War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq

War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq

War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq

War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq

Synopsis

African Americans' long campaign for "the right to fight" forced Harry Truman to issue his 1948 executive order calling for equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces. In War! What Is It Good For?, Kimberley Phillips examines how blacks' participation in the nation's wars after Truman's order and their protracted struggles for equal citizenship galvanized a vibrant antiwar activism that reshaped their struggles for freedom.

Using an array of sources--from newspapers and government documents to literature, music, and film--and tracing the period from World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Phillips considers how federal policies that desegregated the military also maintained racial, gender, and economic inequalities. Since 1945, the nation's need for military labor, blacks' unequal access to employment, and discriminatory draft policies have forced black men into the military at disproportionate rates. While mainstream civil rights leaders considered the integration of the military to be a civil rights success, many black soldiers, veterans, and antiwar activists perceived war as inimical to their struggles for economic and racial justice and sought to reshape the civil rights movement into an antiwar black freedom movement. Since the Vietnam War, Phillips argues, many African Americans have questioned linking militarism and war to their concepts of citizenship, equality, and freedom.

Excerpt

An immediate hit single, Edwin Starr’s 1970 “War!” replicated the urgent debates in the streets, homes, organizations, and churches of black communities where men were compelled into America’s wars and military “police actions” while their struggles for freedom remained unfinished. “War!,” a minister thundered, “What is it good for?” The congregation roared back, “Absolutely nothin’!” Behatted women attended the frequent funerals for the war’s dead and cried, “War can’t give life, it can only take it away.” Veterans from World War II and the Korean War deliberated how “they say we must fight to keep our freedom, but Lord knows there’s got to be a better way.” Their sons and daughters goaded from the streets: “Induction, then destruction—who wants to die?” In this neighborhood, like other black neighborhoods, military police went door-to-door and escorted men “from the lowest income groups” into the induction centers in record numbers. Agitated by decades of too little work and barriers to full political participation, and resistant to the disproportionate numbers of black men drafted, injured, and killed in combat, the old and young, women and their daughters, and veterans and their sons debated and asked, How did killing and dying in war make them citizens? How did expensive wars help their struggles for racial and economic justice? How did killing in war bring them freedom?

Starr, whose music career stalled after his induction into the army in 1965, remade Motown’s second version of the song. The Temptations . . .

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