Asymmetry and Duality: Black Veterans in America

(published in BLACK & Magazine, http://www.blackandmagazine.com, 4 June 2020)

POTUS suggested to mayors and governors he was prepared to deploy active duty military troops – military police, ostensibly – to quell protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The next day at work, I was speaking with one of my colleagues at work who is also a veteran. Having deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, she angrily said she did not fight for this country to silence its citizens. We each took an oath to protect our country from all enemies, foreign or domestic and we each swore to support and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. However, as blacks in this country, we are crushed under the hypocrisy of racism. As veterans – as black veterans – we navigate the space of patriotism with duality which is often asymmetrical: We are black and we are veterans but, in many instances, patriotism habituates illiberal perspectives which conflict with our black lived experiences. This is to say, that to be one often means that we are challenged in being the other. Blacks have served in every war this nation has ever had; in fact, the first man killed in the Revolutionary War – Crispus Attucks – was a black man. Yet, what was the America we – the generations of blacks who have nobly and courageously served – returned home to?

The lived experiences of black veterans have often been minimized or subsumed into America’s broader narratives on patriotism and exceptionalism.  We have come home to flag waving, racism and white privilege.  No matter what we have done that shows we are as much a part of the American legacy, what persists is this paradigm of race.  I’m reminded of the loss of SGT LaDavid Johnson, the Green Beret killed in Niger in 2018.  Four soldiers were lost that day but it SGT Johnson’s loss that turned into a spectacle because the President called up his widow and callously mentioned that he knew what he signed up for.  What was even worse was the suggested by some people that SGT Johnson ran away during battle.  The truth was he fought valiantly against overwhelming odds until he was killed.  Patriotism is a problematic space for black veterans because so much of what it means to be patriotic in America in the 21st century is interwoven within a white frame of reference.  In this context, patriotism is asymmetrical:  To be one often means being less of the other.  So, at the intersection of being black and being patriot we each deal with the duality of our service and our identity attempting to navigate racialized spaces in American society.  

We fought for free voices for our democracy, not just white voices. It’s a slap in the face of every black veteran to allow whites to show up in protest with guns and draped in the American flag while asserting that blacks and others who are protesting murder by police are a threat to law and order.  Sending – or even threatening to send – military troops to police American streets is an affront to the service of veterans, especially black veterans.

Published by: Bryon L. Garner

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bryon L. Garner earned his Master of Liberal Arts in 2019 from Johns Hopkins University where he was a Roszel C. Thompson Fellowship recipient. Bryon has presented “Hegemonic Masculinity: The Soldier Athlete Identity as an Existential Paradox” and “The Soldier Athlete Archetype: Contrast of White and Black Masculinity in America” at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs Spring Colloquia in 2018 and 2019. A current student in the Union Institute and University PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies program, Bryon’s areas of interest are Intersectionality of Identity, Masculine Archetypes, and Patriotic Identity.

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