U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Soldiers, American Culture

Thinking back on the excellent Foreign Policy and the Left Roundtable we’ve recently had, I find myself considering other questions that need to be asked about the recent history of American foreign policy. However, while the various posts addressed a variety of issues revolving around the American Left, and the machinations of foreign policy elites from the United States, are important, I’d like to take today to consider the men and women who are often called upon to carry out that foreign policy.

Now, full disclosure before I continue. My father served in the United States Army for twenty years. Before that, my grandfather on my mother’s side of the family served in the Army during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Add to that the fact that I have a large number of uncles who’ve also served in the American armed forces (usually either Army or Navy) and it’s safe to say that my family’s history could not be divorced from the foreign policy decisions made by the U.S. government since the end of World War II. In a sense, I’m trying to construct a history that’s both deeply important—and deeply personal.

But being a person who often jokes with his students about being born in Germany, and pushing them to consider why so many of our generation (and the previous one) were born outside the United States to American soldiers, I’ve thought more in recent months about what, exactly, a history of American soldiers since World War II would look like. And I think such a project would be important for American intellectual historians to consider as well. It’s also intriguing to consider the possibilities of such a project, which would tackle a) why soldiers were posted in places such as Western Europe, Japan, and Korea; b) the ways in which intellectuals throughout that era wrote and talked about the posting of soldiers outside the United States, confronting just some of the practical effects of the Cold War and beyond; and c) most importantly, how sheatwave.boximg.pnguch soldiers navigated being ambassadors to the citizens of other nations.

The third portion of that statement gets at cultural history. I’m thinking especially of African American soldiers, who would have promoted and experienced African American culture away from the United States, yet also transmit such culture to people in the United Kingdom, West Germany, South Korea, and elsewhere. As an example, I think of one of my favorite 1970s funk bands, Heatwave, which was founded by a former U.S. Army serviceman, Johnnie Wilder, Jr. Heatwave was a band made up of Americans as well as Europeans, offering just one example of the power of music to bring together individuals from disparate nations. Of course, with the example of Heatwave, the importance of the U.S. Armed Forces acting as a conduit for Americans to meet individuals from other nations can’t be overstated.

There are books which address some aspects of soldiering, American history, and American culture. Kimberley L. Phillips’ War! What Is It Good For? Is an excellent primer on how African American soldiers experienced discrimination and activism, far away from home, from the World War II era through the Vietnam War. One element of this is the preponderance of underground newspapers on various military installations in the United States and around the world. Yet the book lightly touches on the American soldier (or, more specifically, the African American soldier) after Vietnam and before the Global War on Terror. An examination of American soldiers in Europe, for example, would offer some interesting avenues into how Americans saw Western Europeans, and vice versa. Sections of Yuichiro Onishi’s Transpacific Antiracism, which includes sections about the interaction between African American soldiers and civilians at Okinawa, offers another example of how the history of American soldiers overseas can be told.

Such a project would also offer a new spin on ideas of transnational history. The Cold War and immediate post-Cold War era offer some new ways for historians to tackle the unique challenge of telling history beyond national borders. In some sense, there’s an irony here: using the stories and experiences of soldiers serving a particular nation, albeit as part of a multinational coalition, could offer historians the opportunity to reexamine meanings of American-ness during the Cold War. Already, books such as A Breath of Freedom offer commentary on the relationship between African Americans and the people in both West and East Germany during the Cold War.[1] There are other areas that, very quickly, I’ll also discuss as offering chances to think about new stories that could be told about recent American history.

American athletes going abroad is a story that has the potential to offer more options to historians. For example, American basketball players have a long tradition of playing in Europe if dreams of NBA stardom don’t quite work out. The most famous example is Joe Bryant, father of Kobe Bryant. Joe Bryant’s career took him from the NBA to playing in Europe, specifically in Italian basketball. Other obvious stories would include American baseball players in Japan and, a more recent phenomenon, American soccer players honing their trade in Europe and elsewhere. The point of such exercises would be understanding cultural exchange in a more recent context, in an era when globalization seems like a given but the contours of those experiences are still waiting to be given historical context. Ultimately, American soldiers serve a variety of roles in American and Western society. While their most important role is as combatants in war, American soldiers also serve as ambassadors and cultural conduits between peoples.

[1] If you’re interested in African American soldiers and Germany, I’d like to recommend two other books: Recasting Race After World War II: Germans and African Americans in American-Occupied Germany by Timothy L. Schroer (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007) and Race After Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America by Heide Fehrenbach (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Another great post, Robert, filled with provocative questions!
    I found Phillips’ framing of her book as a labor history of soldiering really interesting, and I think the way you’ve framed the questions has a lot to add to that. There are so many avenues to open up with this line of thinking.

    I just learned the other day that a number of the key members of the Fenians fighting for an Irish republic were soldiers in the US Civil War who then returned to Ireland.

    One scholar to look out for in the coming years to present an interesting component to this conversation is Kathleen Belew’s work on militarism and the racist right.
    http://www.history.northwestern.edu/people/belew.html

    • Thanks for the kind words. And yes, I also thought that Phillips framing of soldiers as laborers were a novel idea. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised it wasn’t done sooner.

      The point about the Fenians is intriguing–we tend to forget about that as just one way the American Civil War took on an international flavor.

      And Belew’s work sounds great! Thanks for that link.

  2. Alright, I checked that link and I MUST read that book when it comes out. I wrote a paper about right-wing terrorism in recent American history years ago, and it’s a topic I’d like to go back to someday. Looks like Belew’s work is in that same vein, but with an intriguing twist.

  3. Robert,
    Great post, and I think the connection you draw between soldiers stationed abroad and athletes playing abroad is a really intriguing one. It reminds me of the double sense of “barnstorming”–both the traveling exhibitions of aerial stunt devils (often with military training) in the early years of flight and the baseball or basketball teams–such as those in the Negro Leagues or the House of David team from Michigan–going from small town to small town during roughly the same period. To put those transient cultures–the military and the athletic–together is a really provocative insight!

    • Thanks! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent weeks. Especially when it comes to athletes–I was looking into the history of basketball in Europe and, going back to at least the 1970s, if not earlier, there’s a strong American presence in the European leagues. We often only think about Europeans and South Americans playing the NBA–but there are many American basketball players who’ve made a living in Europe.

      There was a piece published online about Black players in modern-day Europe. I couldn’t find it while writing this post, but it was certainly a fascinating look at race, citizenship, and crossing boundaries.

  4. Robert this is great! I think there is good study to do on the false periodization of the soldiers, as well. We often consider them attached to particular wars and those experiences exclusive to those wars, though with much recent woes regarding the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are having to consider the idea of soldiering to be a culture almost independent of American life itself. I can imagine the conversations we might have in various VA hospitals and American Legions across the country if we posed your questions to veterans. Perhaps we could reach out to our colleagues in organizations that study military and diplomatic history to see where research is begin done along these lines–another avenue for sponsored panels at the USIH conference in 2015!

    • This is a fantastic idea! And I think you’re right: that periodization can be problematic. I think, going back to my post, of my father, who served from 1975 until 1995. Certainly, that era’s armed forces would be termed “post-Vietnam,” but what does that mean? It includes an accounting for what happened to the US military in Vietnam and a loss of morale, but how long does the military deal with those issues? And how long does that term last–until the Gulf War in 1991? Does it end in the 1980s, when concerns about the Soviet Union heightened?

      And your point about soldiering and American life is crucial. The military of the USA has been all-volunteer since the 1970s. How does that affect the relationship between the military and the civilian world–especially in light of memories (as opposed to just the history) of Vietnam?

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