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Memorializing Second-Class Soldiers

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Memorial Day is the time to memorialize all the brave individuals who served our country throughout its history, and sometimes paid the ultimate price for doing so. But, in particular, this year I'd like to focus on all those who did their duty for their country, and fought for the American ideal of equality for all citizens -- even while they did not enjoy such rights themselves, either in the military or in American life at the time. These second-class citizens, one would think, would have even less reason than citizens accorded full rights under the law to risk death on a foreign battlefield, and therefore would not have volunteered to do so. One would be wrong in thinking this, however.

The best example of this is a study in extremes. The 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team (now known as the 442nd Infantry Regiment) was the most-decorated unit in all of World War II. You may not have heard of them, but their motto has entered such common usage that the phrase is now universally-understood: "go for broke." This was originally pidgin English used in Hawai'i to describe making a big bet, perhaps on the throw of the dice. The unit adopted it, and they were known as the "Go For Broke" Regiment, because many of the soldiers in the unit were from Hawai'i. Others were from the mainland. What made the unit different from others is that it was composed of Japanese-Americans.

The military, at the time, was still segregated by race, of course. But the 442nd was, in a way, the most segregated unit of the entire war. Because while America had no problem sending soldiers of German or Italian ancestry to fight in Europe, Americans with Japanese ancestry were barred from serving in the Pacific theater.

Even with these restrictions, they more than proved their bravery. Over and over and over again. They would have been the first American soldiers to liberate Rome, except that they were stopped 10 miles short -- so that the newsreels could show white soldiers liberating the city instead. They were among the first to liberate the camps at Dachau, but again, they were largely kept out of the photos and out of the press.

Their feats of bravery were legendary on the battlefield, though. In particular, the rescue of a unit of the Texas National Guard in France, who were surrounded by the enemy. The 442nd suffered over 800 casualties in their fight to rescue a little over 200 men in "The Lost Battalion" -- one of the most poignant stories of heroism during the entire war.

These were men who, at the start of the war, were classified as unfit for combat, due to being "enemy aliens." The volunteers from the mainland came straight from our own "concentration camps" -- their entire families were living behind barbed wire while they were fighting, due to being of Japanese ancestry. They didn't let this stop them; they fought hard anyway. By the end of the war, a unit from the 442nd had earned another nickname, since (as noted) they were the most-decorated in the entire war -- "The Purple Heart Brigade."

Then there are the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who have served our country -- in every single war we've ever had. Everyone knows the story of Crispus Attucks being one of the first to die for the idea of America at the Boston Massacre, but few know that blacks also fought on both sides of the American Revolution. As they would in every subsequent combat, even though up through the Korean War they were segregated and discriminated against by the military. They fought anyway. Even though they returned, after fighting, to institutional racism in American life -- after experiencing institutional racism in the military.

But that didn't stop the Buffalo Soldiers, or the Tuskegee Airmen, or any of the others from doing what they saw as their duty to their country, flawed as America may have been at the time in terms of the ideal of equality. Hundreds of thousands of blacks served with distinction and honor in both World War I and World War II, even though they did so as second-class citizens both within the military and without.

Women are still struggling to serve on an equal footing with men in the United States military. Although the ranks allowed women in three decades ago, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that women were allowed (for instance) to serve on U.S. Navy submarines. The path to full equality is a long one, at times. Second-class status is tough to overcome, not just in integrated units, but in the entire military culture. It takes years, and sometime decades (or even centuries) to overcome.

Today, the political battle rages over allowing gay people to wear the uniform of the American military, and not have to lie about who they are. Some urge caution and restraint. Some say the military shouldn't engage in social experimentation. The thing is, they've always said this. General Omar Bradley gave a speech right after President Truman had signed a presidential order integrating the military, in which he said it would essentially destroy the Army. Truman's order was signed in 1948, but the military didn't fully integrate for years afterwards -- most of which happened during the Korean War.

The most eloquent statement I've ever heard on the subject came from a fictional general, however. "Admiral Percy Fitzwallace" was the African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the television show The West Wing. In one episode, he walks in unexpectedly on a group of military men having a meeting with White House staff over the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Here's how the exchange went:

ADMIRAL FITZWALLACE: We're discussing gays in the military, huh?

MAJOR THOMPSON: Yes sir.

FITZWALLACE: What do you think? [No response.] I said what do you think?

THOMPSON: Sir, we're here to help the White House form a possible...

FITZWALLACE: I know. I'm asking you what you think.

MAJOR TATE: Sir, we're not prejudiced toward homosexuals.

FITZWALLACE: You just don't want to see them serving in the Armed Forces?

TATE: No sir, I don't.

FITZWALLACE: 'Cause they oppose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion.

TATE: Yes sir.

FITZWALLACE: That's what I think too. I also think the military wasn't designed to be an instrument of social change.

TATE: Yes sir.

FITZWALLACE: The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn't serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff... beat that with a stick.

Beat that with a stick, indeed. But I'm not here today to make a point about the current political situation or future political battles about the military, gays, or what policy our country should have. That's a discussion for another day.

Today, instead, is about memorializing those who have come before us. Which is why, today, I hung an American flag outside my house. That flag is up in memory of all those who served this country, but in particular this year my thoughts are with those who served this country with honor and distinction even though our country was simply not living up to its lofty promise or ideals with respect to them. For black soldiers who served America while slavery was still legal. For women who volunteered and served in the only peripheral roles which the military allowed them to serve. For the 442nd, who not only taught the rest of us the phrase "go for broke," but fought more notably than any other unit in the entire war -- even while many of them were writing letters "back home" to their relatives who were being humiliated by being forced to live in camps, behind barbed wire.

Our country put obstacles in the way of these brave individuals who wanted to serve. America made it harder for them to do their duty than it did for the majority. America sent them the message that they were clearly not as worthy of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship as others, and that when they got home from the war, they could also expect to continue to be treated as second-class citizens. Black soldiers returning from World War II were beaten, and sometimes murdered, after they had risked their lives for America's freedom -- just for being soldiers. In just about every way, we -- as a nation -- were telling these people: "you are not as good as the rest of us."

And yet, still they served. They accepted the slights, minor and major, and they served anyway. They brushed off the humiliation the system was heaping upon them, and they did what they thought was right.

So, this Memorial Day, every person who served America's military who did so as a second-class citizen is foremost in my thoughts -- for doggedly overcoming the obstacles our country put in their path to service, and for fighting just as hard as (if not harder than) the first-class citizens who were fighting next to them.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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