Until last week’s Democratic convention, few Americans had heard of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, or of his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan. And until two days ago, even fewer Americans had heard of ten other Muslim Americans who have died while serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The ten were profiled in The Daily Mail, not a newspaper usually associated with kindness to immigrants and minorities.)
Parting ways with Donald Trump, who engaged in ad hominem attacks against Khizr and Ghazala Khan and was slow to acknowledge their son’s sacrifice, Republican politicians have expressed unqualified respect for Muslim Americans in uniform and have paid homage to Captain Khan. Despite widespread fear of terrorism inspired by radical Islam, American public opinion appears to be on the Khans’ side. This might be taken for granted – after all, the man paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country – but it should not be, because Americans have not always thought so well of members of minorities who fought and died for their country.
During World War I, over 350,000 African Americans were called up for military service. Due to racial prejudice, most of those sent overseas were placed in service units, but 40,000 went into battle, concentrated in the segregated 92nd and 93rd Infantry divisions. The 93rd was integrated into the French forces, and 171 of its soldiers received the French Legion of Honour. After the war, African-American veterans expected a grateful nation to recognise their service and put an end to Jim Crow and other forms of racial discrimination. They were bitterly disappointed. Isolationism, the Red Scare, and rampant racism drowned out the rhetoric of civic virtue.
In World War II, blacks continued to serve in separate units and encountered widespread racism, but during the decade after the war the army underwent desegregation. American attitudes towards race began to change, haltingly and spottily. And part of that change was a growing recognition of the sacrifices of the 125000 African-Americans who served overseas and the more than 700 who died in battle.
Seventy years after the end of World War II, and after far more divisive wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the association between military service and patriotism, and between patriotism and virtue, remains intact in the United States. In turn, the military has become more accommodating of Muslims. Although 25 years ago there were no Muslim chaplains in the US military, today there are five, serving some 6000 self-identified Muslims (and perhaps many more, who did not choose to specify a religion when they signed up).
The reality of American Muslims in uniform, and the rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice, provide a powerful counter-point to Islamophobia and fear of terrorism. Donald Trump, who himself shirked military service in Vietnam, was apparently unaware of this force, as he is unaware of so much of what has made the United States of America truly great.