Guest Writings
  Fear Of A Black “Street” Army: Troops Rebellion In Vietnam

By Glen Ford, Co-Editor, The Black Commentator

This commentary originally appeared in the Summer Issue of ColorLines magazine.

According to the immensely valuable March 30 New York Times article, “Military Mirrors Working-Class America. “ The Times concedes that Black casualties were high “in the early stages of the American ground war in 1965 and 1966, when there were large numbers of blacks in front-line combat units.”

Here, the historical revision begins. “Army and Marine Corps commanders later took steps to reassign black servicemen to other jobs to equalize deaths, according to Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. in ‘Vietnam War Almanac.’ By the end of the war,” said the Times, “African-Americans had suffered 12.5 percent of the total deaths in Vietnam, 1 percentage point less than their proportion in the overall population, Colonel Summers wrote.”

Colonel Summers and the New York Times are talking nonsense. It is laughable to pretend that U.S. military brass acted at any time to limit Black casualty rates – What? In order to increase white death rates?! Commanders “took steps to reassign black servicemen” because African American soldiers collectively resisted Washington’s plans to make them the expendable casualties of Vietnam. They effectively shut down the war from within – a history that has never been fully told, but one that is seared in the memories of those in charge of America’s current and future imperial enterprises.

Despite horrendous Black casualties in the early Vietnam years, a whiter casualty list was the last thing on the Pentagon’s mind. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were most concerned about how to pull off a massive increase in U.S. troop strength without dipping too deeply into the white middle class youth pool.

So, in 1966, a year that began with 200,000 men in Vietnam, Secretary McNamara announced Project 100,000 , the most cynical race-class ploy ever lumped under the umbrella of LBJ’s War on Poverty. As Defense Department manpower official Dr. Wayne S. Sellman explained to a congressional committee in February 1990:

“The manpower goal of Project 100,000 was to accept 40,000 men under relaxed standards during the 1st year and 100,000 per year thereafter. Approximately 91 percent of these ‘New Standards Men,’ as they were called, came in under lowered aptitude/education standards, and 9 percent entered under lowered physical standards.”

With a straight face, Secretary McNamara declared that Project 100,000 was intended for the benefit of the “poor of America [who] have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this Nation’s abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their Country’s defense.” Military testing standards were lowered, high school dropouts became eligible for service, and draft boards and recruiters were encouraged to overlook criminal justice offenses.

By 1971, when the U.S. ground war in Vietnam was sputtering to an end, “354,000 L/A men had entered the Services under the program,” Dr. Sellman testified. “Of these, 54 percent were volunteers and 46 percent were draftees. The men who entered under Project 100,000 were on average 20 years of age, about half came from the South, and a substantial proportion (about 41 percent) were minorities.”

This was the infusion that allowed the Pentagon to boost Vietnam troop strength to 540,000 in the peak year of 1969, while accommodating massive draft deferments among the comfortable white classes. Young Black draftees and volunteers flocked to elite outfits, comprising near or absolute majorities in “line” units of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 173rd Airborne Brigade (all now heavily white and Hispanic, and deployed in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.)

There was one problem with this Black “street” army. As a Black lieutenant put it in “Bloods,” Wallace Terry’s seminal oral history of African Americans in Vietnam, “They are the ones who ain’t going to take no more shit.”

The “commanders” that war historian Col. Summers credits with compassionately reassigning Blacks out of harms way in fact went to extreme lengths to break the spirits of Black soldiers and destroy any expressions of Black solidarity.

Ultimately, the military established a mostly Black penal colony in Vietnam to enforce the terms of its internal race war. An online History of the Military Police cites 1969 as the “year the US military prisoner population peaks when 10,450 military prisoners are confined in Vietnam, most at the United States Army Installation Stockade at Long Binh, known as the Long Binh Jail (LBJ).”

In August 1968, Black inmates burned Long Binh Jail to the ground. Jimi Childress was 19 years old, locked up for going AWOL from his unit. He told his story to Cecil Barr Currey, author of “Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam’s Notorious U.S. Military Prison” (1999).

“I can recall at one time they had eight of us in one [6' x 9'x 6' metal] conex box. A slit in the front and a slit in the back – and that was your air. And if you wanted to urinate, you had to go to the back to do it because they kept a chain on the front with a lock on it. This was in heat of more than 115 degrees …. You could see them treating prisoners that way, but not their own soldiers ….

“All these guys that was in these conex boxes were black. You see? White guys in the stockade had fringe benefits. We had none. It was just a hateful place. Hispanics stuck with blacks, just for safety reasons, but there was so few you hardly notice. It was a black prison. I will never forget how many blacks were incarcerated in that stockade.”

In 1968, combined Vietnam AWOLs and desertions reached over 150 per thousand soldiers. About 100 Black deserters established “Soul Alley” in a Saigon neighborhood near Ton San Nhut Airport. Fully armed Black and white troops faced off at China Beach, Danang.

The online military police site sketches the rough outlines of repression and resistance in Vietnam. Some entrees from 1971:

September 1971 – Military police conduct a siege at Cam Ranh Bay against 14 soldiers of the 35th Engineer Group who refuse to come out of their bunkers.

October 9, 1971 – First Cavalry troopers again commit a “combat refusal” when asked to form a patrol. [This was an integrated affair, as were many, but not most, fraggings.]

October 1971 – Military police are flown into a military base near Da Lat, after two fragging attempts had been made on the commanding officer’s life. Discipline is restored after the MP’s have been on scene for a week.

By the end of the year there were 333 incidents of fragging reported in Vietnam.

The MP’s give credence to a “fragging” study by historian Terry Anderson of Texas A & M University: “The US Army itself does not know exactly how many…officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1400 that died mysteriously. Consequently by early 1970, the army [was] at war not with the enemy but with itself.”

The internal “war” was overwhelming racial in character.

We were at war stateside, as well. I was among the 6,000 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division that occupied Washington, DC in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 1968. Black troops made up about half of the division’s line units. We were aware that the near-lily white New Jersey National Guard had gone on a killing rampage on the streets of Newark the previous year, and we made it unmistakably clear to white soldiers that no harm was to come to the DC population. Nobody got hurt.

At “home” in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, we bloodied the Division’s overwhelmingly white and southern MP’s at every nocturnal opportunity. While the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups ran amuck at nearby Camp Lejeune Marine Base, racists at Fort Bragg sulked in silence. Criminal Investigation Detachment personnel entered Black-dominated barracks in force, if at all.

In the fall of 1968, Commanding General John Deane, weary of racial strife, called the entire division to a parade field. “I give up,” he said, bluntly, then pledged to address a long list of Black grievances. He kept most of those promises. The Black soldiers of the 82nd had the “critical mass” to kick ass, if provoked.

The U.S. military never forgot their experience with the Vietnam-era Black “street army,” and would scheme and conspire for the next three decades to ensure that white supremacy would never again be threatened in the elite combat arms.

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