THE CLOSER we get to war with Iraq, the louder black voices ask why any African-American should fight in a Persian Gulf war. In a very thoughtful column in the Washington Post Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at historically black Howard University, said:
"To put it bluntly, the Bush administration is playing race politics in a manner that would continue to deny national resources to blacks, while black lives are disproportionately at stake as a result of his foreign policy. If no one will respect the nature of their sacrifice, then why should blacks especially be motivated to demand that their sons and daughters give it . . . ?"
That is a powerful and challenging question, especially given the fact that the chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff is a black general, Colin Powell; the second-in-command in the Persian Gulf area is a black lieutenant general, Calvin A. H. Waller, and perhaps four out of ten of the soldiers poised to fight the armies of Saddam Hussein are black or Hispanic.
But what will come of these claims that Mr. Bush is willing to use as cannon fodder the young Americans he refuses to give a decent break in civilian America?
Not a lot if we can judge from previous wars. The black "militant," W.E.B. Du Bois, squelched such cries of black rebellion during World War I. He wrote in The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP: "If this is our country, then this is our war. We must fight it with every ounce of blood and treasure . . . We will not bargain with our loyalty. We will not profiteer with our country's blood."
But in 1919, in the wake of war, Du Bois would see the brutalizations of black people and write: "This country . . . is yet a shameful land. . . . "It lynches . . . it disfranchises its own citizens . . . it insults us . . ."
When World War II came, questions anew were asked as to why Negroes should fight in a Jim Crow military. But there was a Joe Louis to rouse not just blacks but an entire nation when he said, "We'll win, 'cause God is on our side."
I remember leaving the Navy in 1946, outraged by stories of atrocities against black GIs who were coming home demanding more than the slave-class status they had endured before. I said in anger that we young blacks hadn't won a damned thing for the blood and bodies given up in that war.
Harry Truman moved bravely to change the laws, to alter American attitudes, to ensure that the nation rewarded blacks for their patriotism. But bigotry was still in such sway that blacks would ask in the Korean and Vietnam wars, "What the hell are we sweating and bleeding and dying for?"
Black doubts may become more serious this time, even though for the first time black GIs have black generals, admirals, colonels in an integrated military. The problem is the civilian leadership in the White House, the cabinet posts, the palace guard that counsels President Bush to pursue the politics of white backlash, hate-Willie Horton, harangue-against-quotas.
If Mr. Bush had shown the guts and grace of Truman, as some of us foolishly thought he would, there would be no crippling issue of race, or shirking from patriotism, even as we approach what could be a war less supported by all Americans than even the conflict in Vietnam.