A Black Soldier's Tragedy

Submitted by dalcassian on 10 July, 2014 - 3:05

THE HERO of 'A Soldier's Story', which is set in 1944, is not the black lawyer, Captain Davenport, who comes to the Louisiana army camp for black soldiers in the USA's still racially-segregated army to investigate a murder.

The hero is Sgt Watters, the twisted, brutal, perhaps sadistic and certainly masochistic, long-serving professional soldier who badmouths the black recruits and hates those of them who talk or act anything like the racist stereotype of the "cottonpickin', watermelon-eating, guitar-strummin"' happy-go-lucky rural black man. He gives them all a hard time.

"What kind of a coloured man are you anyway?" asks one of the recruits, using the language of the time. Watters' hatred is sincere, bitter and implacable - very like that of a hard-core white racist.

Like a white racist, he is prepared to persecute and hound blacks: one of them, C J Memphis, he drives to suicide. Memphis is a naive, guitar-playing, good-natured country man who is the outstanding athlete of the platoon.

Watters served in the US army in France during World War 1, where he won the Croix de Guerre. But, he says: "My race got nothing out of that war". He wants it to be different this time round.

The enemy? One of the main enemies of black advance is blacks who display any of the traits of the hated racist stereotypes which oppress and haunt Watters. Hounding C J to jail, Watters visits him to explain why. "If it wasn't for you silly niggers, white folks wouldn't think we was all fools".

Sgt Watters is perhaps the man most sharply conscious and aware of racism in the film, and certainly he is marked most deeply by it. But he blames it on rural blacks and not on white society. He accommodates to white society. In his persecution of rural blacks, he is acting as an agency of that society.

In a flashback he tells how white Americans in France told the French women that blacks had tails, and got one black soldier to dress up and go around with a tail to prove it. "When we slit his throat he asked us what he'd done wrong".

Watters is found shot to death on a roadway outside the camp. The film unfolds as an investigation by Harvard-educated black captain Davenport. We see the pieces of the puzzle in flashback.

Davenport is the first black officer most black soldiers have seen and they are happy about it: their officers are invariably white. This is still apartheid America. The armed forces will not be officially- desegregated until 1948. In Louisiana seats are still signposted: 'Whites Only'. The audience at a black versus white army baseball match is segregated. The lynchers of the Ku Klux Klan have an accepted position in local life.

Did the KKK kill Watters, as they have killed others? No, explains one soldier to the visitor: his stripes were still on his arm, and the Klan would have ripped them off.

Like a lens in the middle of the relationship between the army establishment and white society on one side, and the black recruits on the other, Watters picks up the hatred and prejudices of white society and directs them at some of his own people.

But where does that leave Watters? Radically split against himself. For up to World War 2 and the vast movement of blacks to thc war industries in the cities, most US blacks were rural helots. deprived of education and civil rights and riddled with superstition.

This is what Watters rejects, together with its bigoted racist caricature.

Of course, it is right that he should reject it and refuse to accept it as any necessary part of the identity of US blacks. The future for American blacks lay in the cities, as part of the industrial proletariat, where they gained the social weight and power to shake the system and force important changes in the 1960s. Watters' sickness lies in the fact that he does not just repudiate and reject thc characteristics generated in many blacks by rural squalor and ignorance. He rejects with it their humanity.

C J Memphis seems to Watters to be a hateful embodiment of the racist stereotype. Watters is pained and indignant when he plays the clown for a white officer. (Perhaps CJ is being ironic: he is also able to pity and perhaps understand Watters and defends him to the others: "any man who isn't sure where he belongs must be suffering a lot of pain", he tells them.)

The CJs can change and grow, remaining human beings. Watters is dehumanised, warped and twisted by his way of handling the terrible pressures of the racist society around him. The process is reinforced by Watters' role in the army's undemocratic, dehumanised, mechanical system of breaking in and disciplining its recruits.

In his own way Watters is trying to say no to being a black in Jim Crow America. But he cannot identify with the whites fully: they won't let him. And he hates the whites. He gets incapably drunk on the night he dies and tells them he "won't do nothing white folks say", and how much he hates... himself.

Watters is concerned for his own race and in his own way proud of it. He wants to stamp out the representatives of the stereotype "so that my race can get something out of this war", unlike the last one.

Watters' dilemma is the dilemma of the oppressed, deprived and subordinate groups. In relation to those who are strong enough to hold them down or oppress them, the question inevitably arises: what is it about us or our history or our way Of doing things that allows them to do this to us? The oppressor has dogmatic hate-filled answers to explain the subordination of their victims - they are 'inferior'. The pressure on the psyche of the oppressed is terrific.

Some years ago a survey in Britain found that young black children, asked to draw themselves, drew themselves as white.

Should the person who is oppressed adopt the oppressor's standards - or can an independent way be found? Psychologists have a name for a common technique of ego self-defence used by the weak and vulnerable (in the first place and normally, children): 'identification with the oppressor'.

Watters reacts against the bitter experience of racism, repudiates the conditions and standards of rural blacks together with their racist caricature. But he has not succeeded in making sense of it all.

Collective black action is necessary to change the system: better still, united black and white working-class action. Isolated and limited, Watters seething in his own conflicts, does not know anything of this. He is in thrall to the white view of blacks. He doesn't know any way of seeing the black stereotypes he hates and rejects except in the conventional white racist way. His form of black race consciousness is an extension of theirs.

As a non-commissioned officer in the army he is as isolated as the most benighted rural sharecropper.

That is his tragedy. The way 'A Soldier's Story' explores it, centring on the performance of Adolf Caesar as Sgt Watters, is what makes it an important film socialists should see.

Socialist Organiser 233
10 APRIL, 1985