Tuesday’s Opinion page will carry a clarification of Screenwriter David Freed’s Sunday op-ed piece, which first ran in The Los Angeles Times, examined the thinking behind such military decorations as the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In pointing out the influence individual commanders with personal biases have over who gets and doesn’t get a medal, Freed commented: “Witness the fact that not a single African-American soldier received the Medal of Honor in World War II, even though thousands saw combat.”
A couple of readers called to remind us that Vernon Baker, who was living in St. Maries, Idaho, at the time, received the Medal of Honor in 1997 for his heroics as an Army lieutenant in Italy in 1945. Indeed, the Medal of Honor was awarded to Baker and, posthumously, to six other black World War II veterans on July 13, 1997 — not “in” World War II, but half a century after.
So the column was accurate, if incomplete. In fact, the commentary and its subject were incredibly timely, coming on the weekend when the U.S. Senate sealed congressional approval of legislation repealing the odious “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military only as long as they lie about it.
Prior to the early ‘90s, it was believed that of all the wars in which America fought since the Congress Medal of Honor was created in 1861, World War II was the only one in which no black service member received it. In 1996, the news magazine, U.S. News & World Report, identified seven black soldiers whose service records would seem to qualify them for the medal, but a team of military historians was unable to locate any evidence that any of the seven — or any other African-American — had been nominated.
There was unresolved speculation as to why, but it would be hard not to blame the bigotry and political tension that were prevalent in that period. Blacks were allowed to fight, in segregated units under white commanders, but their gallantry was not deemed worthy of recognition.
Similarly, thousands of gays and lesbians have served, many with distinction, only to be turned out because they owned up to their sexual orientation.
Today we recognize the error of how blacks were treated in a segregated military structure. Yet, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly continues to provoke ludicrous assertions that it would undermine military cohesion and effectiveness.
How long will it be before we look back on 2010 and recognize how mistaken we were?