In a six-month period, there were two alleged suicides of young US-born Chinese men serving in the US military occupation of Afghanistan.
Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew died in Helmand province. Army Private Danny Chen died in Kandahar province. The first was from California. The second was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown, the son of a cook and a garment worker.
Before they died, each of them was subjected to physical abuse and brutal humiliation, not from the people of Afghanistan who they were sent to fight and subjugate by the US ruling class, but from their fellow troops in the US occupying forces. In Danny Chen’s case, it has also come to light that he was the victim of racist and anti-Chinese harassment by his army superiors, one of them with a record as an attempted rapist.
Who Is the Real Enemy?
Who is the real enemy? Danny Chen signed up to fight for his country (he thought) against enemies in Afghanistan (he thought) and ended up dead by the actions of racist US troops. It wasn’t Afghans who dragged Danny from his bed across a floor. It wasn’t Afghans who made Danny crawl on the ground while pelting him with rocks. It wasn’t Afghans who tortured Danny, forcing him to hold water in his mouth while hanging upside down.
Danny Chen met the real enemy in Kandahar. He discovered that this enemy isn’t from Kandahar and isn’t Afghan. This enemy isn’t Iraqi or Palestinian. Danny learned that the real enemy is born from the same country where he was born, speaks the same language he spoke, wears the same uniform he wore, and salutes the same red-white-and-blue American flag he saluted.
For now, the dominant narrative is: “Danny Chen wanted to serve his country by joining its military. But, his country and its military failed to protect him. The military needs more effective diversity training programs and other reforms.” We have to closely scrutinize this narrative, its assumptions and its ideology. Whose country is it? Whose military is it and who does this military serve? Who is the real enemy?
A Racist Killing, A Racist Military, A Racist Society
Let’s review some history.
At the turn of the last century, the US killed a quarter of a million people in the Philippines, while white politicians called Filipinos “savages” and bellowed about the civilizing mission of US imperialism. It was during this war that the racist slur “gook” was first coined to refer to Filipino people, later to be used by US troops for other Asian and colonized peoples.
In the middle of the last century, there was the Korean War, when the US engaged in the indiscriminate saturation bombing of the people of northern Korea, dropping more bombs than those used in the Pacific region as a whole during World War II. More “gooks” to be exterminated.
After that, there was the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre, and the multitude of atrocities that went unnamed.
With this history, is it any surprise that US-born Chinese and Asian soldiers face violent racism in the US military, regardless of how much they profess their loyalty to this country? Racism is inherent in the US military and no amount of diversity training will expunge it.
During the Vietnam War, testimony at the Winter Soldier Investigation exposed how both Asian soldiers in the US military and the so-called enemy in Vietnam were called “gooks” by racist US troops. The investigation also exposed how Black soldiers were beaten and starved by their white superiors.
During Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, US military veterans testified to the widespread use of the racist slur “Haji” for the people they were occupying.
Like US society more broadly, sexual violence is also part of the culture of the US military. Iraq War veteran Rafay Siddiqui, speaking at Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, said that in the military, “you’re not a man until you’ve taken advantage of a woman … you’re not a man until you’ve sexually abused.” New recruits witness their superiors being sexually abusive and are pressured to fit into this environment. Women in the military face widespread sexual violence. Victims are pressured by their superiors to stay silent.
Racism, militarism and war are built into the foundations of US society, a society that came about through genocide, land theft and slavery. The US capitalist economy and its globally-dominant currency cannot exist without the largest military that has ever existed in the history of civilization, without the global network of bases, and without the ever-present threat of force towards subject nations that are insufficiently compliant.
For all sections of US society, the American way of life is inextricably connected with global military power and more than half a century of military Keynesianism as state policy. For some sections, this way of life means luxury consumer goods, managerial employment and big houses in the suburbs; for others, jailhouse schools, permanent unemployment, low-wage jobs and prison.
Activists peddle illusions to the people when they imagine that transforming this state of affairs is simply a matter of shifting government budget priorities, e.g. “Money for Jobs and Education, Not for War and Occupation.” Activists fail to connect the dots when they condemn US militarism and military institutions, without explaining how these are expressions of an entire society (an economy, politics and culture) geared for war.
And yet, despite all of this, some of our leaders tell us that the solution is to create a few more diversity training programs in the military.
In the Court of International Public Opinion
Scrambling to do damage control in the arena of public relations, the US military brass has now charged eight soldiers for contributing to Danny Chen’s death. For the same reason, they are planning to meet with some Chinatown community representatives in January.
Yet, the news about Danny Chen has already spread around the world – and that is more important than any coverage it gets in the US media.
Even if the internal investigation turns out to be a cover-up, even if the military and the US courts acquit the racist criminals, enough of the truth is out. From Beijing to Karachi, from newspapers in Africa and Latin America, people everywhere are learning that a young US-born Chinese man enlisted in the US military, went to Afghanistan to fight for his chosen country, and died by the actions of racist US soldiers. Can charges be filed in international courts? Can the case be taken to the United Nations?
Danny Chen’s story – and his name – will be repeated again and again as a lesson that the US Empire consumes and destroys even its own well-meaning and innocent citizens. It will continue to be brought up for years in international forums to condemn the US Empire. If anyone needed a reminder as to the true nature of US society and its military in the Age of Hope and Change, here is that reminder.
Remember Danny Chen
While we continue to develop the groundswell of protest in Chinese and Asian communities, Danny Chen’s death also compels us to do some internal reflection – and criticism. Are community organizers building direct ties with poor and working-class Chinese youth who are not in college, have no plans for college and may be considering the US military? If not, why not? Are campus clubs doing anything about the problems in the community that feed into the economic draft? If not, why not? Do political groups prioritize and unite our communities behind the issues of poor and working-class Chinese people, rather than the assimilationist aspirations of the Chinese middle class? If not, why not?
We need to remember Danny Chen, but we need to live like Richard Aoki. The day will come when Chinese people in the US, all oppressed nationalities and the international working class will need soldiers who defend us against our enemies. But, before that day, we need soldiers who know the real enemy, who know their people and who know themselves. If Danny Chen’s death brings our soldiers, our veterans and our people one step closer towards that realization, he will not have died in vain.
—A FLA! Writing Group
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