We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from, World War 11 to the War in Iraq. By Yvonne Laity. With photographs by Ron Tarver. Amistad, 2004. xv+ 185 pp. $13.95 paper.
We Were There, is an interesting little book that contains the personal experiences of 21 men and 6 women whose tours of duty cover the years from 1942 through the early 2000s. Both officers and enlisted are represented in these pages--nine from World War II, four from the Korean Conflict, eight from Vietnam, four from the Persian Gulf, and three from the War on Terror period. Most of their stories, or in particular the incidents they describe--in their own voices--average about eight pages each with the shortest running four pages and the longest about ten. And, with the exception of the Coast Guard, just about all branches of the service are represented.
The author, Yvonne Latty, whose father served in World War II, writes in her preface that this is not just a book about war. Rather, "[it] is also about identity, growth, love, fear, bravery, and people who did more than they thought they could in the most difficult of circumstances (xv)." An important point she makes here addresses the reality that many combat vets choose not to detail their experiences during their tours of duty in the belief that those to whom they tell their stories will not understand what they went through or how it affected them both while in the military and after they have left it for whatever reason. Accordingly, she writes, "I didn't understand how he could serve a country that discriminated against him because he was black, so I tuned him out. Eventually, he stopped talking about it, and I grew up never understanding the importance of what he'd done (xv)."
She found her interviewees through online searches, close reading of local papers, and contacting veteran's groups, most of who ranged in age from 17 to 44 at the time of their service. Tarver, the photographer from the Philadelphia Inquirer whose work she enjoyed, accompanied her to get a likeness of the person at the time of the interview. The purpose of this project, in addition to what Latty wrote above, was to show that as a consequence of what the soldiers, sailors, marines, and air force personnel had to endure, and how those experiences shaped certain of their post-war activities, black people today enjoy opportunities that might not have obtained because of the stresses and strains that conflict brings for eroding the supposed permanence of all manner of sociopolitical and socio-economic obstacles and barriers to race advancement within the military and the civilian worlds. …