Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pause to Consider

~ Originally, I had planned a blog tribute to the WASPs, women pilots in WWII, for Veteran's Day. In light of the events at Ft. Hood, I'd like to instead discuss minorities in the military at times of war. ~

Last thursday, to celebrate upcoming Veteran's Day at work, we had a wonderful presentation from the Heart of America Chapter of Tuskegee Airman. It was truly inspirational to hear their stories. To share our own stories, my co-worker vets had brought in uniforms, pictures, medals, and other memorabilia to display. We had quite the competion going between the different branches of military service. Yep, a lot of smack-talking going on. After the presentation, we sat and chatted over cake and coffee, reminiscing about our days in uniform. I laughed at all the tall tales and felt good thinking of my own personal history in the Air Force.

Back at my desk, I turned on my computer and set back to my daily work. That was when I first heard about Ft. Hood. Several emails from friends alerted me to the on-going events. I read the first reports given by CNN and felt the rock in the pit of my stomach grow. I spent the rest of the day listening to NPR and thinking about Veteran's Day in a very different way. I was sickened to hear of the dead and wounded. Of all the places to feel safe in the military, your home base should be it. I wondered if those not familair with the military understood that people don't go around on base armed, guns slung. No, instead, base is home... where their children play and go to school, where they shop at the grocery store, where the meet friends to go to a movie, the playground, the library.

But as the reports of the identity of the shooter was came out, I grew concerned for a particular population on the base and in the military at large: Muslims. Though I am no expert nor do I possess any special information, it seems to me that we can reasonably deduce that the tradegy was the act of a mentally ill individual. The desire to blame a greater conspiracy, a lurking threat is strong I know. And I have heard, on television and the radio and amongst my own neighbors in the days since the shooting, the blame being transfered to Islam itself and by association all Muslims. The venom though understandable in the wake of tragedy is misplaced. I find this a very frightening course. Before we take that path, let us pause while the investigators do the deciphering work, to most importantly honor those whose lives have been taken but also to protect our own. Let's circle the wagons and examine history.

Although they had served in small numbers in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, African Americans were originally turned away from combat service in the military during the American Civil War. Law and white suspicions prevented them from bearing arms. Eventually, the North realized the need for additional troops and with the Emancipation Proclamation paving the way, black recruitment was pursued in earnest. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died.

In addition to the perils of war faced by all Civil War soldiers, black soldiers faced additional problems stemming from racial prejudice. Racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North, and discriminatory practices permeated the U.S. military. African American soldiers did not receive equal pay, rations, equipment, or even medical care to those of white soldiers. Additionally, combat troops armed with weapons were employed only as a last resort due to the lasting fear of where the loyalties truly lied for black troops. The confrontations were devastingly one-sided and bloody. However, the African American troops shined in their military service. An example is the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, SC, in which the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops, that was memorably dramatized in the film Glory. And by war's end, 16 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.

In the early 20th century, German Americans were the nation’s largest immigrant group. Although they were regarded as a model of successful assimilation, they faced vicious—and sometimes violent—attacks on their loyalty when the United States went to war against Germany in 1917. The most notorious incident was the lynching of German-born Robert Prager in Colinsville, Illinois, in April 1918. Other incidents stopped just short of murder. Suspected of not strongly enough supporting the war effort, German-American John Meintz, who was subject to at several previous attacks by mobs was dragged from his home, tarred and feathered and threatened with lynching unless he left the state.

Again, predudices against racial, ethnic, and religious groups persisted in the military, especially during war when xenophobic fears were at the their highest. Yet, American minorities of the perceived "enemy" continued to honorably serve in the US armed forces. On December 7, 1941, America was jolted into WWII as the shock of the Peal Harbor bombing by the Japanese sunk in. Two months after the declaration of war, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It provided the United States Army with the authority to round up Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and put them in so called "relocation camps" farther inland. It was justified as a security measure against possible spies and saboteurs. Ultimately, over 110,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were interred, 70,000 of them U.S. citizens.

It is sadly ironic that the same Army responsible for herding Japanese American families into the camps also drafted their young men into the armed forces to fight for America. According to Japenese-American Jimmy Konno, most men in the camps were willing to join, in spite of their anger. "Most of us felt, 'if this is our country, we have to fight for it.' You had to prove your loyalty," he says, then, with a strong emotion in his voice, quickly adds, "the '442' did prove that we were loyal. We stood together and we fought a war!" Indeed, members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment performed so many distinguished acts that the "442" became the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the American Army.

The Japanese American troops, so clearly discriminated against, were treated with the same suspicoins and distrust as had German Americans and African Americans before them. Today, there are thousands of active duty Muslims in the American military and thousands more who work for the government. President Obama himself has stated unequivocally that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a war against Islam. Let us consider the Muslim soldiers fighting bravely and honorably in our army and navy today while remembering the minorities from previous wars, to whom we owe so much, and who have served just as bravely and honorably.

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