In George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel, 1984, we are introduced to the official slogans of the ruling party in Oceania: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Within the book, Orwell introduces us to the Ministry of Peace who is directly responsible for the armed forces. Peace is seen through the perpetuation of war. Within the constant state of being in conflict, resources are used to keep many of the citizens in constant hardship. Through these means, citizens are not able to question what is really going on. There is a false belief that the system is working in the best interest of the individual. Yet, the book goes on to highlight how the system functions for its own personal gain.
However, the initial point about the perpetuation of war being a state of peace is quite questionable. Given the deep racial divide in our country, it is important to remember how this conflict changed the identity of those who fought for us. Peace in itself is defined as freedom – freedom from disturbance usually invoking a state of tranquility. Yet, in Orwell’s writing, we can understand peace as a state of equilibrium. Within this line of thinking, we can start to see the difference between tranquility and equilibrium. While tranquility conjures up a feeling of serenity and calmness, equilibrium implores a level of balance and stability. Balance in itself does not mean that peace is achieved. Stability can simply be the maintenance of terror and conflict. Basically, you don’t need peace to have stability.
In addition, the ways in which we understand our state of being within and beyond times of war begs the question: To whom has war been peaceful? Within the celebration of Black History Month, it is important for us to recall how the construction of race within the historical development of the United States has produced dual identities of individuals from similar social positions. Individuals from similar economic backgrounds have seen different outcomes, solely based on our system of racial hierarchy. This is extremely evident among our veterans.
Popular discourse around veterans dominates political arenas. Every presidential debate always includes at least one question about financial support to veterans. Due to their military service, their commitment to serve as protectors of the country, they have a powerful social status. On a symbolic level, it lies more on the assumed values we hold dear as Americans. Whether it is our fascination with the American Dream or our inherent belief in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we have a certain respect and appreciation for our armed forces. Yet, many Black veterans have never fully experienced the rewards of this social position.
In 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report entitled, Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans. The report detailed racial violence and terror between 1877 and 1950 against black veterans particularly in the South. The report highlighted that “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans.” Their identity as Black overshadowed their position as veterans within society. Instead of revering people as honorable citizens, they were often marked as disposable. This process of necropolitics – the social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how others must die – provides us a deeper understanding to the extent to which Black veterans still maintained a subordinate position of power within a country built on White supremacy.
W.E.B. Du Bois discusses this idea of an internal conflict of subordinate groups within an oppressive system through the lens of a double consciousness. The multiple divisions within our society presents people with an identity conflict – one which rests upon the internal questions of who we are and the external struggle of how others see us. It is within this war of oneself that we search for peace. The social and symbolic meanings of being a veteran are further complicated when we look at the institutional roots of racism within society. Beyond the treatment of brutality experienced on an individual level by Black veterans, there have been many structural differences as well.
Black veterans were denied many of the benefits of the GI Bill. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, guaranteed housing loans allowing many White veterans to build wealth through homeownership. Generations later, the gap in wealth between racial groups is quite staggering. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold approximately $5. This type of divide translates far beyond the realm of just economic inequality. It further perpetuates political and social sentiments within and across racial groups.
In times of war, we must remember that there are many wars operating simultaneously. Whether it is an external conflict between nations and countries or an internal war within oneself, this quest for peace manifest itself in different ways. In the words of Du Bois, we can understand black veterans encompassing “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Let us hope that their struggle will not be in vain.
Prentiss A. Dantzler, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Mellon Faculty Fellow at College Colorado. His research focuses on poverty, race, housing and community development. His work has been published in multiple academic outlets including The Urban Lawyer, The Journal of Urban History, Urban Affairs Review, and Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change.