The National Catholic Review
Thomas R. Murphy

Gail Buckley’s synopsis of African American involvement in the armed forces adopts as its thesis Harriet Beecher Stowe’s declaration in 1855 that blacks have always fought magnanimously and heroically for their country despite its violations of their civil rights. To demonstrate Stowe’s point, Buckleya journalist and the author of her family history, The Hornespacks three not-always-complementary historiographical methods into one volume.

Buckley’s first technique is to summarize the social history of all African Americans. This provides fine accounts of everyday slave and civilian life between and during wars. Such an approach not only reveals their capacity to transcend ill treatment; it also testifies that blacks have grafted their personal struggle for freedom onto whatever cause of liberty the country was pursuing at a particular time. In doing so, they have forced their own contributions to national values into the American mosaic. This was especially true during the Civil War, when the mere presence of black Union soldiers added emancipation to national unity as a war goal. Buckley provides a convincing answer to separatist perspectives that the African American experience is so alienated from the American mainstream that no integration is possible.

Buckley’s second technique is to provide a strategic synopsis of American military history. How has our military prepared for war over the years? How has it identified, prepared for and waged conflicts against specific enemies, and how have black soldiers fitted into those strategic plans? This technique shows how crucial black manpower has been, especially in the Revolutionary War, when the chronically short-staffed Continental Army might well have lost without reinforcements from free blacks.

Buckley’s third and most space-consuming approach, heavily influenced by historians like Stephen Ambrose, is to provide numerous anecdotes concerning the combat experiences of individual black soldiers, many taken from personal interviews with veterans. These stories more than amply document the heroism of the soldiers concerned, but they create a stylistic dissonance within the book itself. It is difficult to know whether Buckley prefers the strategic or the tactical, the macro or the micro, in her approach to purely military matters. Aware that American culture has had both a historiographical and a cinematic tendency to omit the role of black soldiers, Buckley tends toward the opposite compulsion of trying to include every possible heroic story in her narrative.

The emphasis on individual courage causes an additional problem. Some of the wars in which black soldiers participated, such as the Indian wars of the late 1800’s and the Filipino insurrection of 1899-1902, were morally complex struggles against people of color. While Buckley notes that there was dissent from these wars among African Americans, she glosses over such opposition quickly to return to combat narrative. An exhibit on the centenary of the Filipino insurrection at the Washington State Historical Museum in 1999 captured better than Buckley does the tendency of black soldiers to identify with the rebels after arriving in the Philippines. Buckley misses an opportunity here to show African Americans asserting a citizen’s right to question the government as well as fight for it.

Students of American Catholic history will note African American participation in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The integrated Abraham Lincoln Brigade, along with revulsion against international fascism, attracted many blacks to the republican side. Buckley correctly cites this participation as an indication that blacks were among the first Americans to sense the danger of right-wing totalitarianism in the 1930’s. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and Nazi projects for racial purity also informed such prescience. However, Buckley glosses over the Spanish Republic’s anticlericalism and persecution of the church, which were major concerns for American Catholics at the time. Instead she emphasizes general discomfort with the Communist sympathies of many Lincoln Brigade members as the major source of uneasiness with the brigade back home.

Some military icons receive revisionist treatment in this book, as Buckley presents unflattering decisions these commanders made. Washington tried to end black participation upon first taking command of the Continental Army. Eisenhower opposed President Truman’s order to desegregate the military. General Colin Powell, by contrast, receives relatively uncritical treatment. Buckley presents Powell’s role as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf war victory as the symbolic culmination of the military’s integration process. This idealization inclines her to dismiss criticisms of the way that war was waged, so she relies heavily on British military historian John Keegan’s praise for Powell. This is a shortcoming, because Powell’s integrity need not suffer from professional criticism of his military judgment.

Her lapses from objectivity reflect the fact that history is far from Buckley’s only concern in this book. She is also a social activist concerned for the plight of today’s urban youth. She concludes with General Powell’s leadership at the President’s Summit for America’s Future in April 1997, an occasion that suggested that values traditionally nurtured by the military can assist the young. Buckley is right to endorse that suggestion. Despite its methodological flaws, her book provides ample evidence that military life produces people of admirable self-control and bravery. And there has been no more courageous exhibition of these traits among African Americans than their choice to will away their justified resentments and fight for the nation that so often disregarded their human rights.

Thomas Murphy, S.J., is an assistant professor of history at Seattle University and the author of Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland (Routledge).