An Army Afire

How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era

By Beth Bailey

360 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7326-4
    Published: May 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7327-1
    Published: March 2023
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6346-1
    Published: March 2023

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Awards & distinctions

2024 Distinguished Book Award in American History, Society for Military History

A 2023 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

By the late 1960s, what had been widely heralded as the best qualified, best-trained army in US history was descending into crisis as the Vietnam War raged without end. Morale was tanking. AWOL rates were rising. And in August 1968, a group of Black soldiers seized control of the infamous Long Binh Jail, burned buildings, and beat a white inmate to death with a shovel. The days of "same mud, same blood" were over, and a new generation of Black GIs had decisively rejected the slights and institutional racism their forefathers had endured.


As Black and white soldiers fought in barracks and bars, with violence spilling into surrounding towns within the US and in West Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan, army leaders grew convinced that the growing racial crisis undermined the army’s ability to defend the nation. Acclaimed military historian Beth Bailey shows how the US Army tried to solve that racial crisis (in army terms, “the problem of race”). Army leaders were surprisingly creative in confronting demands for racial justice, even willing to challenge fundamental army principles of discipline, order, hierarchy, and authority. Bailey traces a frustrating yet fascinating story, as a massive, conservative institution came to terms with demands for change.

About the Author

Beth Bailey is a Foundation Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas.

For more information about Beth Bailey, visit the Author Page.


"A detailed examination of the U.S. Army’s efforts to address “the problem of race” in the late 1960s and early ’70s . . . . [Bailey's] in-depth reporting on the Army’s attempts to “assess and address Black soldiers’ complaints” sheds light on what was accomplished, as well as how far there is left to go. It’s a valuable study of the challenges to institutional reform."—Publishers Weekly

“Bailey's account of the way the army responded to the growing crisis is original and informative.”—Eric Foner, London Review of Books

"Bailey has done a great service by exploring the military side of the “racial crisis” of the 1960s and ’70s, a topic that has been underexplored by historians . . . . insightful."—Randal Maurice Jelks, Los Angeles Review of Books

"An essential addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War era and the US Army, as it relates the racial conflict in the US to the experiences of American soldiers worldwide. Bailey expands the field of military history and is taking the discipline to exciting new places. This book is a must read for all who are interested in the history of race relations in the US, and should be required reading for all military historians . . . . Highly recommended."—CHOICE

An Army Afire is a groundbreaking book by one of America's best military historians. Drawing on an impressive array of untapped sources, Beth Bailey has crafted an incisive history of the racial conflicts that raged during the Vietnam War era. By exploring this "war within the war," Bailey highlights the stories of dozens of Black soldiers who reshaped the US Army from the inside. This is a first-rate institutional and cultural history of a turning point for both the military and the nation. —Matthew Delmont, Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth and author of Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad

“Bailey has written a book of tremendous importance that has the potential to become the definitive study on race and the American military during the Vietnam era. She has a wonderful gift for storytelling and infuses what could be a traditional institutional study with life and emotion.” –Chad Williams, author of The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War