The U.S. Military and White Supremacy: A History

I wrote the piece below for ON WATCH, the quarterly magazine of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. When I was asked to write it, I was a little stunned: “All of it?” It took weeks to write; I hope it’s useful. Above is the song first sung by the Massachusetts 55th, one of the all-Black battalions recruited by Frederick Douglass, about someone who fought hard against white supremacy,

Last December, when DOD issued its updated instructions on extremism, DoD Instruction 1325.06,  MLTF’s response noted that the instruction “fails to mention ‘racism’ or ‘white supremacy’ but instead defines extremist activities as “to deprive individuals of their rights” and “advocating widespread unlawful discrimination based on race.”     This was nearly a year after insurrectionists wielding Confederate battle flags stormed the US. Capitol, nearly a quarter of whom were current or former members of the U.S. military. 

In his confirmation hearing soon afterward, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to banish “racists and extremists” from the military. January 6th had exposed a core truth, as recently articulated by Human Rights Watch: “Racism and a fear of growing diversity in the United States was at the heart of the violence.”  And post-January 6th research by the University of Maryland and the Department of Homeland Security found that of the military-affiliated January 6th participants, nearly 60 percent were either members of anti-government militias or white-supremacist groups.  (Islamic affiliations, it’s worth noting, were in the single digits.) 

The December instruction, consistent with DOD buzzwords on the subject — Diversity. Equity. Inclusion — appears determined to make the armed forces as color-blind as its public image, one phrased simply by a veteran on the 1946 Superman radio show: “We were crawling up those islands, in those trenches, the color or creed of the guy behind you didn’t matter.” Lt. Col. Troy Mosley puts it even more simply: “People are rarely more equal than when they serve their country.”  

Right-wing critics, some of them veterans, complain that Defense is “too woke,” words repeated on the Fox News stations blaring at most military bases. Meanwhile, according to AP, DOD processed more than 750 complaints of discrimination by race or ethnicity from service members in the fiscal year 2020 alone.     

Like me, Troy Mosley found his calling in the 1990s. Mine came in 1995 when I joined the staff of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, just as Mosley was in Officer Candidate School a with the Army Medical Service Corp. I’m a democratic socialist from the Bronx; Mosley’s from Jacksonville, Florida, and joined Army ROTC when he got to Florida A&M University, following in the footsteps of his Army veteran father. We couldn’t be more different on the surface; yet we both spend most of our time now writing and thinking about military injustice. 

As I write, Mosley’s new book The Armed Forces and American Social Change is on my desk, right next to A Field Guide to White Supremacy.  When I reviewed Field Guide last year, I wished it included a section on the military alongside its policing and immigration chapters. This article is my modest effort to provide that section.

To begin with, the U.S. military’s first job was to kill those who got in their nascent nation’s way, many of whom were people of color. The military’s precursor forces – state militias and British Army conscripts – fought against Native Americans, in the French and Indian War and in defense of settler colonialism. It’s true, and much publicized, that the Colonial Army wasn’t all white: a Black sailor named Crispus Attucks died in the 1770 Boston Massacre, and one 1778 strength report showed 755 “Negroes” in fifteen different infantry brigades. “Among them there is the strangest mixture of Negroes, Indians, and Whites, with old men and mere children, wrote one Pennsylvania captain of New England’s battalions. It was, he wrote, “a shocking spectacle.”  

But some of those troops were equally shocked to be spending most of their time actively helping European settlers claim Indian land. My New Press history of military dissent includes Simon Girty, a “half-breed” interpreter near Pittsburgh who deserted rather than take part in the now-notorious Squaw Campaign under General Edward Hand, as well as William Apess, son of a Black mother and Pequot Indian father, who wondered “why I should risk my life, my limbs, in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land.”            

Until the 20th century, the new U.S. Army earned most of their medals fighting off Native Americans, whether actively helping European settlers claim Indian land or facilitating “Indian removal” in battle upon battle. One example is the 1832 Black Hawk War, whose combatants included militia captains and future opponents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Even the Civil War, purportedly fought to end slavery, featured massive disrespect for Black troops and a continued emphasis on killing Natives; then the American military moved on to the business of empire, drafting Black troops to fight in the Caribbean and the Philippines (where one joked to the Navy Times, “We’re here to pick up the white man’s burden!”). Even then, they still served under White officers, ignoring even qualified Black officers such as West Point graduate Charles Young, veteran of the 1863 U.S. Colored Troops. 

That last fact did not escape Young’s friend W.E.B. Du Bois, whose NAACP magazine The Crisis went on to highlight the issue after the United States entered World War I. Du Bois, who’d exposed deep roots between war and racism in his 1916 essay “The African Roots of War,” nonetheless became a booster, hoping that brave service would earn Black servicemembers some measure of equality. But when the war’s 380,000 uniformed African-Americans, who served in all branches of the U.S. military, were met instead by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Red Summer during which at least 13 veterans were lynched and sparked massacres from coast to coast, it was clear that they were if anything more vulnerable, with racist attacks sometimes sparked by the simple act of wearing one’s uniform in public.  

White supremacy as an ideology was evolving. The postwar years rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan, which happily recruited servicemembers and veterans. As World War II approached, segregation survived; a secret agreement between FDR and NAACP President Walter White allowed for the establishment of separate-but-equal training camps and racially specific draft quotas, with White promising sotto voce that the organization would not test the 14th Amendment implications of military segregation. As the NAACP wrangled with the War Department about the make-up of the new “colored units,” white rage continued, including the March 1941 lynching at Fort Benning of Private Felix Hall.  

Meanwhile chapters of a Black-led “March on Washington Movement” against military segregation formed, swelled, and prepared to fill the Capitol with 100,000 supporters. After Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries, the march was called off but not the movement, led by labor leader A. Philip Randolph. When military segregation was abolished in 1948 by President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 (“In the selection and training of men for service, there shall be no discrimination on account of race or color”) today’s officially color-blind military was born, with the inherent paradox that racism’s disparate power structures can’t be wiped out by presidential signature. And the military’s singular way of managing its personnel, from Article 15 to courts-martial, continued to incorporate patterns of injustice, some familiar in MLTF cases. 

Black veterans knew all this in their bones. They included NAACP hero Medgar Evers, who in 1943 shipped off to Europe as part of the Red Ball Express, a strategic corps charged with showing up in active theatres and transporting needed supplies for the invasions of Europe. When Evers first showed up at basic training he was classified only as “Laborer,” like most Black servicemen at the time. He knew about the Navy’s Port Chicago 50, who’d been court-martialed for challenging their working conditions after a deadly munitions explosion. The civil rights movement Evers joined, led and died for was full of other people who’d fought military segregation and injustice, including A. Philip Randolph and his right-hand man Bayard Rustin. 

That movement cut deep tranches inside the military in subsequent years, notably during the Vietnam War – a war which also reminded some of the racist implications of the military mission.

The Department of Defense declared that “race relations” in the military had become a priority, especially after an epidemic of on-base conflicts they blamed on “black militants.” In an effort to co-opt “black consciousness” into something that improved morale, it established the Defense Race Relations Institute, tagged by historians as “the most progressive and forward looking race relations experiment in existence.” Through its service-wide schools, trainings and materials, DRRI asked White troops to take responsibility for their own racism—creating a backlash not unlike the “too woke” talk of today.  DRRI was investigated and shut down after six years, shifting responsibility and discretion to individual commanders.

Some of those white troops went home and founded the late 20th-century white supremacist paramilitary underground— one whose military connections were clear in 1995, when two Gulf War veterans drove a truck loaded with explosives into central Oklahoma City and blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh was a dedicated White supremacist, who sold the neo-Nazi Bible The Turner Diaries at gun shows and was planning to follow the bombing by attending a white-supremacist camp run by that book’s author.  

The white-power movement McVeigh joined after the Gulf War had been jump-started by Vietnam vets like Louis Beam, whose tract “Leaderless Resistance” laid down the map for decades of so-called “lone wolf” attacks on power lines, water systems, and “enemy” institutions including synagogues. Powered by early Internet messaging, they were unafraid to say out loud the quiet part of 1970s/1980s concern about “affirmative action” and “states’ rights.” And despite a handful of convictions, the movement has contributed to a broader far-right political ecosystem, from hard-core explicit Nazi forums like “Atomwaffen” and “Patriot Front” to the warm-fuzzy mutual-aid networks supporting public-health disinformation. A 2020 Pentagon study found such groups threading the military, from the Marines to the Florida National Guard. That study also included the Oath Keepers, whose leaders are now under indictment for January 6th.

What is DoD doing about this? In addition to Instruction 1325.06, DOD commissioned studies like the one above and appointed a Deputy Inspector General for Diversity and Extremism. A short-lived Countering Extremism Task Force started the process of other more thorough changes, including more thorough background checks for recruits, training DoD personnel to recognize signs of “extremist activity,” and paying some attention to the troops’ transition to civilian life. Those changes, outsourced to allied agencies, are due to be rolled out sometime this summer. It’s hard to know whether the resulting changes will do more than scratch the surface of the problem.

Meanwhile, Fox News keeps blaring at most military bases, repeated by troops who asked at the March antiracist standdown: “But what about those violent Black Lives Matter people?”

In 1995, Lt. Col. Troy Mosley was a young Army captain finishing up his Officer’s Advanced Course, just as the country was adoring General Colin Powell after his victory in the Gulf War. A career in the military looked bright, he thought: Every unit had an equal-opportunity division. In his book The Armed Forces and American Social Change, published 23 years later, Lt. Col. Mosley also looks at other military prejudices, from sexism and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the rollercoaster of transgender service under the Trump administration. He also talks about Islamophobia, a new layer added by the Gulf Wars to the white-supremacist cake. His tone is both optimistic and urgent, appropriate in this post-January 6th moment.

For MLTF and the communities we serve, we need to contend with an institution suffused in the rhetoric of “diversity and inclusion,” but struggling to honestly confront what that might mean. That struggle could be about the central contradiction of what they see as the military mission: If no “othering” and less trauma, what then? 

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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