Racists in the ranks. Tribes within the camo-tribe. Gangstas, bangers, hardcore mixers and strait-up thugz. All in uniform. All serving Sam. Some in Iraq. Most at home. Cause for alarm? Or business as usual?
There's been some online concern over the news that our recruitment-strapped military has been reduced to taking white supremacists and gang members of various hues. It is feared that their enlistment will affect unit morale, as well as give those already prone to violence added training in the use of firearms and explosives, which can be employed once they return to civilian life. All of this may be very well true. What to do about it -- if indeed anything can be done about it -- is a tangled problem and one I'm in no position to immediately address. I mean, apart from the military issuing We Are All One pronouncements on a regular basis, how can these seemingly fixed mindsets be altered? For some, daily exposure to people from unfamiliar areas of life might soften or undermine their racist or tribal outlooks, which is one of the benefits of integration. But for others, this type of exposure will merely harden their hatred and reinforce their tribal identities, for, sadly, that's just the way some people are wired. Their DNA stands for Do Not Assimilate.
While there may be a higher rate of racists and gangbangers in today's military (though how you accurately measure this escapes me), the fact that they are in uniform is nothing new. I experienced this reality in my first days of boot camp, where white kids from the sticks or sheltered suburbs were thrust into close contact with black kids from urban areas and brown kids from the barrio. Insults and fights were common early on, which were immediately broken up by our Drill Sergeants, who put the fear of raging Christ into some of these punks. Our DS's saw combat in Vietnam, so dealing with domestic knuckleheads was nothing to them. Barking at a buzz-headed trainee usually did the trick (and man, were these guys good -- melodic in their verbal assaults), but there were a few instances when a DS would physically challenge some large, dopey kid who fancied himself the toughest guy in his high school.
One DS in particular, who was maybe 5'7" in his boots, but served two tours of 'Nam with the 82nd Airborne, invited a bigger, racially obnoxious trainee to take a swing at him. The rest of us stood at parade rest in front of our bunks while the DS removed his rank from his collar and taunted this thug, who clearly felt the pressure to act, but remained frozen, unsure of what would happen if he did. It was perhaps the first time in his young life that he failed to react to such a challenge, because the look on his face as he backed down revealed a mix of fresh confusion and fear. The kid may not have liked black people, but he sure as fuck wasn't gonna push his hatred to the point of having a smaller man whip his ass all over the barracks. Our DS probably didn't change that kid's racist mind, but he kept him honest, and forced him to march with, run with, and clean M-16s with trainees of darker complexions. A hardass version of sensitivity training.
On active duty, I saw several examples of group segregation within our barracks, usually race-inspired. I got to know a white driver for the base commander, who was as spit-and-polish as they came, but once off-duty, and after a few beers, he freely shared his race theories, which revolved around how the Jews used Martin Luther King to turn blacks into communists, and thank God for James Earl Ray, a true American patriot. I'd never heard shit like this before, so when he invited me to his barracks room (we all lived in a dorm-like set-up) to hang with some of his buddies, I did, out of curiosity if nothing else. I lasted a half-hour, tops. A big Confederate flag covered one wall, and the room was decorated with various Dixie symbols. The other boys were well into a case of Bud as Alabama blasted from the stereo. It wasn't long before the nigger/Jew/faggot talk took off, and I drained a couple of brews, soaking in the scene. It was both sickening and fascinating. I'd been around racists before, but they were casual practitioners who didn't possess any kind of racial philosophy. That group of guys did, with one speaking favorably about the Klan and the need for white purity and unity. It was around that time I made my exit, which caused some consternation in the room, but I didn't care. Once you've seen the effects of inbreeding, the rest is raunchy entertainment. And by that point, I'd had my fill.
This experience was balanced somewhat with my longer exposure to a group of black nationalists who kept their views quieter than the white boys, but who, privately, were equally intense. Thing is, I actually enjoyed their company more, as their behavior was unlike anything I had yet experienced. I was brought into their circle by a guy named John, with whom I played hoops at the base gym. John and I got along really well, and one day, walking back to the barracks, he asked if I wanted meet a few of his friends. Soon I was in a room festooned in red, black and green, with incense smoke curling up past posters of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and a large map of Africa, while a Last Poets album spun on the turntable, their revolution-laden rhymes tying the visuals together. John and I sat on a couch making small talk; a few minutes later, a couple of his friends entered and immediately flashed me nasty stares.
"What's with the white boy?" one asked John.
"Oh, the white boy's all right. He's cool."
"Yeah, well, I don't want him touching my shit."
John laughed. "What, you think he's gonna steal your shit?"
"He white, ain't he?"
Meanwhile, the white boy sat nervously still and smiled. I had never encountered such direct hostility, yet it was oddly clarifying, and with John there to smooth things out, I settled in while he and his pals talked about topics other than the white boy. After a few subsequent visits, over which time I was told of the many crimes the Caucasians had committed, the hostility ebbed to such a degree that some of these guys actually acknowledged me in public. But I was never as close to them as I was to John, who was transferred to West Germany just before I was discharged. I haven't seen or heard from him since.
Exposure to these and other groups inside the military taught me many valuable lessons, some of which I didn't fully comprehend until years later. The racist/gang mindset will always exist in one form or another, I'm very sorry to say, especially in the military, where young, disparate individuals are thrown together, usually for the first time. One can only hope that familiarity will breed, if not human solidarity, then at least a sense of tolerance and a desire to learn from each other. But that's just the first step. Understanding and reacting to the mindset of those who send grunts of all colors into the imperial meatgrinder might prove to be the most valuable lesson of all.