Friday, October 31, 2008

Terkel Redux

Blogger's Note: Because of my packrat nature, I present here an essay I wrote using Studs Terkel's "The 'Good' War" as a source, for an English class I took about ten years ago or so.

John H. Abbott and Dempsey Travis experienced uniquely different circumstances in dealing with injustice in World War Two America. Travis fought to serve in an army that seemed to fight him every step of the way, simply because he was black. Abbott gritted his teeth in the opposite direction, sticking to a policy of absolute nonparticipation. Though their attitudes and actions may seem to lie on opposite sides of the spectrum, both revealed, in Studs Terkel's book The 'Good' War, the isolational and segregational pressures they felt bearing down on them. Experiences like theirs helped the nation realize the need for reform in social and political attitudes in times to come. It was not coincidence that the Civil Rights movement gained national momentum in the decades following the war, nor is it coincidence that the civil liberties court cases gained greater frequency and prominence after the war as well. Both Travis and Dempsey won moral victories through the injustices they suffered during their wartime 'service'.

John H. Abbot declined to be involved in the war in any way. After he answered a draft questionnaire while at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he was given a 4-E (conscientious objector) classification from his local draft board. "I didn't decide to be a C.O.," he said, "The draft board did. All I put down on my questionnaire was that I wasn't gonna comply with the war effort. I wasn't going to have anything to do with it."(164) Though he disagreed with the classification, he jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon of rebellion, since he had often thought, even in his youth, how he would react if he were drafted. His decision was not made on the spur of the moment. Abbott continued his noncompliance, and even began to preach his ideals, through stints at various Selective Service camps for conscientious objectors:

I was talkin' to everybody, tryin' to get 'em to quit work, quit camp. I felt that being in those camps was aiding the war effort. To me, anything you did for the Selective Service System, which is the provider of bodies for the war, was aiding the war effort. The work we did in the camps was called of national importance. We called it work of national impotence. These gasoline stickers for rationing that you had on your windshield had a little note on it: Is this trip really necessary? We'd scratch out "trip" and write "war": Is this war really necessary?(164-5)

He also began developing his cynical attitude towards the war effort, as can be seen in the plays on words he used to describe the war (trip/war, importance/impotence; found in the preceding quotation). He was kicked out of one camp because of his disruptive attitudes.

While on the way from a camp in New Hampshire to one in California, Abbot came face to face with the harsh social repercussions his opinions and attitudes would bring. At the railroad stations en route, women lined up with gifts of food, candy and magazines for soldiers going off to training stations across the country. Abbott soon found out these gifts were not for conscientious objectors:

The train we were on, there were two cars of marine recruits, without uniform, going to San Diego. And one car full of conscientious objectors with no uniforms. So we ended up with a lot of these goodies. When word got around that there were some yellowbellies on the train, the ladies would actually go around and yank us by the arm and say, 'Are you one of those damn yellowbellies? I want my cookies back.' Give me back my apple. Give me back my 'Life', you yellowbelly. They were really irate.(165)

Nearly everyone he met held him in contempt for exercising his right not to fight, so he reciprocated in same. This isolation and abandon of the conscientious objectors seemed to stratify all layers of American life. He even met prejudice while hitchhiking: "Yellow was the word. Oh, I'd go hitchhiking when I had leave. I'd get in a car, pretty soon the man would say, "How come you're not in uniform?" I'd say, "I'm a conscientious objector." He says, "You're what, you yellow bastard you?" Down would go the brakes. Open the door. "Get the hell out of here."(165) One begins to see that even though Abbott held opinions that were against the grain of the majority, he is justified in his attitude of cynicism towards those who treated him as a criminal for his opinions.

Abbot thumbed his nose continually at authority. He simply walked out of the California camp and applied for a job as a gardener at a hospital in Pasadena. "I told the lady [at the hospital] that I left a camp for conscientious objectors and would ultimately be arrested for it. She said, 'Who gives you the authority?' I said, 'I do.'" Abbott even went as far as to tell the FBI where he was. He was eventually arrested and sent to prison in Arizona. He was transported, with other disruptive inmates, to a federal prison in Texas after helping to organize a work strike at the prison in Arizona. Once again, he felt the isolation that his actions brought upon him. "We were segregated," he said. "We were not in the compound with the other inmates. We went to chow in a different section of the dining hall. When we had yard privilege, there were no other prisoners out there. They realized the poison we were spreading."(168-169) Abbott found himself in solitary confinement for most of his prison stay.

Abbot used his segregation as a shield of honor. He never failed to make a point or form a protest at any of the odd turns his wartime life led him to. This obstinance and keen eye for the injust led Abbott to fight for his civil liberties after the war.

The story of Dempsey Travis, however, makes no mention of whether he volunteered or was drafted, neither does it make any allusions to imply that he was a reluctant soldier. Travis was more concerned with the Jim Crow attitude of the Army, which he could not help to notice right away. The troop train to Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania, was segregated. The camp section reserved for blacks had no theater, or post exchange (PX). Their camp section was in an isolated spot, wedged next to a stand of trees. "If you went through the camp as a visitor," Travis related, "you'd never know black soldiers were there, unless they happened to be working on some menial detail."(149)

After attending a movie at a makeshift theater set up in the black camp, Travis and a friend walked into a group of other black soldiers, gathered around a comrade who was beaten when he went into a PX in the regular base to buy a beer. Minutes after, a caravan of white soldiers drove up, surrounded the area and began firing. "Firing, firing, firing, just shooting into the goddamn crowd. Everybody started scrambling like hell." (150) He was severely wounded in the back and leg. He and several other black servicemen were taken to a hospital:

They took us to the ambulance. Two guys were sitting in front. The one says to the driver, "Why we be doin' this to our own soldiers?" Driver says, "Who ever told you niggers were our soldiers? Where I come from" --I detected a southern accent-- "we shoot niggers like we shoot rabbits." This stayed with me. This sound of these two men talking about two disabled black soldiers. Shot not by the enemy but by Americans.(150)

The Army was convinced that Travis was leadership material, so he was put in charge of a troop movement from Pennsylvania to Camp Lee, Virginia, after he was released from the hospital.. En route, the train stopped in Washington, D.C. He left the train to go buy a Coke, and was told to go to a shop that patronized Blacks. "On the train to camp, we looked out of the back of the car and saw the dome of the Capitol. I said, What the hell does that mean? It didn't mean what I read in my civics books at DuSable High."(153)

Upon entering Virginia, Travis (raised in Chicago) ran across the first segregated drinking fountain he'd ever seen. He also noticed German POW's riding in the white sections of the trolley cars, while blacks rode in the back. Even at the camp theater, black servicemen were roped off towards the back of the theater. This segregation really came as a shock to Travis, especially when he noticed what he thought was better respect towards German POW's than to black U.S. servicemen: "I think of two armies, one black, one white. I saw German prisoners free to move about the camp, unlike black soldiers, who were restricted. The Germans walked right into the doggone places like any white American. We were wearin' the same uniform, but we were excluded."(149)

Despite the Army's tainted image, it was making progress in desegregation. With the help of an enthusiastic officer, Major Sloan, Travis was assigned as a clerk in a black PX, and in two months, he was the manager. Soon he was placed at the head of the white soldiers' PX as well. He won an award for having the best managed PX in Maryland. Still, racism clung on. When Sloan wanted a picture and story about Travis and his award run in local papers, his request was refused. He was told the newspaper owners didn't like the thought that a black man could operate a post exchange that well.

Though their stories and attitudes seem different, one can draw similarities between them. Both men show obvious pride in the fact that they stuck to their beliefs. Neither man ever backed down from their stands. Abbott maintained his anti-war, anti-compliance opinions throughout his wartime incarcerations, and maintained them even through the Vietnam conflict. It struck me as somewhat ironic that Terkel included Abbott's story in the section 'Reflections on Machismo,' but after studying the story, I realize it may be a subtle tribute from Terkel to Abbott's stalwartness. Similar to Abbott, Travis continued in his silent fight against army segregation by going back to the same camp where he was shot by white soldiers, and progressing through ranks to sergeant, and manager of a white PX in Maryland. This story was not placed at random in the book, either. Terkel placed it in the section "Neighborhood Boys" perhaps in an attempt to imply that other black soldiers faced, if not to the extreme, at least similar segregational situations.

On the other hand, both men expressed in different ways their reactions to the difficulties they faced. Abbott's attitude was one of continual cynicism. This can best be summed up in his description of World War Two: "Get off those bread lines. Build another bomber for peace. They just changed the slogans. That was the most popular war we had. People sang, danced, drank--whoopee, the war."(163) Travis, however, came out of his wartime experience with a more positive attitude towards himself and his nation. "Those four years in the Army," he said, "are the turning point in my life. I learned something about men. I learned something about racism. I learned something about values. I learned something about myself. I don't think I'd have that experience any other place or time."(156)

Also, both men fought the injustices they faced in different ways. Abbott enlisted the help of the ACLU to have his right to vote, as a felon, restored. He was involved in two cases that went before the Supreme Court as landmark decisions. His attitude in regards to his legal battles is one of haughtiness. "Once in a while a young law student comes up and says," Abbott said, "'It's wonderful to talk to somebody we read about in our textbooks.'"(170) Travis fought simply by enduring injustice until changes were started. Of participation in any civil rights movements he makes no mention, though it is clear in his story that he expresses incredulity at the treatment of black soldiers. Upon returning to Camp Shenango after recovering from his injuries, he discovered that the Army had built a major service center for black servicemen. "It appears you had to kill some guys. There was never an inquiry, to my knowledge."(152)

In regards to the effects of this segregation of blacks, and isolation of nonconformists on the nation as a whole, only a simpleton could deny that they had a staggering effect. Though the civil rights movement had been a sore spot for the nation since the Emancipation Proclamation of the 1860s, I feel that the experiences of many black soldiers in the war helped to galvanize the effort, and point it into a direction that called for action. Perhaps in the light of the war, which at the end was touted as a liberating force that stopped discrimination and slaughter of the Jews, African-Americans found a tactical wedge they could drive into the heart of segregational policies at home. In addition, noncompliance in wartime went from a social aberration to a propaganda force in its own right, one that fought perceived injustices during the turbulent Vietnam period. World War Two had opened the eyes of a nation to the fact that war was an ugly affair, an affair in which it was not particularly easy to discern between black and white, good and bad. Seeds sown in social and political skirmishes fought in war-oriented America sprouted into a social movement that brought the country into a closer conformity with the ideals for which it had fought the war: freedom, equality, and the absence of tyranny. Dempsey Travis and John H. Abbott did their own bit, in different ways and with different attitudes, to fight against the injustices they suffered.

Their experiences were different. One fought to participate in an army that discriminated against him because he was black. The other fought a national attitude that despised him because he was 'yellow'. This fight against intolerance of opinion, started with simple acts experienced by Travis, Abbott, and countless others like them, helped usher in an era of social change that hoped to correct past mistakes, and avoid future conflicts.

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