Here I go, off onto another wild goose chase occasioned by a simple question posed on another website, John Birmingham’s cheeseburger gothic.substack.com.
He was doing a mini-review of a Netflix series called “The Liberator.”
Here was his question:
He was “exploring why men would fight for a country that wouldn’t extend them the basic courtesies, let alone the same legal rights as their white officers and squad mates.”
It occurred to me that I might have some extra insight into this question, having grown up somewhat mixed, and definitely military.
The photo above is all that remains of my uncle Dick, who was killed in Korea a few weeks before his eighteenth birthday.
The woman below was his Grandma.
She was born on a reservation in the 1870’s in Minnesota, shortly after the greatest one-day execution in US history, when 38 men from her tribe were hung for rebellion.
Surely she heard something about this growing up. How could you not? You would think that she would never have a single thing to do with the US Army or government; but this was not so.
At the tail-end of the Indian Wars, along came a blue-coated soldier. The details are vague, but he and Great-Grandma got along fairly well and when he finally got out of the Army they had a son.
The Indian Census of 1910 was coming, and Oatszela, Matilda, didn’t want her son to be officially marked down as a “native.”
So they moved. Back to Ohio where her ex-soldier man came from, to a place where no-one would recognize them.
Of course, you can tell all of the stories you want, but there are some things you just can’t hide. Such as an imperfectly white shade of skin. “Matilda” could squawk all she wanted to about being “French,” but did anyone believe her?
No. Her kids tried the same game, but it didn’t matter. My Grandpa got in trouble with the law (his first offense? He stabbed a fellow with a pitchfork while attempting to steal raccoon skins.) and stayed that way for a while. Eventually he ended up in a Wild West show as a horse handler.
Up until the Second World War, it would be fair to say that my Grandpa had a pretty tough time- yeah, it would be easy to blame all of it bigots and jerks but part of it was some pretty poor decision making on his part, too.
But the Army didn’t care that he was a jail-bird. Not during the war. He and his brother answered the call. His brother Russell was an infantry NCO and a hard-bitten man; his war ended at the doorstep to Japan. Luzon, 1945.
My Grandpa? He started as a private and finished that way. The A-bomb saved him from Operation Downfall, 1945.
What I’d like to point out is that both men were willing despite their backgrounds. Neither cared about the decidedly unfavorable aspects that the US Army had played in their ancestor’s lives.
When the time came, my Grandpa allowed the false enlistment of his oldest son, Dick, who left for service with the 3rd Infantry at the age of 15 (!).
Grandpa isn’t around to ask, but I have the idea that allowing his son to follow the warrior’s path was an acceptable solution for a difficult relationship.
Dick’s luck ran out in Korea. He never came home.
The years went by, the stories were told and re-told. Some left for Vietnam, the Gulf, Africa, Europe, Asia, to all corners of the globe. Where America stood, we went. Where America fought, we fought.
Hearing my elders talk as a kid I had the idea that yeah, we had some hard times; prosperity didn’t truly come until around when I was born, the 1970’s.
No silver spoons here; just dozens of flat, brass, complimentary VA markers.
So let me return to the original question- why? Why would you do it? Why would you risk your life in someone else’s war?
First, let me say that none of us ever deserved the title “sucker.” I don’t think a damn one of us was fooled into service. I think it is a real thing, from time out of mind, that when the tribe said “you must fight,” that we fought. There’s not really more to it than that.
Second, my family always had a strong oral tradition, a real sense of family and an unbroken line of ancestors, many of whom were soldiers. Long-time readers may have noticed that I speak of Uncle Dick quite a lot. There’s a reason for that! His death went off like an A-Bomb in the family; he was mentioned quite a lot when I was a boy.
A secret, and this will come off a bit odd. As I fought through those windy, craggy valleys I always had a feeling I was watched. That my actions were judged. By whom? A long line of ancestors, starting with Dick.
Crazy? Illogical? A construct of a mind under extreme stress? Yes.
But pretty damn real, nonetheless.
Finally, I guess the racism, the bigotry, just didn’t mean all that much to my family in the end. That it was there was plain to all. That the US isn’t a perfect country would be <zero> surprise to any of us.
Maybe the reason we picked up the sword, tomahawk, assault rifle, etc. was as old as time: our (place relevant name here) tribe was threatened by outsiders; we offered our lives in our children’s defense.
Not because we were suckers, and not because we were saints, either.
Why? Because it was the right thing to do.