An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era

  • Published

An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era by Beth Bailey. University of North Carolina Press, 2023, 360 pp.

In 1968, the United States Army was engulfed in conflict. The war in Vietnam and the draft were deeply unpopular with the US public, and the Army was facing a crisis that leaders called “the problem of race” (1). This issue of race relations is what Dr. Beth Bailey—a distinguished professor of history and director of the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies at the University of Kansas—investigates in An Army Afire.

Bailey’s examination of race relations in the Army includes but is not limited to personal anecdotes and interviews. Her book focuses on how “Big Army”—an entity with its own culture, tradition, practices and policies—defined and responded to racial strife within its ranks. Bailey notes it is not surprising that the Army defined its race problem as Black and male at a time when the civil rights and Black Power movements were demanding change. While racial tensions between Black Soldiers and their leaders existed well before the late 1960s, growing fears of disruption to readiness and mission accomplishment forced the predominately White Army to make changes counter to its intrinsic views. Ultimately, Bailey argues that the Army changed for the better, but the change remains incomplete.

After a concise introduction, Bailey provides context and examples of the racial tensions within the Army before the 1970s. Early discussions center on two racially motivated and disruptive events to frame the realities of racial tension in the military during this period: the release of Major Lavell Merritt’s press statement, a public critique of racism within the Army from a Black officer who was later investigated and forced to retire, and the Long Binh Jail Riot, a violent three-week siege at the Army’s overcrowded and predominantly Black prison in Vietnam. After examining social and political pressures to reform Army policies and actions, Bailey dives into the organizational processes and outputs that shaped how the Army defined its “problem of race.” It is through these often-conflicting perspectives that Bailey introduces the reader to efforts to change Army practices on leadership, education and training, culture and identity, off-post discrimination, military justice, and affirmative action. These topics are each covered at length in chapters 4 through 9.

By focusing on how the Army changed, An Army Afire provides a thorough analysis of military organizational behaviors. As one of the largest bureaucracies replete with tradition and pride, the Army was initially reluctant to change. Bailey cites reports from commanders and inspectors general who often dismissed the complaints of Black Soldiers and officers, particularly those who failed to utilize the appropriate chain of command. Efforts to institute councils on race relations or to hold racial awareness seminars with direct access to senior military leaders were criticized as undermining good order and discipline. Even directives to engage local communities to help eliminate racial discrimination in housing, bars, and restaurants for Soldiers across the southern states, West Germany, and South Korea were met with resistance.

Despite these obstacles, Bailey presents strong evidence of an Army that eventually embraced change. The creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute, which was criticized by some commanders and members of Congress as a threat to discipline and harmony, became the precursor to the Army’s current Equal Opportunity Program. Acknowledgement of Soldiers as individuals instead of “olive drab” monoliths led to new grooming standards that allowed Black Soldiers to wear their hair in afros and persuaded the Army & Air Force Exchange Service to sell products marketed to Blacks (7). Further, the inclusion of race relations in officer efficiency reports changed leadership behaviors and forced commanders to communicate more clearly with Soldiers.

The book’s greatest impacts are found in chapters 8 and 9, which focus on military justice and equal opportunity. Army leaders were shocked to discover that Soldiers no longer trusted Big Army to be fair in how it levied discipline and promotion. To address both real and perceived inequalities in the military justice system, the Army and Congress reformed how courts-martial and non-judicial punishments were conducted. New policies restricted some actions previously exploited by overzealous, or overwhelmed, commanders while new rights were granted to Soldiers to improve due process. These changes continue to benefit military justice today.

Additionally, perceptions of an Army that “defaulted white” coincided with reduced visibility of Black Soldiers at senior ranks—particularly with general officers (240). In response, the Army created affirmative action and equal opportunity programs to improve recruitment, retention, and promotion—efforts that produced real results for Black officers, including the abandonment of a new Confederate monument at West Point that would have created lasting racial tension. Bailey acknowledges an inherent question that these programs pose: What role does a prestigious and respected institution whose purpose is violence have in the pursuit of equality? Her text does not answer this question, but her historical examination subtly challenges dueling narratives that the Army has not changed nor should it change.

An Army Afire is an exceptional book because it captures the problem the military continues to face today: How should the military address racial, ethnic, and gender differences while continuing to be a profession of arms? The book will satisfy the intellectual pursuits of at least three audiences. Those interested in organizational behavior will find a well-researched historical case-study of race-conscious change within one of the free world’s largest bureaucracies at a time of major social upheaval. Commanders and leaders challenged to create change will find lessons of unexpected failure and paths of potential success. Skeptics of social change within the military will learn how a partially conscript army from a race-conscious nation went “woke” in 1968 and evolved into the all-volunteer force of today.

An Army Afire is a much-needed reflection on the military’s racial reckoning and a recognition that today’s Army is far more equitable than it was during the Vietnam era. It did, and will continue, to change.

Colonel Alphanso R. Adams, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."