A Memo to Mike Huckabee: The Military Has Always Been a Social Experiment

Last night, for better or worse, I decided to watch the first GOP debate in its entirety. I watched it partly for its entertainment value but mostly from a sincere desire to try and understand the arguments and characteristics of the candidates who claim to be competent enough to run the United States as our next President.

In the course of the debate candidate Mike Huckabee was asked a question about the military’s recent decision to lift its ban on transgendered troops. He gave a laughable response:

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. It is not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines makes our country safer.

Cheers and clapping came from the party faithful in response to Huckabee’s comments, but this is simply bad history. The United States military has always been a social experiment whose actions have most certainly transformed our “culture.” Indeed, serving in the military and killing people and breaking things is itself a social experiment, right?

Take, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A passage in the Proclamation proclaims that African Americans “will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Blacks were already serving with the Navy prior to Lincoln’s Proclamation (and have served in every American war since the Revolution), but the message signaled an important transformation within the ranks; ten percent of the military’s fighting force would be composed of United States Colored Troops by the end of the Civil War.

Some scholars such as Lerone Bennett and Michelle Alexander downplay the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation by saying that it didn’t free any slaves (which is false) or that its only significance lies in its utility as a war measure, but the vitriolic responses from some border state Unionists and the Confederate government at the time reflect a belief that the Proclamation was a radical social experiment that threatened law and order. Border State politicians and slaveholders wondered what would happen to their slaves; Kentucky troops fighting for the Union allegedly threatened to lay down their arms if abolition became a war aim and blacks enlisted in the military; and many white Northern troops who may have publicly accepted the changes wrought by the war still held private doubts about the fighting capabilities of blacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis also understood the radicalism of the Emancipation Proclamation and responded with fear and disgust:

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.

Davis believed that the Proclamation would encourage black-on-white violence in the South in the name of “self-defense” and that emancipation would ultimately lead to their extermination by giving them freedom, guns (for the men), and a place outside their “sphere.” The military is not a social experiment!

On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) hosted its final slave auction. Exactly two years later Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged those same slaves–people that could have been bought and sold as property–to enlist in the military. That’s radical. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation had implications that went beyond military service when he asserted that blacks who enlisted had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While I would argue that African Americans earned citizenship for other reasons in addition to military service, it is undeniable that their military service during the war played a significant role in shaping the fourteenth amendment (which gave all native-born and naturalized residents the right of citizenship) and the fifteenth amendment (which gave all men regardless of color the right to vote). The Emancipation Proclamation was a clear case of what we could call a “social experiment” that involved the military.

The military was also used as a social experiment in the twentieth century. Before desegregation in public facilities and schools throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the military to integrate. Just like the Emancipation Proclamation, Truman’s order aroused claims of “social experimentation” within and without the military. Lieutenant General Edward Almond, for example, believed integration would be demoralizing to white soldiers. He actively fought to deny justly-earned medals to black soldiers during the Korean War and continued to lament the perceived ills of integration well into the 1970s. And of course we cannot deny the evolving role of women in the military as nurses, factory workers, administrators, and eventually combat soldiers in our current military.

When we take a look at the social transformations that have taken place in the U.S. military throughout its history we can safely conclude that the opposite of Huckabee’s claim is true – that the military has always provided a means of social change with profound consequences for the social, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a few years ago continued this trend by allowing people the chance to serve in the military while openly gay, and now transgender people can enlist. Until I see some sort of empirical evidence suggesting that a military with transgendered people in the service puts my country’s national security at risk (which I highly doubt), I will gladly applaud and encourage their service in our military.


Addendum: Upon further reflection I think it’s important to further clarify that I do not mean to suggest that the military as an institution leans to the left of the political spectrum or that it embodies liberal or “progressive” ideals any more than it embodies conservative ideals. Rather, I am trying to suggest that the military has historically been targeted by activists because various social groups (including the aforementioned ones here) have earned expanded citizenship and suffrage rights through military service.

“The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves”

I mentioned in an earlier post that after writing about the U.S. military and emancipation during the Civil War, a friend on Facebook asked me if I had “any insight as to whether our modern army would fire upon its own US citizens at the orders of the Commander in Chief?”

I find it fascinating that an essay on the executive-military relationship during the Civil War roughly 150 years ago immediately prompted a question about our present situation regarding the use of drones in warfare. It reminds me that the questions we ask of the past are determined by the questions we have about the present, and that our roles as participants in the America of 2013 shape our observations and perceptions of the America of 1863, whether we like it or not. Indeed, President Barack Obama has claimed that he has been influenced by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but an argument could easily be made that the legacy of Barack Obama has influenced the way we look at Abraham Lincoln. My studies in graduate school have demonstrated that there really is no such thing as creating histories that depict events of the past “as they happened.” We create histories that depict events of the past as we think they happened with the partial, existing evidence we are able to study today.

It would be fair for me to say that regardless of what perspective one takes when looking at the Civil War, we can all agree that the demise of slavery was a good thing. Yet my friend’s question suggests that using the military to help destroy slavery in the South demands new questions to be asked about what the military can do on American soil today. In sum, what’s next? Where’s the boundary line between military benevolence and military despotism? Is the executive branch allowed to unilaterally call for an attack on an American citizen(s)? Doesn’t the Constitution protect us from such a thing?  Alas, strikingly similar questions were being asked by slaveholders in the border states who remained in the United States (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Tennessee [sort of]) in 1863. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to these states, many slaveholders understood that this act threatened the stability of their “property” and they vocally criticized Lincoln for what they perceived as an undemocratic and despotic act of executive fiat that demonstrated his love for “the Negro race.” In fact, one pamphlet distributed by Northern Democrats for the 1864 Presidential election was entitled Abraham Africanus I: his secret life, revealed under the mesmeric influence; mysteries of the White House. “The Executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a program [emancipation] by themselves,” these people argued, in more or less terms.

Many Union soldiers during the Civil War argued that America was an exceptional nation because its rulers were bound by the rule of law and the ballot box, not a monarchical leader or a military dictatorship. Furthermore, they argued that America was composed of citizen-soldiers who did their duty and followed orders, regardless of how they felt about the government’s position on the issue. Most detested the constant political upheavals that plagued Europe and were proud of the fact that military coups did not take place in America.

I think we are seeing that strains of those convictions in our current political discourse over drones today. We are now in the midst of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, led by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, after Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter saying that yes, under certain circumstances determined to be “catastrophic” in the minds of the executive branch and the executive branch alone the President CAN kill Americans on American soil. Viewed in this light, is it right for a soldier to always obey and enforce an order of the executive, even if that order targets American citizens and could be considered morally wrong? Many people have echoed Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s comment that regarding drones, “The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves.” Equally important to our discussion, does the debate over drones today change the way we look at Lincoln’s use of the military in ending slavery during the Civil War?

These questions are tough to answer, but for me I think the current debate shows that we to need set more boundaries regarding what the executive can and can’t do with the military. I’d also point out that Lincoln did set some boundaries because he avoided issuing a similar document like the Emancipation Proclamation in the border Union states. He believed it was an unconstitutional violation of the 5th amendment regarding the confiscation of property (i.e. slaves) without due process. (Also remember that Confederates no longer acknowledged the laws of the United States, thus the EP was used as a “war measure” to destroy the Confederacy’s fighting ability). I think this demonstrates that there were limits to the President’s power in 1863 at least, but my interpretation is certainly up for debate.

Conversely, we’ve learned that the leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died. Chavez was a brutal, undemocratic leader who made his first entrance into politics through a failed military coup–rather than the ballot box–in 1992. Indeed, throughout the 1990s Chavez believed that a military takeover of the government was the only effective way of enacting political change, according to this book. (p.116) Chavez even had a failed military coup enacted against his government in 2002. This situation asks us whether or not it is right for the military to have the right to arbitrarily decide when it will enforce the actions of their executive. If I’m not satisfied with the actions of an executive (as was Chavez), is it right for me to use my position in the military to reject those actions and attempt to overthrow the government, without the use of the ballot box?

Some intellectual food for thought. I welcome any feedback and appreciate your readership.

Emancipation: A Long, Complex Process

Thomas Nast's famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States
Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States

I’m still reflecting a bit on the U.S. military’s agency in destroying slavery. Please bear with me. It is still my contention that the military played a significant role in that crucial event in our history. Something that was mentioned in my conference paper that has not been mentioned here is the fact that the contraband policy–which determined that slaves that had run away from their (Rebel) masters to seek protection within Union military lines were to be protected by the military, not sent back to their masters–was a creation of the military, specifically General Benjamin F. Butler, not the U.S. government. The idea behind it was that since slaves were considered “property” under Confederate (and U.S., for that matter) law, this “property” of the Confederacy could now be confiscated by Union forces for the benefit of the Union war effort as “contraband of war.” We should remember that Abraham Lincoln didn’t even like this measure at first! Eventually, as the United States military began to penetrate deeper into the South, they “systematically uprooted tens of thousands of slaves from their plantations to relocate them in areas safe from the reach of their former masters,” according to James Oakes in his new book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (pg. 281). (These ‘Contraband camps,’ were actually not very safe for their health, however.)

I often tire of the discussion regarding “who freed the slaves?” because it presupposes that it was one person or entity that was responsible for ending it. On one side we get the crowd who calls (and writes about) Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” while on the other we get a growing crowd who seem to be arguing that the slaves themselves were almost wholly responsible for freeing themselves (this is an interesting article from Indian Country Today Media Network, which offers a wholly different interpretation on Lincoln’s legacy, by the way).

The reality is that emancipation was a long, complex process that involved Lincoln, the slaves themselves, the abolitionists, the Union military, the Confederacy (which determined that the institution of slavery was safer out of the Union than in it. Oops!], and many, many other actors and agents. Furthermore, I think it’d be impossible for one to put all of these factors into a ranked list and say that “X did this much to end slavery, Y did this much, Z did this much.” In speaking about the military’s agency in emancipation I am not arguing that they did more or less than any other person or organization with an interest in ending slavery. Rather, I’m seeking to follow Gary Gallagher’s steps and establish some sort of acknowledgement for their part in the process.


A Quick Note on American Nationalism

I’m pleased to see that my arguments on the U.S. military and emancipation have sparked further discussion about the military-executive relationship in America. After reading my post, a friend on Facebook asked me the following:

Any insight as to whether our modern army would fire upon its own US citizens at the orders of the Commander in Chief?

I don’t have a ready answer for that, although the executive-ordered drone attacks on American citizens and the legal rationale underpinning such orders is worrisome. I guess I’ll just have to hope that the American people are smart enough to pick a Commander in Chief who wouldn’t abuse his powers in such a way. Hopefully that isn’t wishful thinking, although my concern about drones is growing.

I also want to add that while American nationalism helped end slavery in America, we must also remember that that same nationalistic spirit has also led to other events in our history that were more controversial. Nationalism and a belief in manifest destiny led to the near wiping-out of all American Indians in the years following after the American Civil War. Furthermore, the country was silent when the U.S. military–following executive orders–began rounding up thousands of Japanese citizens and putting them in internment camps at the outbreak of World War II.

In sum, the legacy of American nationalism is mixed.

Until next time…

The U.S. Military and Emancipation: A Question of Agency

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free. (Click to Enlarge)

I enjoyed presenting my paper and meeting several historians throughout the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee at the IAH Conference today. As mentioned two days ago, the central argument of my paper was that the U.S. military has played an active role in shaping the constructs of social policy throughout our history, and that more research is needed to understand the military’s influence in these matters. After my presentation an audience member asked me a very good question that is worth further elaboration here. He asked how I was able to determine a difference between the agency [the power of choosing or determining a course of action] of the federal government and the military in shaping social policy. If I understood the question correctly, he is basically asking the following:

“Isn’t the military supposed to take orders from the Chief Executive?”

“Is it fair to say that the military played a role in shaping social policy when in actuality they were merely enforcing the orders of the federal government, the true agents in calling for emancipation during the Civil War and the end of segregation during the Civil Rights movement?”

On the face of it, the answer to both is yes. When looking at events during the Civil Rights movement, the question of agency and the U.S. military is tougher to answer. However, the circumstances surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the military’s part in helping to enforce the act demonstrate that the military did have a fair amount of agency in helping to destroy the institution of slavery during the Civil War.  It was not merely an act of the military “enforcing orders” from the President. I’ll explain why.

In looking at the relationship between the military and the executive branch during the Civil War (and, by extension, the period from 1776-1898) we must internationalize our context and compare/contrast the military-executive relationship with a wider range of countries. When we do this, we see that the United States and their republican form of government are the exception to the rule of governmental structures during this period. We must remember that England, France, Austria, Hungary, Russia, the areas that would eventually become the countries of Italy and Germany, and many other countries still had a monarchical form of government at this time. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind the fact that the power of these monarchical regimes relied on the military to enforce the King’s actions. In sum, these Kings greatly relied on the military for legitimacy. If the King took an action that the military didn’t like, there was always a possibility that a military coup would overthrown the King’s government and put in its own puppet regime. You can see here that there were many successful military coups in the 18th and 19th centuries, and this was the world in which the United States was attempting to maintain a form of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

The world was watching the Civil War and waiting to see what would happen to this republican form of government. Would it perish? Would Lincoln be overthrow by the Union military when things starting going bad in 1862? Would a new Northwest Confederacy emerge?

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, there remained a sense of uncertainty about how the act would be received in the border slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland, and Delaware) and the Union military. Rumors spread that thousands of soldiers were going to throw down their guns and go home in protest against a war for abolition. Such concerns in Lincoln’s mind led him to prevent John Fremont from issuing his own Emancipation edict in Missouri earlier in 1861.

Given the high number of recent military coups that had occurred in Europe and the widespread criticism Lincoln received for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, I’m not convinced that the process of having the Union military enforcing emancipation is as easy as “following orders” from the President because the military-executive relationship was tenuous and unstable. Turning the war into one for abolition was risky and could have possibly led to a coup against the Lincoln government from the soldiers of the border and/or western states. If the Union Army refused to enforce emancipation, what would have happened?

According to Reid Mitchell, following the Emancipation Proclamation, “some soldiers were jubilant, others horrified, and still more accepted the war’s transformation with troubled minds.” That last part is notable. Many soldiers put their own feelings aside and simply soldiered on. Let us look at a letter from Andrew Bush, an Indiana soldier in the 97th Indiana volunteer regiment, for his reaction to Emancipation:

We have not much news here but much anxiety is felt for northern news amongst some of the soldiers in regard to the welfare of old Hoosier. It is reported frequently amongst us that Indiana is about to form a government [the aforementioned Northwest Confederacy] of her own with some other of the western states… Some of our boys are jubilant over the news; they think that if old Indiana should slip out of the Union they would get to go home; but they will find out that they are in mistake for us soldiers don’t belong to Indiana, for we are sworn to obey the president of the United States and we are in his service and he can hold us in spite of anything that we and our friends can do.

I don’t like old Abe’s proclamation but I can’t help myself at this time. If I had thought that it was the idea to set the negroes all free they would not have got me to act the part of a soldier in this war. But as it is I am willing to fight for the Union if it will cause the freedom of the last beastly negro in the South for I don’t think that they are human. I am in for anything that will cause Union and peace of our once happy government.

Andrew Bush did not care one ounce for African Americans, but he helped to end the institution of slavery in the country by being a Union soldier. Following the Emancipation Proclamation he refused to lie his gun down because his nationalism and belief in a republican form of government overrode his personal views. “We are in his service,” Bush claims. There were no further questions to ask. This was not a European country ruled by an oppressive king and his strong military, but a government ruled by the people and the ballot box, and this was the ideal Bush believed he was fighting for. Such letters reinforce my argument that many members in the military–guided by a strong sense of nationalism during the Civil War–put aside their personal views and decided to support Lincoln’s controversial measures during the deadliest war in American history. So it seems to me that the military did have an element of agency in helping to end slavery in this country. In the words of Gary Gallagher, they became “an army of liberation.”

P.S.: It did NOT take me this long to answer the question at the conference!

Yours Truly, Coming to an Academic Conference Near You (Possibly)

The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.
The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.

On Saturday, 2 March, I will be presenting a paper at the Indiana Association of Historians 33rd Annual Meeting at the University of Indianapolis. You can look at the conference program here. Readers will notice that I am on the very last panel for the entire day, which should be interesting.

The particular paper I’m presenting at this conference is entitled “An Army of Liberation: The U.S. Military as an Agent of Social Reform in American History.I began writing it this past summer, right before I began my endeavor into graduate studies. Some studying of the papers of Ulysses S. Grant and several secondary source readings into the relationship between the U.S. military and the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War got me interested in seeing how this relationship developed and, by extension, now has me on this intellectual kick to learn more about the history of civil-military relations in the United States (hence my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana).

Without ever being a member of the U.S. military myself, I am going to state that I believe many soldiers have experiences in the military that challenge them to think about social topics such as race, gender, and (today) sexuality. I think there is a dearth of scholarship that exists on these interesting relationships, and this paper reflects a personal effort on my part to find a connection between military service and the changing views on race from many soldiers throughout American history. I argue that nationalist sentiments (love of country, in sum) challenged soldiers to face this topic head-on whenever personal views (i.e. an indifference to slavery during the Civil War) bumped up against the realities of a national crisis (i.e. the Union Army’s need to arm black soldiers in 1863 after struggling to defeat the Confederates in the Eastern Theater of war in 1862).

Here is my paper abstract:

Since its victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military has represented itself as a strong and efficient patriotic force dedicated to law and order, duty, and sacrifice. Countless historical monographs have dedicated thousands of pages towards analyzing these character traits and how they relate to battle strategy and the nature of America’s foreign policy initiatives. Likewise, studies on the consequences of war for citizens who remained on the “home front” are frequently published. However, there remains a deficiency of works attempting to understand the U.S. military and its impact on social policy within its own borders. This study analyzes three episodes in U.S. history–the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the desegregation of the military in 1948, and the attempt to desegregate Little Rock High School in 1957–to demonstrate the unique and somewhat controversial role the U.S. military has played in shaping the constructs of domestic social policy. It argues that U.S. soldiers frequently disagreed over the proper role of the military in social affairs and that some rejected “radical” measures that could change the status quo, such as ending slavery during the Civil War or segregation throughout the twentieth century. In each episode, however, the military unintentionally helped change the very nature of civil rights in America. Looming threats to the military’s strength and efficiency, the preservation of law and order, and the perpetuity of the nation itself required that the military protect and aid African-Americans, who were eventually seen by many soldiers as allies in creating a stronger military, maintaining law and order, and promoting American nationalism. The subsequent results of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement demonstrate that the obtaining of freedom in America frequently involves some of the most unlikely figures and institutions within its society. This paper is a compilation of original research and scholarly synthesis, and was largely influenced by Gary Gallagher’s recent publication, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

I look forward to meeting many talented graduate students and professional historians throughout the State of Indiana and will attempt to live tweet the event once again. We’ll see how that goes!


The Horrors of PTSD

Amidst all the hubaloo surrounding the Super Bowl this weekend (of which I was a part of), a tragic and very serious incident of murderous violence between military veterans occurred in Texas. One of the victims was Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. The perpetrator, Eddie Ray Routh, was a man the same age as me that was apparently suffering from what is now commonly referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Kyle and the other victim, Chad Littlefield, had befriended Routh and tried to help him cope with life after war. We are told that Littlefield was even a “workout buddy” with Routh.

For some strange reason, it was decided that the three men would go to a shooting range this weekend, upon which Kyle and Littlefield were both murdered. I don’t understand why Routh would do such a thing to his friends. It is absolutely senseless, but most likely aggravated by the experiences of combat, somehow.

There are many questions worth asking. Firstly, why is it that the media reports these stories when a high profile veteran like Chris Kyle is the victim, yet almost completely silent when other such incidents happen? Would this story be receiving the attention it has if Chris Kyle was not the deadliest sniper-one who killed more than 150 people in four tours to Iraq-but someone who served a term similar to Routh’s, one that goes almost completely unnoticed and unacknowledged? Why is PTSD not taken more seriously in this country?

I am also having an internal conflict about the legacy of Chris Kyle. He served my nation and made a sacrifice that many people of my generation have not and will not endure. Yet reading about his experience in Iraq made me feel much like the people who reacted to Mathew Brady’s photographic exhibit on the dead of Antietam during the Civil War. One reporter at the time stated that “If [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

We learn that Kyle kills “about” 40 people at the Second Battle of Fallujah and at one point does some of the killing while lying over an overturned baby crib. In one instance Kyle kills two people with a single bullet. Regarding this chilling incident, all he has to say in his book American Sniper is that “The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” Such stories make me question what exactly this nation did in order to not only have people thousands of miles away “hate us,” but how a man could kill 150 fellow human beings and have no regrets or second thoughts about it, especially considering the fact that we were duped about Iraq and its alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

Moving on from Kyle, we must begin to acknowledge that PTSD is a serious problem in this country. A crisis, in fact. A recent report has stated that 325 veterans committed suicide in 2012, a record number, even higher than the number of soldiers killed in combat that year. That’s almost one veteran a day that committed suicide last year. William T. Sherman once remarked that “War is Hell.” War is indeed hell, but it is also death: physically, emotionally, mentally. Even when we discover that there is problem with a veteran, as was the case with Routh, we are still unsure as to how to work with that veteran to help him or her get better. I don’t think guns do much to help in such situations, personally. For the sake of all of our veterans, I hope we continue the work of figuring out the complex ramifications and consequences of PTSD on a person’s mental state. Equally important, I hope we figure out a way to stop resolving our problems with other countries through endless violence and war.