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Race Relations in the Military: Why America Should Take Notes

Race in the marinesCurrently, the national conversation on race has become a blundering failure in the face of several high profile deaths at the hands of police.  However, I have a confession to make.  I feel like I am watching this poisonous debate take place while having flashbacks or visions of a land without such problems.  Almost as if I have travelled to this land before and can vividly remember such a society where race is marginalized for the greater good.   Then, I remember, this is no vision at all.  Rather, I am merely paying homage to my time in the United States Marine Corps.  You see, I am of the belief that America could learn much from watching what I believe to be the most successful utopia of a colorless society that exists. Thus, without much further ado and with my own twist of humor, let me take you to the land of the light green and the dark green Marine.  Take notes America.

Light Green and Dark Green

If you are confused by what I mean by the terms of “light green” and “dark green”, then I suppose I must explain to you that in the Marine Corps, there are no black or white Marines.  Rather, they are all green, just some a darker or lighter shade of green than others.  Then lots of Hispanic green as well.  Like, literally lots of Hispanic green with the occasional sprinkle of Asian green.  Yes, the Marine Corps has a plethora of greens as if we are all the offspring of the Jolly Green Giant himself and he just happened to dip his asparagus in whatever ethnicity he could find.

At least, that is how it is explained to us from the moment we step on to the famous yellow footprints.  For on these same footprints will step a mountain based redneck from the most racist family imaginable and the hardcore inner city teen from a family steeped in gang culture.  However, before their time is up, the two of these Marines will be fighting for each other’s life and who knows, if the night is cold enough, they might even be spooning with the only conflict being over who’s fault was the morning wood.

military cold

Strangely enough, the Marines and presumably the rest of the military accomplishes this without ever once talking about racial differences.  Where you to ask the dark green Marine about the police, race, and life his answers would still be different from those of his light green mountain man brother.  They didn’t need to sit down and have a pow-wow or develop an accord on tolerance.  Rather, with 3 basic elements, the Marines somehow get Johnny Reb and Malcom X to spoon on a cold winter’s night.  Personally, I am convinced Americans liked each other a lot more before the age of Facebook where they actually knew what each other thought about everything.  So take notes America, here is the secret sauce.

Humor

That’s right.  It might shock you given what I just said, but you will never find more seemingly racist banter spoken out loud than in the military.  Honestly, it is just an Alpha male dog eat dog world and the dogs could care less about being offended.  You see, nothing is off limits to conversation in the Marines.  Not race,  ugly girlfriends, your weight, your education, or just how generally stupid boot you are.  It is all fair game and you better be able to give it as well as take it.

General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. from the Air Force said this in 1970, ” The Marines don’t have any race problems.  They treat everybody like they are black.” I think the movie Full Metal Jacket is a good example of the type of banter one might see to one degree or another.  However, the point is, Marines generally don’t care.

Full metal jacket raceIt is as if, wait for it……., Marines generally accept that we are different, we don’t fully understand one another, but those differences pale in light of the purpose at hand.  So why not make fun of them.  I can even see this played out amongst many of the online military communities.  A dark green grunt posts something about the Baltimore riots.  Then, a light green grunt post something about the same riot from the opposite point of view.  They argue until a POG steps in and says something to which the two shades of grunts unite to make fun of the POG.  End result, we are all still brothers and it is just fine.  Oh America, please don’t underestimate the need for levity among heavy topics.

Purpose

The truth is, Marines can mock our racial misunderstandings because we have a greater purpose at hand.  We could sit around and try to resolve them all, or we could just get busy about slaying enemy bodies and figure the rest of this stuff out later.  We could genuinely love each other as brothers and die for one another without having to discuss, “what do they mean by brother”?  Why?  Because our common purpose outweighs our differences.  I challenge you to find a Vietnam vet of any color that will not hug and embrace with tears his brother from war regardless of what color of green they might be.

For the most part, Marines and much of the military comes from the same economic classes of middle to lower.  Consequently, Marines of any shade of green have more in common with each other than they do with the Children of Bill Gates or Barrack Obama whom will both grow up extremely rich.  In this environment, you find that race is hardly the biggest decider of lifestyle and opinions in the world.  I assure you, wealth drives a deeper divide these days than race.

In my platoon in Iraq, we had black, white, and Hispanic Marines and I can with 100% honesty tell you I could have cared less who was by my side.  If fact, we even had one Asian in HQ platoon, so there was that.  I would have died for any one of those Marines and they would have done the same for me.  Meanwhile, we probably still saw many elements of race in America differently. But no one was pushing the issue with us and we were happy to get along.  If you try hard enough, you can even split an atom if you like.  Nothing is indivisible, but nor is anything off limits from being unified.  Pick your purpose America.

Time

Lastly, I’ll just say this.  The Marines rely on time as an ally.  For even if our mountain dwelling light green Marine had trouble adjusting to communion with a dark green Marine, it needs but time for that to change.  After they have endured enough suck together or have depended on one another long enough for the other’s survival, the differences but fade away.  Few movies make my eyes sweat like the final scene of Glory where the 54th is given their much due respect.  Tears I tell ya, I mean sweat, my eyes sweat.

Veterans baltimore riotsLet us remember that segregation in America is still only one generation away in the past.  I am 35 years old and my mother, one generation, still remembers segregated schools in the south and their subsequent integration.  Give it time.  All the persons in power today remember a drastically different America than the youth of today are living.

Give it time.  We don’t need to resolve all our differences today in the midst of every riot.  We can have grace for one another and enough trust that as life takes us all forward, that progress will be made.  Each generation remembers a slightly more tolerant world and those are the experiences that we will pass off to our children.  If you insist on splitting the atom of race right now today, then so be it, just be ready for the explosion that comes.  However, if you can take a few notes from the Marines, allow for levity, common purpose, and time to do its work, well who knows?  Maybe Al Sharpton and Rush Limbaugh will be spooning on a cold winter’s morning in a not too distant winter.

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Jeff Edwards

16 Comments

  1. Generally, right on. Two major missing pieces before this Utopia can spread…

    1. Everybody referred to in this story has a job
    2. And they all have a useful skill set.

    Bring those elements to the rest of America and we’ll see significant social progress.

    • Good points. I think there is much to be said for improving schools and job opportunities to help combat this.

  2. It is the same Downunder, and come to think of it most nations I have worked with, we are all green ouitside and in. We walk with each other not in each others shadow…

  3. Good piece. Love it! I’m about to retire and this is one of the things I’m going to miss most. Maybe some day, the same points can be made for gender in the Marine Corps. Marines still openly and proudly object to females in the Corps, in specific units, and in specific MOSs. When that objection shifts away from the entire gender to simply any Marine who isn’t otherwise qualified (gender being irrelevant), then we’ve gotten somewhere. When leaders recognize female Marines may actually be able to contribute something previously lacking, that’s major progress.

    • Thanks Heather. I think it is inevitable that females will break into the infantry. I just hope when it happens, that it is done right. Women meet and exceed the standards. Women Marines have always known how to stick up for themselves. They are a tough bunch!

  4. Great read Jeff. America could learn a lot from us, but of course most of them never had to really rely on someone for their lives so they just don’t get it. Me, I’d die for any of my dirt Marine brother, no matter what color their ass is.

    • Yes indeed brother! When you need to rely on someone for your life, the little differences tend to just fade away!

  5. This is great. I love your writing style and your sense of humor. This statement says so much “The truth is, Marines can mock our racial misunderstandings because we have a greater purpose at hand.” Thanks for taking the time and energy to share your thoughts.

    • Thanks for the feedback Kitten! I appreciate the support!!!

  6. Well said. Also applies to religious difference. My platoon had a couple of muslims, every flavor of Christian under the sun (son?), a self professed satanist and myself, a fairly vocal atheist. We would have died ragging each other out mercilessly if that’s what needed to happen.

  7. Amen, Brother! The closest parallel that I can draw to the Corps is the fire service. No one cares what your race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is at the end of the day. All we worry about is your commitment to the Professionof Arms. We are only as strong as our weakest link. In my case, green has given way to blue; having what it takes to crawl down a hot & smokey hallway has replaced I’m up he see’s me I’m down. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother knows no artificial boundaries. Semper Fidelis and Follow Me!

    • Well said brother. There is just something about professions where life is at risk that throws the nonesense out the window. Brothers indeed!

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