Author Q&A with James Campbell

  • December 27, 2012

Question and Answer with the author of The Color of War.

The Color of War shuttles between the experiences of black and white American sailors during World War II. James Campbell focuses on the Battle of Saipan, forgotten today but perhaps one of the most important victories over Japan among the U.S. operations in the Pacific, which needed ships and ammunition to succeed. The sailors , black and white, are drawn from the same lower-class and working-class backgrounds but their Navy experiences are vastly different, reflecting the segregated society that was America then and the prejudicial attitudes toward African-Americans, which too often continue today. This little known chapter of World War II history has been left out of the “Greatest Generation” mythology that we’ve come to accept.

The parallel lives of white sailors and black sailors showed how intertwined we, as a nation, all are. If the black sailors hadn’t loaded weapons, U.S. naval ships and troops wouldn’t have been able to operate. Why did you choose to link the two together?

It seemed to me that the two stories captured the truth of the WWII experience — the Good War and its ugly underbelly. It was a time of heroism and sacrifice, but also a time of inequality and rampant racism. The stories have been told separately, but not together. This method also underscored the often overlooked contributions of African-Americans to the war effort. If not for the men at Port Chicago and elsewhere along the long supply chain, the war in the Pacific, which was predicated upon superior firepower, would have been impossible to wage. General Douglas MacArthur called the war in the Pacific an “engineer’s war,” one in which supply groups played a critical role. Why, I wondered then, were the accomplishments of black Americans, who often served in these supply groups, not better known.

If you had written it solely from the black sailors’ perspectives do you think you would have had a more difficult time getting a publisher? Do you think it will be pigeonholed in bookstores? How do you think white and black readers will react to the book?

Yes,  I don’t know that my publisher would have allowed me to write just the story of the black sailors and Marines. Random House/Crown, however, deserves credit for recognizing this two-pronged narrative as rich, compelling and disturbing history, something other than a conventional WWII hero’s tale. The reality of the black experience does not conform nicely with what we have come to regard as the iconic moments — and the books celebrating those moments — of WWII.

I hope Color of War is not confined to WWII history or black history sections in the book stores, but sadly, I have little control over that. I’d like to think of it as essential reading, as important to our understanding of WWII history as Band of Brothers or Unbroken.

I’m happy to say that the early reactions, white and black alike, have so far been positive.

Your book also made me aware of similar challenges for gays in the military and women in combat because so much U.S. history — not merely military — is written from a single racial and gender perspective.  Do you think books like yours are the trend for the future histories, where, just as in ensemble TV shows, you get multiple stories that enrich the whole?

I’m not sure about trends, but for me, there was no other way to tell the story. In Unbroken, Laura Hildenbrand tells a WWII story through the eyes of just one character, Louis Zamperini, and she does it magnificently. I don’t feel the same approach would have worked for me. I wanted to write about WWII from multiple perspectives because those perspectives were so different. Certainly, the white and black experiences had little in common. Even among the African-Americans, experiences differed greatly. Blacks growing up in Detroit, as George Booth did, did not face the kind of pervasive racism that Sammie Boykin did growing up in the midst of the Jim Crow Deep South. To write about WWII from so many angles allowed me to capture the contradictory nature of the period — the heroism and the heartbreak of the WWII era.

I was well aware of the Port Chicago disaster and other examples of discrimination growing up in a household with a WWI and a WWII veteran and where Ebony, Black Scholar and current events regarding African-Americans were the topic at the table. I grew up knowing about the 369th Infantry and long before the movie “Glory” about blacks that served in the Civil War and Crispus Attucks. Reading your book just exhausted me after a while, not because the book isn’t excellent, which it is, but because of the sadistic mistreatment of fellow Americans by the entire U.S. military and because the U.S. still doesn’t acknowledge its history of historical and continued discrimination regarding race.

I meant it to be unrelenting because I came to feel after interviewing many of the African-American veterans that their experiences of racism were often unrelenting. Many believed that the military would provide them with a kind of hope and an escape from the kind of life that had been prescribed for them. All were disappointed. In some cases, what they encountered in the service was worse than what they had faced back home.

Did any of the white sailors in your book ever meet any of the black sailors?

Yes, some of them did, though it was usually from the perspective of officer to enlisted man, and that, of course, changed the power dynamic. That said, some of the officers, even those who grew up in areas where racism was the norm, were willing to give the African-American sailors and Marine recruits a chance. They were not revolutionaries fighting for black equality, but they were fair-minded white men who believed that the African-Americans deserved the same chances and opportunities that their white counterparts did.

This question goes to the heart of the continuation of that racism in ways subtle and overt.  Why?

On the island Saipan, when the white Marines realized that the black Marines who had been sent up to patch holes in the frontlines would fight bravely, they brushed their racism aside. All that mattered to them was that the African-American Marines could beat back a banzai charge or shoulder and aim a rifle. Over the years, as the military slowly integrated, as whites and blacks came in more frequent contact with each other, the overt racism diminished. Subtle racist views persisted, and integration was at times painful (and still is for minorities, women and gays), but many whites came to accept blacks as capable soldiers, and in some cases their equals.

Why would Henry Stimson, who probably didn’t know a single black person except, perhaps, and in the vaguest way, the man who shined his shoes, believe that African-Americans were foolish for seeking equality when they had a war to leverage it with?

Stimson, like many of the military leaders, had an enormous — and largely unrealistic — fear of the disorder that integration would create, and consequently made the problem much worse than it might have been. Granted, the generals and admirals were gearing up for the demands of fighting a two-theater war, but they contributed to their problems by turning integration into such a bogeyman. Stimson believed that because blacks had been denied democracy at home that they wouldn’t serve selflessly; that, motivated by revenge, they would use the war as a bargaining tool. Many civil rights leaders did, but they coupled their demands for equality with expectations of patriotism on the part of black Americans. I have never read a postwar interview with Stimson regarding the conduct of black serviceman, but I would be interested to read one. I wonder if he ever changed his tune.

Why would a Navy truck driver make black Navy recruits run behind the truck except because, at bottom, he is a person of no power and could exalt his manhood by mistreating men of a different color?

He was likely a racist to begin with who enjoyed humiliating the new black recruits. It is that age-old pecking order, magnified by race. Sadly, the oppressed usually search for someone to oppress. I think one prominent example of a man who was oppressed but refused to give into the temptations to oppress and to punish those who had treated him so unfairly is Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa.

That’s a hard question and one that continues to nag Americans now that we’re part of a global war. Do Americans, or humans, for that matter, need an Other to function?

Wow, that is a big one. I’d like to say no, but I think our war on terrorism — and our demonization of so many members of the Islamic faith — is an example of our nation needing an Other to give it meaning. Obviously, radical Islam does present a danger to America, but as a nation, we must be careful not to paint Islam with too broad a brush. Our invasion of Iraq was obviously a mistake, and we must be careful not to commit the same mistake out of a sense of fear and misunderstanding. Here in the United States, there are many deeply patriotic Muslims who would do anything for this country. We must not deny them that right and chance, as we did with African-Americans 70 years ago.

Karen DeWitt was a journalist for many years and for the last decade has been a senior communications professional for nonprofit organizations. She covered the White House and national politics for The New York Times; reported on foreign affairs and the White House for USA Today; and was a senior producer for ABC’s “Nightline.”

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