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Opinion

I went through boot camp in 1966 with a guy who was tall, handsome and a member of the KKK

By CHARLES E. KRAUS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: April 27, 2021

(Tribune News Service) – Kraus is an author who served in Vietnam for part of his four-year enlistment. He was awarded the Bronze Star. He lives in Los Angeles.

1966 — I'd enlisted. Our country was going through what felt like a tectonic shift. The anti-war movement. Urban riots. Civil rights. There was a lot for young recruits to talk about. But animated discussions were held in check by a military that needed its men and women to stick to task. Generally, we did. We spent our days drilling together, then co-existed within our separate clusters during the evenings. To the extent that we spoke about the external — civilian — world, we presented gripes, solutions and opinions that assumed the system was in need of adjustment. Nobody proposed dismantling the government.

I went through boot camp with a guy from Texas. Tall. Handsome. Smart in a practical way. We worked together on a few of the ridiculous projects handed to us during the course of training. Boot camp is designed to break your resolve, deflate any sense of individuality, then replace it with a team spirit and an unflinching willingness to obey orders. We enlisted men more or less worked as a unit to placate our superiors. To that end, the Texan and I scrubbed whatever it was our battalion leader claimed needed perfecting. As we wore out brushes and mops, we talked. Our voices controlled so as not to be perceived as contentious. The topics included integration and the war.

At the time, I was big on proving my positions. These were the facts. You added them up. This was the conclusion. Airtight case. I presented my views about the lack of equal opportunity. About intimidation and rigged systems. You couldn't look at a photo of a child being chewed by a policeman's vicious dog and claim the act did not occur.

I stated my reasoning. Society could not expect high-end, informed performances from individuals who had been denied meaningful education, and found themselves being manipulated by everyone from drug dealers, to politicians, to the marketplace, to the media, to history and to society at large. We had to close the gaps and right the wrongs if we wanted to put people on an equal footing. Like most young folks in the '60s, I was bursting with generalities, but vague on the specifics.

Perhaps I was eloquent, or just another blowhard, well-meaning but naive. Either way, the Texan seemed to have some appreciation for what I was saying. He offered counterarguments. Traditional. Biblical. Apocryphal. And there was a feature that I detected in many Southerners. Possibly a misguided, incorrect observation. But one I've become attached to over the years. I detected a seething. A ready supply of unmitigated hate mixed with an equal share of rage. An undercurrent of vitriol waiting for a target. Sort of a Lindsey Graham on/off switch.

In those days, you could declare a draw. I couldn't budge my Texas compadre, he couldn't budge me. Touché. Plus, an afterthought, an explanation provided by my debating competition. He revealed his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. My arguments did not matter, he explained — he couldn't allow them to matter. This wasn't about facts. It was about allegiances. It was not possible to win him over by logic, or information, or by pointing out how everyone would benefit from a more integrated world.

2021 — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's efforts to reduce racism within ranks won't find easy resolve. Brotherhood happens when reasonable attitudes prevail. Unfortunately, human nature is the biggest of tents. Some of its occupants, fueled by hate and stupidity, cannot be persuaded to reevaluate their faulty perceptions. Diversity training only works when the minds of participants are both willing and capable of change.

If you can't reason with a dangerous individual, or with members of a group dedicated to inflicting harm, you have to approach the problem at a global level. After weeks of violence that reflect years, decades, of failed solutions, I think we would all welcome a consensus approach that imposes common sense. Rules and laws need to be enforced. See, I'm still vague on specifics, and a little naive.

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