Hidden Heroism

Differing from such standard works as Bernard Nalty's Strength for the Fight (1986) and Gerald Astor's The Right to Fight (1999), this generalist's history focuses on debunking the most controversial aspect of its subject: the racist argument that African-Americans were natural cowards, unwilling and unable to meet the demands of the battlefield. This "American exceptionalism," according to Edgerton, is best interpreted as arising from a long-standing fear of black uprisings, originating in the slaveholding South and spreading northwards after the Civil War, despite a post-Civil War corps of black professionals that served with pride of regiment and pride of race. In the two World Wars, a white-dominated military culture not only insisted that blacks could not fight, but denied them training for combat. It is scarcely surprising that some victims of the stereotype lived down to it, while others rose above it. Edgerton intriguingly takes account of civilian riots, and the armed forces' recent success in drastically reducing institutional racism in a relatively short period of time. Throughout, the book is carefully argued and documented, although reliant on secondary sources. And if its subject now feels like something of a straw man, all the better. (Feb.)Forecast: Public and university libraries will be a lock for this title, as will the African-American studies market. Yet Edgerton's accessible style will make it appealing to buffs as well as to regular readers of history. In order for it to reach them, booksellers will have to be able to see beyond Westview's academic focus.