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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Asian American Soldiers of Conscience

Asian American soldiers of conscience
By Gina Hotta

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

When Major General Antonio Taguba steps on-stage, his shoulders are pulled back and he stands straight while addressing the audience at the University of California, Berkeley. He smiles at the warm reception he receives at a university known for being at the center of anti-war and left-wing students movements. A man in the audience holds up a sign saying "Mabuhay General", expressing a warm welcome in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines. It also reflects the pride that Filipinos in America feel when they see this man - the son of immigrants to Hawaii, whose father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March - talk about his investigation that revealed systematic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"Torture is un-lawful", are the first words of his keynote address, part of the "War on Terror" lecture series presented by the Human Rights Center at Berkeley. In 2004 Taguba was lead investigator into conditions at the US military's Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq. His highly critical report was publicized throughout the world. The 6,000-page report gave evidence of torture, prisoner abuse, and a failure of leadership and responsibility at the highest levels of authority. The report was hailed as a thorough investigation completed in only 30 days. But in January 2006, Taguba received a phone call from the Army's Vice-Chief of Staff who offered no reason but said, "I need you to retire by January of 2007." This Taguba did after 34 years of active duty.

The war in Iraq has thrust American soldiers of Asian ancestry into the limelight as no other US conflict has ever done before. Aside from their Asian heritage there is yet another tie that these men have. It reflects another on-going battle - one that is being fought in the halls of Congress and in countless debates throughout the world. Asian American soldiers have found themselves front and center in these fights over the use of torture, questions of wartime ethics and conduct and even over the legality of the Iraq war itself.

In my interviews with war resistor First Lieutenant Ehren Watada; James Yee, the former captain and Muslim chaplin at Guantanamo Bay Prison; and Taguba, they all remain strong believers in the US constitution, its principals and the ability of the US military to protect them. Despite the different ways they acted on their beliefs and despite differing opinions, what remains is their commitment to a firm set of ideals and their willingness to pay a price for it.

I asked Taguba if he felt that the immigrant experience had something to do with their stance that put them in the line of fire. His response was that it was more a matter of taking responsibility and of giving leadership when called to duty as any American should do. Yet Taguba's parents and their experience during World War II are the sources of his greatest inspiration. His father is a survivor of the Bataan Death March and fought Japan's occupation of the Philippines. His mother helped prisoners at a Japanese POW camp in Manila. Taguba still remembers his mother's stories about the atrocities committed in the prison.

However, the road has not been easy for his family. It was only through Taguba’s efforts that his father finally received recognition for his heroic efforts during the war. Taguba also cites instances of discrimination: of being refused service in a restaurant and - although he holds three masters degrees - being accused of not speaking English well. Yet his response was to double his efforts and to leave bitterness behind, his integrity intact. Watada and Yee also speak with pride about their service in the military. Both have fathers who were in the service and cite their families as a source of strength. Like Taguba, a sense of dignity and of duty towards a just cause still infuse their words, even though their beliefs took them on a path contrary to the prevailing norm.

Yee wanted to improve conditions at Guantanamo Bay through providing religious guidance and education about Islam. However, when rumors of spying at the prison arose, Yee was charged with espionage, the most serious of several charges. He was arrested, hooded, shackled and subjected to sensory deprivation; the same kind of treatment that prisoners at Guantanamo received. Throughout his ordeal, Yee's wife was questioned and his character was smeared. Even after all major charges were dropped and the others reduced to mishandling classified information, Yee remained under FBI surveillance.

Watada's refusal to deploy to Iraq underscored the Bush administration's determination to go to war, with Truth being its first casualty. Watada argues that the President misled the public and that the reasons for going to war were based on false premises. Watada states that he will not fight an illegal war. He now faces a possible court martial.

The stand Watada took remains a source of controversy. Yet support for him is strong, with a group of Asian Americans supporters driving several hundred miles to his trials in Washington State. Support for Yee first came from Muslim Americans. But as events surrounding his case were revealed, Chinese and Asian Americans rallied to his cause.

I compare this situation to that of the war in Southeast Asia. When I documented stories of Asian American Vietnam Veterans, I was told of an Asian American soldier being signaled out by a squad leader. He then told the squad, "This is what the enemy looks like." The contributions of these Asian Americans in the armed forces were no less than those of Asian American soldiers today. But too often racial stereotyping and derogatory attitudes reserved for the Vietnamese were also pointed at Asian Americans. The sense of isolation, the mental and emotional scars inflicted upon these men and women remained apparent years after returning to civilian life.

When I ask Taguba about the role of de-humanizing the enemy, his pace slows and his voice seems to loses its brightness. "It's about usurping your power over somebody who's desperate. It has been a part of how we handle prisoners. But it doesn’t have to lead to torture or inhumane treatment."

Minorities in the US military bear a double duty: one to serve their country and one to prove to the very same country that they are equal human beings. This contradiction and its pressures are hard to bear without supportive networks and methods of dealing with racial discrimination. But over the years, Asian Americans have distinguished themselves in the armed service, have nurtured organizations and role models as well as developed broad networks of political and social support beyond what existed during the war in Southeast Asia. Perhaps all these factors contributed to the present phenomenon of Asian American soldiers with high profiles in issues of war, the US constitution and human rights. (Although all would have preferred to remain out of the spotlight.)

Other Americans have asked me if Asian Americans have a dual loyalty: one to their Asian ancestral home and one to their American home. An underlying question is: does this pose a danger to the US if they serve in its military? One only has to look at people like Taguba, Watada and Yee to find answers. Yet, these soldiers do not subscribe to a blind loyalty or patriotism. In his opening remarks, Taguba says he saw the importance of the Free Speech Movement and the struggles of minority students for a better education. Rather, these men are informed by beliefs tested by obstacles that they and their families had to overcome and by the sacrifices of those who took a stand for justice and equality. These soldiers of Asian ancestry do not have to take on double duty. And yet many do. It's as if it comes with the uniform, with their heritage. And it is not a light burden to bear.

Gina Hotta is a radio producer and writer with a focus on the Asian Pacific Islander Diaspora. She has won awards such as from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Asian American Journalist Association. She also works on CBS radio's Science Today.


Thank You, Ehren Watada's website

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