Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris received a Medal of Honor this month, Mar. 2014. Mr. Morris is 80 years old. Why is he receiving this honor belatedly? Because evidence shows he was discriminated against during the time of the U.S. War in Vietnam. He received the Distinguished Service Cross at that time. Mr. Morris is African American.
This news is appearing alongside the latest Ted Nugent rant, which was aimed at President Obama. Not indirectly, directly. He referred to the President as a subhuman mongrel.
This may seem incongruous to Generation X’ers or Millennials. For those of us who lived through the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, it makes perfect sense. It has to do with militarism, racism, and the U.S. War in Vietnam. It is about the war that won’t go away. Let’s take Nugent’s latter invective first. Mongrel is used referencing an animal resulting from the cross of different breeds. This is usually reserved for dogs. But when connoting humans, it certainly is an offensive term.
Dogs themselves have been invoked before in an offensive manner. Remember the Maoist expression – Running Dogs Of Imperialism? That was used to pillow those who justified foreign military intervention, usually by the United States.
The Nugent’s former reference, subhuman, has an even darker past. This charge was the key rationale for slavery and the slave trade. After all, the slavers reasoned, we are doing these subhumans a favor by taking them out of the bush to a more productive life. If there are too many on board, which threatens the safety of the slave ship, we can simply chain them, throw them overboard, and claim them as an insurance loss. After all, they are subhuman. When one ship was running out of water, they did just that.
Why was Charles Darwin attacked so viciously in the mid-1800s? Was it his discovery of the motor of evolution via natural selection? In part. The rest of the story completes the canvass we’re painting here. He said we are all, black, white, and other hues, part of the same family. We are all of the human family. Part of the ideology of slavery came tumbling down.
Some anti-slavery leaders in the 19th century would quote the Bible to counter the subhuman charge. Activist Thomas Clarkson stated that planters would incur the ” . . . heaviest judgment of Almighty God, who made of one blood all the sons of men.” Darwin supplied the data and earned the vitriol of slave owners. He later said look to Africa for the origin of the human family. Fossils and DNA have proved how right he was.
The recent spate of slavery films – Twelve Years A Slave is the best example – and civil rights era days – The Butler – may leave the unsuspecting movie-goer the view that these are settled grievances, a done deal. But the juxtaposition of Nugent’s broadside and Mr. Morris’ belated honor tell a different story. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” With the so-called pivot to Asia by the Obama administration, it certainly isn’t over.
In 1972, I sat in a concert audience at Harvard University. It was Phil Ochs who reminded us that the U.S War in Vietnam had a particularly racist edge. He did this by belting out his song about White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land. When U.S service men referred to the Vietnamese as gooks, it served to dehumanize these mostly peasant people.
Taking a people out of the family of man domain has justified the worst of genocidal crimes. How else can one hear the infamous statement by a G.I. during the U.S. War in Vietnam, we had to destroy the village to save it, and not make this connection?
If they were not fully human then why not destroy and make unlivable their environment. The U.S., with the help of Dow Chemical and Agent Orange, made an area the size of Massachusetts just that – unliveable. Attacking the environment and food sources are considered a war crime under U.N. policies. Where are the reparations for this war crime?
A string broke on Ochs’ guitar that evening as he both entertained us and urged us to participate in the 1972 election campaign. Little did we know at the time that Richard Nixon, his hatchet men in The Committee To Re-elect The President, derisively referred to as CREEP, and their thugs, The Plummer’s, were hard at work to thwart then anti-war Sen. McGovern from getting anywhere near the presidency.
Ochs played through that broken string and the audience went wild. The message was clear. We need to help people make the connection between militarism, war, and racism, especially with young people. It is a substantial part of the pathway to peace with social justice in the 21st century.