Monday, February 28, 2011

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Robert Morris, author of "Black Faces of War"

From the American Revolution to today, the black soldier has played a significant role in America’s hard-fought struggle in achieving freedom both within the nation’s borders and around the world. From serving on the front lines to holding the highest offices in the Pentagon, African-American men and women have proven time and again that determination, sacrifice, and honor cannot be defined by race.

In the following Q & A, Black Faces of War author Robert Morris discusses the rich legacy of black servicemen and women throughout American military history, the impetus behind writing this book, and the ever-evolving role of the black soldier in the modern military.


ZENITH PRESS: While the contributions of the black soldier in American military history have been covered to some extent in books, much of it has been focused on individual or unit contributions within a specific conflict. What inspired you to tackle a much broader, wide-ranging approach in Black Faces of War?

ROBERT MORRIS: Growing up around a number of black combat veterans and officers of WWI and various military conflicts since exposed me to many stories that have never seen print before.  Most of the books on black military I have read are unit chronologies, epics of one unit or individual or commonly known history. The discrimination against and humiliation of black servicemen and women has been reported but rarely the specifics. What happened when a WWI black officer encountered a white enlisted man from the south? What happened when a WWII black female WAC encountered a white male officer or enlisted man? What were troop race relations in Korea or Vietnam. This is the type of knowledge I offer in my book and I guarantee most of these stories have never been told in print before.

ZP: What did you find most challenging about researching and writing Black Faces of War?

RM:  Finding the first-person accounts and assembling the massive information and illustrations from so many sources. There is about two years of work in Black Faces of War!

ZP: While many Americans are aware of and honor the service of black servicemen and women in recent decades, fewer are aware of the role of blacks in earlier conflicts such as the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War I. Can you briefly describe the roles played by black soldiers in this country’s pre-WWII conflicts?

RM:  Although many people have heard of the Revolutionary War’s Crispus Attucks, few know of Salem Poor or Peter Salem or that most blacks fought for the British not the Americans.  Fewer know that Harriett Tubman not only led slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad but was a combatant leading the Union Army raid on the Combahee River freeing 700 slaves. How could slave Henry “Box” Brown mail himself to freedom inside a 2 x 3 foot box?  How did slave humor and songs help us cope with the vicious southern institution? From the “Bucks of America” to the “Smoked-Yankees” in Cuba…it’s all in this book.

ZP: You have dedicated much of your adult life to American military history, as well as the role of blacks within that history. Even so, in researching Black Faces of War, were there any stories or individual profiles that either took you by surprise or were profoundly impactful?
RM:  My favorite story is the first person account of Lt. James Mitchell, who I knew personally as my grandfather J.B.’s best friend and war buddy. From his Georgia childhood to the first black officer class at Fort Des Moines, Iowa in 1917, and on to France with the AEF 92nd Division, 350th Heavy Machine Gun unit and surviving battles from the Argonne Forest to Belleau Wood covering the Marines. His account of love for the black troops by the French and hatred by southern white and Senegalese troops and most of all coming home to Georgia and narrowly escaping being lynched will live forever now.

ZP: The Buffalo Soldiers (of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment) and the Tuskegee Airmen (of the 332nd Fighter Group) are the African American units most widely known to the average American. Can you briefly describe some other primarily black units throughout history (a couple or a few) of special note in your mind?
RM: The post Civil War 9th and 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” have been shown in Hollywood feature films and television shows although their depiction is usually inaccurate and their infantry components, the 24th and 25th, are rarely seen at all.  Not only did they fight hostile Indians but racist settlers and Mexican bandits among others.

The WWII Tuskegee Airmen have gotten well deserved accolades recently including films and unit medals and their story is told by Captain Luther Smith who survived 133 combat missions, devastating injuries and POW status to become NASA’s first black aerospace engineer.  However, the most brutal black troop fighting of WWII was the Italian campaign where the U.S. Army 92nd Division and 758th Tankers suffered 5,000 casualties against the German rear-guard action and is described by tanker Lt. Virgil Dixon.

My father, Captain James Morris, Jr.’s command integration of the famed 6th Army “Alamo Force” in the South Pacific and how his not yet met wife-to-be, and a black genius, helped save his life with the Manhattan Project are more stories never told before.    

ZP: The large-scale integration of the black/minority soldier in Korea and Vietnam was a key point in the evolution in the American military. What type of impact, positive and/or negative, did this integration initially have on black servicemen and women?

RM:  Although the 1948 President Truman desegregation order was ignored by the military, black replacements became very popular after the Chinese entrance into the Korean War and black draftees flooded into Vietnam after President Johnson withheld most guard and reserve troops to quell domestic disturbances.  Vietnam combat saw 20 black Medal of Honor awardees and new leadership gains featuring Gen Colin Powell.

ZP: You state in the introduction of your book that you believe that “with the exception of the black church, no institution has had a more profound and progressive impact on black Americans than the military.” Can you expand on why you believe this to be?
RM: I posed this question once to a group of black combat veterans, including my grandfather and father, who answered as follows. The Revolutionary War showed we could, the Civil War showed we would, the First World War opened new territory to black troops (Europe) that had seen only Jim Crow before and their French reception showed multi-racial respect and equality. The Second World War was the best and worst at-the same time and our heroics, in combat and support roles, created a determined generation of black men and women who returned to America to invade higher education via the GI Bill and create the black middle socio-economic class and the civil rights movement that shattered the bonds or racism forever.  

ZP: The role of the black soldier has changed quite dramatically throughout the years—from serving in largely subservient, menial roles to fighting heroically on the front lines to rising to the highest levels of the military hierarchy. To what do you most attribute this progress?
RM: The sacrifice and brave service of the men and women of the armed forces.  We still have progress to make as is evidenced by foreword author LTG Becton’s DOD Military Leadership Diversity Commission, but the wheels of change are definitely in motion as black troops serve bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ZP: Where do you still see room for growth and improvement in America’s armed forces, as it pertains to African-Americans, as well as other ethnic minority groups (you can remove this last part, if you like)?

RM:  The crisis in our black community is having devastating consequences on military service which impacts our long-term health in a variety of ways. Broken families, escalating high school drop-outs, obesity and criminal activity are making seventy-five percent of our black youth ineligible for military service and despair and hopelessness are facing them like never before. With wars raging overseas and within our respective communities, it’s a time for great courage and resolve.

ZP: If you could have readers take one message away from Black Faces of War, what would that be?

RM: They (black troops) did their part then… let’s do our part now!

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