Glory Day

Remembering the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

In the honor roll of Civil War sesquicentennials now unfolding -- Antietam was the last major observance, Gettysburg and Vicksburg loom ahead in July -- time should be taken this Memorial Day to recall that it falls on the eve of the day 150 years ago when the first African-American regiment headed off to fight for the Union. The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was but the first wave of African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Army as a combat formation. Eventually, nearly 200,000 joined the ranks, about 10 percent of the total forces that were mobilized by the Union during the war. One in five of them died in service, a slightly higher percentage than their white brothers-in-arms.

By this point in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had made it clear that the cause was broader than simply seeking to restore the Union -- it was now about winning the freedom and recognizing the equality of African-Americans under the law. Ironically, though, their service to the Union during the war was at a lower rate of pay, almost all their officers were white, and they faced much derision and racism from all ranks in the early days of their participation. These hard attitudes began to mellow in July 1863 when the 54th led the assault on Confederate Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina, and suffered nearly 50 percent casualties. They failed -- as did the white regiments that followed them in attacking the fort -- but won great respect for their courage, a point so nicely made in the film Glory.  

And African-Americans needed an extra measure of courage to go into the fight, given that Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued a proclamation in December 1862 -- two days before Christmas -- in which he called for their execution when captured. Knowledge of this gave African-American soldiers even more incentive to fight hard in the field. Some of their bitter struggles ended in massacre, as at Fort Pillow in 1864, when it seems that large numbers of African-Americans who had been holding this fort on the Mississippi River were killed when trying to surrender. The Confederate commander that day was Nathan Bedford Forrest -- one of the South's finest generals -- whose conduct in this matter continues to be debated. Some eyewitnesses said that he tried to stop the slaughter, but the incident put a terrible blot on an otherwise sterling military record.

As we remember the 54th and the movement it started, it is also important to note that the U.S. Navy had brought African-Americans into its ranks earlier than the Army. They served in all sorts of capacities, including as gunners on different types of vessels, and were often in the thick of the fighting in riverine and coastal operations. Seven African-American sailors received Medals of Honor -- as did 18 African-American soldiers.

Beyond those African-Americans who served in uniform during the Civil War were the many thousands of freed and escaped slaves who went to work as laborers for the Union forces -- every one of them "freeing up a rifleman for the fighting," as a saying of the time put it. Perhaps even more effective were the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped from plantation masters and factories in the South -- this usually occurring when Union forces came near -- causing a chronic labor shortage that gravely impacted Confederate industrial output. And even slaves who remained under "control" often engaged in acts of sabotage, or quietly played out work slowdowns. These actions, too, had important, beneficial effects on the overall war effort.

Despite all these remarkable contributions on and off the battlefield, once the war ended there was a concerted effort to denigrate African-American contributions. As Civil War historian Joseph Glatthaar once put it, quite simply, "whites closed ranks." Their contention was that African-American contributions were minimal until after the Battle of Gettysburg -- the turning point of the war. But the weight of historical opinion today is that the war was only truly won in the hard fighting of 1864, when African-American soldiers were truly coming into their own. Indeed, it was only the capture of Atlanta in September, after a summer of desultory results, that finally made it clear that the Union would win -- and that Lincoln would be reelected. As James McPherson has summed it up, "If the election had been in August 1864 instead of November, Lincoln would have lost."

Sadly, the post-bellum efforts to diminish African-American accomplishments in the war, along with the general racist ethos that still plagued American society, delayed full integration of U.S. Army units for 85 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Only in Korea was the spell of segregation finally broken. And ever since, African-Americans have continued to rise within and from the ranks. The U.S. military should be lauded for the overall manner in which it has handled the matter of race over the past half-century. In many ways the military was well ahead of the rest of the country in improving race relations.

Given the military's ultimate success in skillfully integrating African-Americans, one can only hope that a similarly adroit approach will be taken in the coming years to the matter of weaving gays into the fabric of the armed forces. The same goes for women who, if their great potential is ever to be fully actualized, must be allowed and encouraged to take on as many combat roles whose physical rigors they are able to undertake.

So as we take time to remember all who have died in service to our country, let us recall too the pioneering achievements of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. I hope their ghosts smile when they look out upon today's military.


National Security

Getting to Yes with the Taliban

The case for negotiating with terrorists.

Most statesmen confronted by the modern scourge of terrorism have intoned the mantra, "We don't negotiate with terrorists"; yet many have reached out to them, sometimes with considerable success. An ongoing challenge for world leaders today, in an era in which terrorism has emerged as a full-blown form of irregular warfare, is to continue to be willing to talk with these malefactors. The key is to be able to discern the difference between situations in which the terrorists are simply manipulating the negotiation process to play for time or score propaganda points, and those in which there is real hope for peaceful progress.

One of the clearest examples of the value of negotiating with terrorists is provided by Britain's willingness to keep talking with the Irish Republican Army -- yes, via the gossamer-thin cover of speaking to its political front man, Gerry Adams -- over a period of decades. Thus were the modern-era "Troubles," which began in the late 1960s, ended with the IRA's formal renunciation of all violence in 2005. During these decades, British counter-terrorist forces and IRA gunmen kept on fighting hard, but the negotiations continued as well. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there was "jaw-jaw as well as war-war." In the end, both sides made meaningful concessions about the political future of Northern Ireland, and a clear path to peace was found, one best described as a self-determination plan that will play out over the long term. Without a willingness to "negotiate with terrorists," this would never have happened.

The bitter Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which began to feature regular acts of terrorism around the same time that the Irish Troubles were getting underway, has seen negotiation reduce both the frequency and severity of violence, particularly since the Oslo Accord was reached 20 years ago. This first substantial agreement between Israel and the then-Palestine Liberation Organization began the slow, sometimes halting path toward Palestinian autonomy and, on the other side, greater recognition of Israel by its enemies. Again, there have been continuing acts of terrorism and retaliation -- though of generally decreasing scale on both sides. This is another very good example of knowing when it is worthwhile to negotiate with terrorists -- and highlights again the need for "strategic patience."

One more protracted conflict that has featured many acts of terror is the struggle between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the national government. Deep-rooted in resentment over the unequal distribution of land and wealth -- 1 percent of the population controls half the arable land -- the fighting has been going on for nearly 50 years. The violence has included many acts of terror, hostage-taking, and the like. There have been two major efforts to bring about peace via negotiation. The first came during 1998-2002 when, in the name of "confidence building," the government ceded the FARC a haven roughly the size of Switzerland. This was probably a measure too far, and the insurgents and terrorists were too buoyed. So the government returned to an emphasis on military action, eventually inflicting serious defeats on them over the course of a decade of hard fighting. Which seemed to pay off, as last November a new era of negotiations opened up with ongoing talks, first in Oslo and now in Havana. The great challenge for the Colombian government is to remain open to the possibility of peace, while at the same time avoiding steps that would allow the FARC too much of a chance to get back on its feet.

The American experience in negotiating with terrorists has been mixed, to say the least. The worst debacle unfolded during President Ronald Reagan's second term, when the world learned in 1986 of his secret effort to sell arms to Iran -- a state sponsor of terrorism -- via an Israeli cut-out. The initial idea was to use the arms sale to obtain the release of several hostages being held by an Iran-affiliated terrorist group. Indeed, a few hostages were eventually set free, but more Americans were soon kidnapped -- seemingly to replace the ones who had been released. It was a bad business that next morphed into an effort to use the profits from the secret arms sales to Iran to finance Nicaraguan insurgents trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime. All came tumbling down when the scheme was inadvertently "outed," thanks to a clerical error with a numbered Swiss bank account.

The Iran-Contra affair was a low point in American dealings with terrorists, but 20 years later in Iraq something far more successful was undertaken. At the height of a bloody insurgency replete with regular acts of terrorism, the decision was taken to start talking to the very Iraqis who were fighting American and allied forces. Full disclosure: This was something I had been lobbying for since 2004, but had to face strong headwinds in the form of the strict no-negotiations sentiments of a huge majority of policymakers and military leaders. Yet when the situation grew dire enough, the willingness to talk increased. Soon, about 80,000 enemy fighters -- many of whom resented al Qaeda's authoritarian attitude -- switched sides, and an Iraq that had been losing 100 innocent people each day saw the violence reduced by 90 percent within six months.

This result was far more the product of the arrangements made with those who were now called "the Sons of Iraq" than of the surge of some 20,000 additional U.S. troops into the country. Sadly, complete American withdrawal at the end of 2011 was followed by abrogation of the deals that were made, and the violence is ratcheting back up dangerously. Still, the original idea of bypassing terrorist leaders and reaching out directly to those committing heinous acts was a real breakthrough, a model of how to disrupt a network by aiming at the edges, rather than just trying to rub out leaders.

And it is this example from Iraq that may be the last, best hope for a negotiated solution in Afghanistan. To be sure, there have been all sorts of talks with Taliban leadership over the past several years, but it does feel like they are using negotiations as a means of running out the clock, given their awareness of the American intention to withdraw almost all troops at the end of 2014. Thus, a key lesson may be to start negotiating at the edges of the insurgent and terrorist network, much as was done in Iraq. Far from being too complex an organization to negotiate with, a network actually allows many entry points, many ways to take off a slice here and there. Such a shift in negotiating strategy -- from dealing with Taliban "leaders" to reaching out to field commanders and bands of fighters -- is far more likely to succeed and, at a minimum, will throw the enemy on the strategic defensive at this critical juncture.

Overall, the historical record suggests there is much to commend the notion of negotiating with terrorists. Talks must be undertaken with much care and caution, and war-war must continue while the parties jaw-jaw. But the potential for finding the way to peace, even in the most pernicious conflicts, is far too good to overlook.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images