks.”
I served seven years in the Army, four of them in Germany. Once in the airport I walked past a black and a white soldier who gave me a “look” which could only be defined as contempt, probably because I was a civilian with that “ethnic” appearance that the country likes to pile on. I told them bleep you, I was there too. Well, alright, I wasn’t THERE, but it was not my fault or anyone I else I served with that it was Bush I and II who had the war fever. None of this Iraq, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda business would be going on if Bush I and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq had not been wishy-washy in their answer when Saddam Hussein asked if it was alright for him to invade Kuwait. One suspects that Bush I was looking for a pretext to get rid of the unreliable Saddam; later on, his son would follow his example. But if there was no Kuwait, there would have been no U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, no Al Qaeda menace, no 9-11, and no Afghanistan. That is the sorry truth on Memorial Day.