Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester

Korea was the first war fought by an officially desegregated American military. Though African-Americans had served—and indeed fought—in every war in American history, they had usually done so under restricted and restrictive official circumstances. That changed in 1947 when President Harry S Truman capped his civil rights program with Executive Order 9981 which directed the military services to give “equal treatment” to all races serving in the armed forces. The Order deliberately did not mention integration or segregation. Truman was facing an imminent reelection campaign and did not want to alienate southern Democrats any more than his civil rights campaign already had.

Desegregation moved slowly in the following years. The President’s order had been written with a fair amount of waffle room, room of which the military took full advantage

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

What “as rapidly as possible,” or “due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale” meant was left unclear. Unsurprisingly, the military delayed, hedged, and rejected radical change. Pressure from African-American groups kept things moving, but only slowly. It was not until early 1950 that the Army established regulations that started it on the slow road to full integration. The Army that was sent to fight Korea was by no means completely at ease with the idea or practice of racial mixing and remained more segregated than not.

The Cold War created another pressure, however. Substantially reduced in the World War II demobilization, the Army found itself in 1947-50 having to meet a number of significant new commitments in a world in which containment was now official U.S. policy. Worse, in 1950, the Army rudely thrust into a distant war for a chunk of land—the Korean peninsula—that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had only recently left outside America’s global defensive perimeter. Faced with an unfamiliar war, in unfamiliar terrain, the Army found that manpower critically important. It doubled in size from 1950 to 1951, and African-American enlistments soared from 8.2% of all enlistees in March 1950 to 25.2% in August 1950.

The segregation system could not withstand the strain. By April of 1951, black units were massively overstrength, in some cases as much as 60%. Faced with the continuing influx of black recruits, no place to put them (an attempt to activate new black units was turned down), and heavy casualties (of all races) in Korea, the Army began shipping newly trained African-American soldiers as replacements for whatever unit needed them. Desperate to keep their fighting strength up, commanders in Korea showed little hesitation in putting African-American soldiers in white units. Effectively, the United States Army desegregated, under the pressure of war, in the foxholes. It seems to have worked. An opinion poll conducted by the Army in 1951 revealed that 89% of white enlisted men who had served in a racially-mixed unit felt that morale was equal to or higher than that of a all-white unit. As one wounded (white) private said: “’Far as I’m concerned it worked pretty good….Concerning combat, what I’ve seen, an American is an American.”

Much the same seems to be occurring now, with women. The integration of woman into the armed forces over the last several decades has been a contentious and slow process, with an enormous amount of resistance to the idea of women serving both from within and without the military. The debate over women in the military presaged and in some ways predicted the debate of gays in the military. Women would destroy combat cohesion; they were physically weaker than men and would be unable to handle the physical requirements of military life; they would distract the male soldiers; they would get pregnant and have to be discharged. The result is the current official policy, which limits women from performing combat roles, but has opened a broad range of other responsibilities.

Like Korea, that distinction is breaking down under the stress of two wars. First, because in a war with fluid front-lines–if any at all–even women supposedly out of reach of combat find themselves in the middle of a firefight. Second, and more importantly, the need for certain capabilities, skills, and warm bodies, has overridden military reluctance to put women in harm’s way. The New York Times recently published two substantial articles (1, 2) on the latter. In essence, as often happens in the military, strictures and prejudices that were perceived as absolutely fundamental in peacetime rapidly become luxuries in wartime:

As soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts: patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, disposed of explosives, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads. They have proved indispensable in their ability to interact with and search Iraqi and Afghan women for weapons, a job men cannot do for cultural reasons. The Marine Corps has created revolving units — “lionesses” — dedicated to just this task.

The military has gone to some lengths to get women into certain roles, lengths which include violating military policy and Congressional law in the spirit, if not perhaps the letter:

Women are barred from joining combat branches like the infantry, armor, Special Forces and most field artillery units and from doing support jobs while living with those smaller units. Women can lead some male troops into combat as officers, but they cannot serve with them in battle.

Yet, over and over, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army commanders have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence. On paper, for instance, women have been “attached” to a combat unit rather than “assigned.”

All of those objections raised? The combat cohesion? The distraction? The pregnancies? They’ve proved more or less true, but also, in the end, relatively straightforward to handle. Sex in combat zones has been prevalent, enough that the PX at one American base sold out of condoms. The result? The Army relaxed its prohibition against sex between consenting soldiers. The Republic has not yet fallen. Pregnancies have also occurred, but not enough to cause serious problems. Men and women sharing the same bases? The main problem at the moment seems to be hygienic, an issue correctable enough that now female soldiers can now also sign their names in the snow or sand. The articles do skip somewhat lightly over the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Sexual assault is still enough of an issue that one female officer “carries a folding knife and heavy, ridged flashlight” when she is walking around her station at night to protect herself–the implication is–from attacks by fellow American soldiers. Both are “underreported,” one of the articles note, but then it moves on from the issue with something of a verbal dodge:

You’re a bitch, a slut or a dyke — or you’re married, but even if you’re married, you’re still probably one of the three,” Sergeant Bradford said. At the same time, she and other female soldiers cope with the slights, showing a disarming brashness. “I think being a staff sergeant — and a bitch — helps deflect those things,” she added.

This shift, the Times articles note, has received relatively little publicity, despite the hundreds of female casualties, and there now seems broad public support for having women in most roles within the military. The contrast with as recently as 2003 is interesting. Then, Private Jessica Lynch, became a celebrity because of her capture and rescue during the initial Iraqi campaign, a celebrity driven seemingly largely by her being female in a combat zone. Two years later, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester received the first Silver Star awarded to a women since World War II without America taking much notice. Integration, in some small sense, stops being integration when nobody notices such precedents anymore.

P.S. Some of this post is poached and rewritten from a Society for Military History conference paper I did in 2003.