WE WERE THERE
Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq
By Yvonne Latty (with photographs by Ron Tarver)
Amistad/HarperCollins. 181 pp. $23.95
TWO SOULS INDIVISIBLE
The Friendship That Saved Two POWS in Vietnam
By James S. Hirsch
Houghton Mifflin. 253 pp. $25
In 1935, the historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois offered what has become a justifiably famous assessment of African American combat service in the Civil War. The sacrifices of noted regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry had led to the grudging acknowledgment of black men's courage and strength of character, he concluded, while the end of the war had led to the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The lesson seemed clear enough:
"He might labor for the nation's wealth, and the nation took the results without thanks, and handed him as near nothing in return as would keep him alive," Du Bois wrote of the slave turned soldier. "But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice declared him a man and a brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible. Nothing else made Negro citizenship possible, but the record of the Negro soldier as fighter."
The irony, of course (aside from Du Bois's overly broad description of "the whole nation"), is that the Civil War had not been the first time that black soldiers had served this land in combat. Precisely when that history begins is open to some interpretation; one historian has published a book for young readers with the suggestive title "The Black Soldier: 1492 to the Present." Many other titles start the clock with the Revolutionary War.
But not everyone has gotten the message. In 2001, Philadelphia Daily News reporter Yvonne Latty sat down to write an obituary of George Ingram, a black veteran of World War II. The task led her to a remarkable discovery: "Writing about George taught me that everyday African Americans played an important role in creating America." Latty has carried that belated lesson forward, creating a book about African American veterans of the nation's later wars. Pulling at the fabric of history, she followed the thread back for a grand total of 60 years, not quite all the way back to Du Bois.
"We Were There" starts with World War II, which Latty apparently considers the opening moment of significant African American military service. That war "had a lot of firsts," she explains, including "the first black infantry soldiers on the front line." It's possible that Latty was poorly served by a history teacher or two, but you also have to wonder if she has a rental card for her neighborhood video store. Ignorance of history is common; ignorance of Denzel Washington movies is not, and the 1989 movie "Glory" depicts the very real attack on Fort Wagner, S.C., by black infantry soldiers during the Civil War.
Later, Latty circles back to very briefly note an earlier instance of African American military service, but her tin ear for history remains in evidence. After the Civil War, she writes, "black soldiers volunteered to tame the West. They took on outlaws, American Indians, and Mexican revolutionaries." It is rare, these days, to find a writer who will lump those categories together and plainly describe the killing of Indians as the taming of the West.
Latty has taken as much care with the simple details of military history as she takes with the rest. The USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier, is described as "one of the most famous battleships in history," for example. Get beyond Latty's casual hand with historical fact, and you're left with a set of rambling first-person narratives from interviews that often leave unanswered questions or offer nothing new: "We'd see them running and we'd shoot back and forth. Sometimes we'd get ambushed." Plenty of other writers have covered this ground with greater reach and deeper insight, and readers interested in African American military history would do better to begin with the work of Gail Buckley, Gerald Astor, Bernard Nalty or Robert Edgerton.
James Hirsch takes far greater care with "Two Souls Indivisible," an account of American prisoners of war in Vietnam. This is, again, nominally a book about race and military service, and Hirsch handles the outline of that story with reportorial competence and obvious respect. But the story of a white Navy pilot and a black Air Force pilot, both from the South and held together under brutally miserable conditions, trails off quickly into a more general account of the POW experience. In a book with 253 pages of text, the two men are placed in a cell together on Page 73 and separated on Page 142, with several digressions even inside that narrow range of pages. Aside from a brief introduction, the rest of the book is largely another pass through a story that has been told before. What this is, really, is a terrific magazine story fattened up for the book market.
Except that the story is also, in this telling, curiously flat. From the last page of the book is this example of the language Hirsch gathers to sum up the relationship of two men who have struggled together against death and searing pain: "Cherry thanked Halyburton for making him part of his life. Halyburton often saw Cherry on business trips to Washington and stayed at his house on several occasions." The history of African American military service is undoubtedly an important and dramatic story. But these are not the books to tell it.