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A deftly handled vignette at the start of this examination of blacks in the United States military captures an unfortunate truth. In a 1786 painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a black soldier stands with a group of white rebels. Copies of the painting made two decades later erase him from the scene. Few among the blacks who fought in the Revolution would enjoy the war's glory or be granted its great gift of liberty. For the vast majority, that would require a civil war, and 200,000 more black soldiers. In countless works of military history, the black contribution to America's armed forces has been ignored, diminished or denied.
''American Patriots'' is a work both fed and marred by the writer's passion for her subject. Gail Buckley tries to correct that history. It is a task much like trying to repair the Hubbell telescope. She succeeds in the end, but her journey is long and hard and the reader feels the weight of all the 14 years she spent at it.
What an extraordinary history it is, though, in both its grandeur and its tragedy. Buckley, who is a longtime journalist, shows the deep hypocrisy of a nation that was willing to let black soldiers fight even as it consistently denied them equal rights and equal recognition. During the Civil War, blacks fighting with Union forces were paid less than whites (and charged for clothing, while whites received a stipend for new uniforms), then often used as cannon fodder in the field. Sent ahead to soften enemy resistance, blacks were told to prove their bravery. They did -- most famously in the doomed Union attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
Deep if less dangerous inequities persisted well into the 20th century. Across all branches of the armed services, blacks were chronically slow to win promotions or denied them altogether. In segregated ranks, they ''lived in separate, vastly inferior quarters. They received separate, often vastly inferior training, and were given vastly inferior weapons and equipment.'' In some military camps they were ordered to sit behind prisoners of war while movies or other entertainments were being presented. Buckley's conclusion is cold and hard: ''Black G.I.'s fought fascism on two fronts in World War II -- at home and abroad, where, as often as not, the enemy wore an American uniform.''
From 1941 to 1945 black enlisted personnel increased nearly 200-fold, from 5,000 to 900,000. The number of black officers increased even more -- from only 5 to 7,000. Still, the official fear of racial ''contamination'' lingered. In 1941, the military ordered ''white blood only'' for white troops. Plasma supplies were carefully labeled and dispensed. Segregation was the rule, even among the dying.
Slowly, the pressure of numbers made for change. In the early years of the war, military buses, trucks and troop trains began to be integrated, as were most camp movie houses and show tents. But it was not until the war was over and several black veterans were brutally murdered in racially motivated attacks in Georgia and South Carolina that President Truman ordered equal opportunity throughout the ranks. The year was 1948. The Civil War was almost a century behind us.
Inside the nation's military camps, proximity and interdependence eventually created bonds between black and white soldiers, and tensions slowly eased. Buckley makes this point, but she does not analyze it much. Instead, she gives us the heartfelt explanation of one black veteran from his Vietnam-era memoir: ''We needed each other. 'Charlie' was the enemy, and olive green was the only color that mattered.''
That shift was not as quickly felt in the civilian realm. Countless private indignities were endured by men like Gen. Daniel James Jr., who, though named the first black commander of an integrated fighter squadron in the United States, was refused housing by a racist landlord near his Cape Cod base in 1953. Twenty years later, the insults continued to come. By then James was a four-star general (indeed, the first black four-star general) and the commander of the North American Air Defense Command (Norad) in Colorado. He personified the successful professional military man. Yet from time to time he fielded telephone calls ''from strangers worried about 'the black man who could start a nuclear war.' ''
''American Patriots'' is full of such stories. Yet the title suggests the book's biggest flaw. So intent is Buckley on proving that blacks have long been patriots that she routinely fails to see our history from any context but a soldier's. Of the Indian Wars and the black ''buffalo soldiers'' who fought in them, she writes without apparent irony that advances in civilization ''entailed the elimination of anything that stood in the way of progress, from indigenous flora and fauna to indigenous people.'' Lest the reader harbor doubts about her tone, they are vanquished pages later when she calls those same wars ''mere housekeeping.'' (Fortunately, she provides a more sophisticated analysis in her account of America's role in the Philippines.)
Buckley refers throughout her book to members of her illustrious and accomplished family, about whom she wrote at length in her first book, ''The Hornes.'' At times, though, she seems stuck in the past, caught in another era's notions of patriotism, unwilling to embrace a more critical reading of the murk of modern conflict. Hers is an appealing view, but it feels slightly antique, perhaps more suited to her mother, Lena Horne, the pop legend who was America's favorite black pinup girl during World War II. Such flaws prove distracting in a work of this scope. But they do not undermine the deep importance of the story that Buckley tells.
At West Point today, cadets who show unusual leadership and perseverance
are given the Henry O. Flipper Award. It is an honor named after the first
black graduate of West Point, an Atlanta native who stood proudly with his
class (though not in its group photograph) at graduation in 1877. Four years
later he was kicked out of the Army on false charges of embezzlement. He
fought to clear his name until he died. He failed. Victory would come only
posthumously, in 1999, with a presidential pardon and a solemn reburial with
full military honors. In telling this story, and so many others, Buckley has
written a book to fill a significant gap in our history. She has recounted a
remarkable human drama, one of struggle, betrayal and ultimate redemption.