“They finally shot the nigger!” the sparrow-slight soldier whooped. Nicknamed “Georgia” for the obvious reason, that’s what he apparently ran around shouting once word of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination wound its way out into the electric-green paddy fields of South Vietnam. I was told the story more than once by a member of his unit and often imagined what it must have been like, especially for his black brothers-in-arms, to be smacked with that news and that epithet all at once. Yet, on some level, it wasn’t the least bit shocking. Labeled a “total racist” by a fellow member of his unit, Georgia was one of many white soldiers hailing from the former Confederate States of America whose bigotry was on full display during the Vietnam War.
As “soul brothers” and “bloods” across South Vietnam embraced emerging ideas about black consciousness, black pride, and black power, racist white troops responded by donning Ku Klux Klan robes, burning crosses, and embracing other symbols of white supremacy. Reflecting on his decision to join the militant Black Panthers after returning from Vietnam, Reginald Edwards, who served as a rifleman with the Marines, recalled: “We had already fought for the white man in Vietnam. It was clearly his war. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have seen as many Confederate flags as you saw.” Dwyte Brown, who served in the Navy, told journalist Wallace Terry that, in the barracks at the U.S. base in Cam Ranh Bay, “there would be nothing but Confederate flags all over the place.”
In the midst of the recent Confederate flag fallout following the massacre in Charleston,TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin revisits this much-neglected history and so much else that came before and after. Tracing the sordid story of the Old South’s battle flag, that symbol of bitter-end racism, from its raising by Marines on Okinawa during the Second World War to more recent appearances in Iraq and Afghanistan, Grandin shines a light on a larger and more troubling military embrace of the Confederacy — something the Pentagon would, no doubt, rather keep hidden from view.
Georgia, the soldier who cheered King’s 1968 murder, seemingly conformed to all the stereotypes you might imagine. “He had a little tape player. And all he had was one tape of every Hank Williams song there ever was and he played them constantly whenever we were in base camp,” I was told. But what he did out in the field — where the stifling heat of the day gave way to dank nights in cool, clammy foxholes — shocked me. “Georgia was this little white racist and Mitchell was this great big black guy, and when it would rain and get cold, they’d get in and sleep together to stay warm,” a fellow unit member told me. Perhaps racists are like atheists and can’t be found in foxholes. Or perhaps Georgia’s and Mitchell’s bunker brotherhood is a reminder that there’s always reason for hope.
The Pentagon now stands where South Carolina did just weeks ago. With a groundswell of grassroots activism, the U.S. military’s long-cherished symbols of racism and Confederacy-veneration might also be brought to the brink of welcome exile, if not banishment to history’s dustbin. If that ever comes to pass, one person we’ll have to thank is Greg Grandin, author of the much-anticipated Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman.