Like many Americans, as Veterans Day nears, I think about my family’s military service. And because most of the servicemen in my family are not white, I find myself also thinking about the recent media storm that briefly enveloped Khizr and Ghazala Khan. Like many Americans, I was outraged when Donald Trump questioned Ghazala Khan’s silence during her husband’s speech at the July Democratic National Convention and then again when he accepted the Purple Heart from a veteran during a rally, joking with the audience that he’d “always wanted to get the Purple Heart” and this was “much easier” than combat.
My uncle received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam. He is Chinese American; in the past, I wondered what it must have been like to fight with troops trying to kill people who looked, physically, just like him, among soldiers who might have viewed his presence with suspicion. The poet Yusef Komunyakaa, an African American who served in Vietnam, writes explicitly about the costs of serving a nation that doesn’t recognize all its soldiers as its own. In his prose poem “One Legged Stool,” published in Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa imagines a black GI captured by the Viet Cong, arguing over the loyalty his fellow white troops will show him, insisting, “They ain’t laughing [at me]. Ain’t cooperating [with you]…. It ain’t the way you say it is. I’m American.” The soldier refuses to accept what the Viet Cong whisper: that Martin Luther King has been assassinated, that the other white troops have sold him out. He rails against a terrifying logic: loyalty like his is insane. Despite what he suspects, he clings to his identity as a soldier, the symbol of his uniform so protective “you could cut your fingers on the creases in [his] khakis.” “I didn’t break,” he insists, regardless of the fact that some part of him has been, fighting for a country even its enemies know hasn’t granted him full humanity.
My uncle fought in Vietnam 20 years after President Truman integrated the armed forces, 26 years after Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, and 23 years after the Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment helped liberate Dachau. He was wounded three years after the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed the first big wave of Chinese and other Asian immigrants into the United States after years of draconian, race-based restrictions, and he was still recuperating in 1969, the same year J. Edgar Hoover testified before a congressional committee that among the many thousands of Chinese living in the United States were dozens of subversives ready to sabotage the nation.
In Vietnam, my uncle was asked implicitly to set aside his racial identity to become part of a military that represented his interests as a US citizen while the nation diminished him as an Asian man. Was it the first time he understood the cost of what being Chinese American meant? But there is something about my uncle, a quiet dignity, a wry sense of self-deprecating humor that always made me shy away from asking such questions. From the time he returned home, my uncle generally kept the facts of his service from my family, though from conversations with my father, I learned that my uncle spent most of his tour stationed on a mountain ridge that the Viet Cong shelled almost nightly. According to my father, the combat my uncle endured was brutal, relentless. Only last summer at our family reunion did my uncle speak explicitly to us about his service and that was to say that he’d finally put that time in his life to rest. From this, I understood we shouldn’t expect to hear anything more from him. And it is not because he thinks that no one cares to know more but because none of us can imagine how to parse that word Vietnam, which, in our house, has turned over the years into a metaphor for silence and the price of a near-suicidal loyalty.
When Donald Trump dismisses the sacrifice of the Khans or sneers at John McCain for having been a POW, he reminds us of the ways that military service—meant, for some, as a way to unite economic classes and people—has also been used to divide people. Just because you fought for America, Komunyakaa reminds us, doesn’t make you equal—or even an American. We can see this in our government’s treatment of the Vietnamese who became naturalized citizens—many of them soldiers who fought alongside Americans during the war. As the scholar Hien Duc Do writes in The Vietnamese Americans, during the rush to house the growing tide of refugees in 1970s, some Vietnamese received preferential treatment from the national government in the assignment of low-income housing, often at the expense of black and Chicano families. If Vietnamese military service was considered, it was to hold refugees responsible for the loss of American family members, which led to scapegoating and outbreaks of violence.
When a presidential candidate calls for a ban on Muslim immigration as he denigrates the family of a slain soldier, when he blithely dangles someone else’s Purple Heart onstage at a rally and suggests that Colin Kaepernick can just leave America if he won’t stand for the anthem, he returns us to some of the racial divisions that roiled America after the Vietnam War. Behind these gestures is a silent but long-held belief that some Americans must be held harder to certain standards to demonstrate their loyalty, even as these actions also suggest that these standards, these people, and these loyalties are worthless.
I am heartened to know that, since last summer and his father’s harrowing speech, Humayun Khan’s grave has become a shrine to visitors to Arlington National Cemetery, that even in death, he represents a nation still willing itself to be inclusive, undivided, regardless of the ways it has also politically insisted on those divisions. Occasionally, I wonder if my uncle’s silence was not just anger or reticence, a way of shielding us from the terrifying details of combat, but a more complex loyalty he wanted to show his fellow soldiers, an understanding that he, like they, would keep secret the violence they had suffered and together enacted, an oath of fellowship to men whom he may also have recognized did not always include him in that fellowship. As both Komunyakaa’s poem and the recent protests in North Carolina over the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a police officer proved, a shared experience of war does not necessarily bring combatants and victims together. It does not cohere men or communities, even if they are historically on the same side. The struggle that constitutes being American for some resides in constant choice, hard-won and self-negating, requiring that at some level loyalty such as Humayun Khan’s, such as my uncle’s, such as the kind that the black soldier displays in Komunyakaa’s poem come at the cost of a willful forgetting. It is a citizenship based not on history but on hope.
Rekdal grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the...