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

By Kimberley L. Phillips | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
“War!” and “Machine Gun” Blues

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?1

Starr, whose music career stalled after his induction into the army in 1965, remade Motown’s second version of the song.2 The Temptations,

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