America’s Forever War and the Cost of Assimilation

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Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

“They’re wrong. There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself. He’s not gonna allow, President Trump, the ability of this madman to have a missile to hit America. If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re gonna die over there; they’re not gonna die here, and he’s told me that to my face. And that may be provocative, but not really. When you’re a President of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States. This man, Kim Jong-Un, is threatening America with a nuclear-tipped missile….There will be a war with North Korea over their missile program if they continue to try to hit America with an ICBM.”

Senator Lindsey Olin Graham, R-SC, The Today Show, July 31, 2017

By the time Senator Graham uttered these words on NBC, I had heard enough similarly genocidal statements from classmates, politicians, acquaintances, strangers, celebrities and coworkers to recognize the banality of his warmongering fervor. Graham, like General MacArthur, John Bolton and countless others before him, stuck to the Orientalist script. His approach was unexceptional: the casual demand for extermination based on exaggerated threats and navel-gazing analysis, the conflation of Kim Jong-Un and the DPRK state with its people, the overture to nationalism, the flippant reduction of Korean lives to necessary collateral damage in the sacred mission of protecting (White) Americans from a war that would never be fought on their shores. It was a story that had been told many times, not only with regard to North Korea but also Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, and countless other victims of US imperialism in recent memory.

Senator Graham’s alarmism might be understandable (which is not to say the same of his bloodlust) if the DPRK presented a credible threat to the United States, but it does not. Despite the latest tests possibly placing most of the continental US within range of DPRK missiles, the DPRK lacks the strategic advantage to justify a preemptive strike. Increasingly isolated on the international stage, and totally unable to defeat the US in conventional warfare, the DPRK would pay for such an act with its own destruction. Contrary to Western media’s insistence on the purported “lunacy” of Kim Jong-Un, governments do not choose paths that would so obviously lead to their downfall. It is also worth noting that for all the United States’ pontification on the evils of nuclear power, it remains the only nation in history to ever use nuclear weapons in the context of warfare, and that it did so on civilian populations (including Koreans), twice.

I cannot recall a year of my life when talk of war with North Korea has not been part of the news cycle. When I was younger, this was a source of a very self-serving anxiety. I learned quickly that the question of where I was from would often require distancing myself from being perceived as “North Korean.” It didn’t matter that Korea had been politically unified for over a thousand years before 1945, or that I had ancestors from across the peninsula, some of them from places north of the 38th parallel. What mattered was demonstrating that I wasn’t like Those Koreans, that I was one of the Good Ones, maybe even a Real American after all.

My concerns with distancing myself from (North) Koreanness and aligning myself with (White) Americanness were rooted at the confluence of the enemy alien and perpetual foreigner archetypes. It was an adaptation to a social and political environment which persistently placed me under scrutiny, which communicated to me in ways overt and covert that my belonging, my very existence, were contingent upon my (perceived) loyalty.

This anxiety is not unique to the experience of Korean Americans; it is a dynamic that has persisted throughout the history of Orientalized people in the United States, and is the reason why a considerable swath of the Asian American movement has devoted itself to promoting the “Americanness” of Orientalized peoples.

Yet there is an unspoken tension that undergirds such efforts. What does it mean, in a historical and sociopolitical sense, to be an American? Is it possible for people racialized as non-White to ever occupy the full parameters of “Americanness,” and is such an outcome desirable or complementary to a broader politics of decolonization and liberation?  The answers, however unintentionally, are somewhat revealed in Senator Graham’s assertion that, “If thousands die, they’re gonna die over there; they’re not gonna die here.”

In defending his bloodlust with the cold logic of “allegiance,” Senator Graham orients his argument with the nation-state as its axis, using its borders to delineate the boundaries of the legitimacy of human life. While it may be simpler to dismiss this framework as reflective of the nature of Graham’s position, such a teleological approach elides the foundation and substance of these United States. Contrary to the revisionist claims of liberal multiculturalism, neither the US nor its national identity can be separated or rehabilitated from the racial logic and violence of its founding and present. To invoke the nation-state in the context of a preemptive invasion of or strike on an Asian country is to invoke Orientalism, and by extension, Whiteness.

In this moment, the centrality of two particular principles of White supremacy were revealed: the exaltation of White (American) life over all other beings, and the maintenance of Western hegemony through the subjugation of the Orient—a project which the United States has played a leading role in for over a century. For all Asian Americans, Koreans included, the cost of assimilation, assuming such a thing is even possible, is our participation in, or at least acquiescence to, the maintenance and perpetuation of these principles. The coloniality that defines the realities of our homelands thereby permeates into the US diaspora, marking not only our entrance into these lands, but also the conditions of our survival within a system that would extract our labor and knowledge to uphold domination.

Yet when it comes to the question of situating Asian America’s assimilationist politics, the totality of the American ontology must first be examined. There is no United States, indeed, no global modernity, without the genocide of Native Americans and the global enslavement of Africans. These two historical processes must be understood not as past “events” which have ended, but interlocking structures that live on in settler colonialism and what Saidiya Hartman refers to as the “afterlife of slavery.” This country has always defined citizenship and belonging, “Americanness,” in racial terms, whether through explicitly exclusionary laws, organized violence, or the coded rhetoric of “illegal,” “criminal,” and “terrorist” persons. Americanness, by definition, is inextricable from White supremacy.

As such, the story of Asian America has always been more complicated than a morally straightforward tale of people(s) harvested by empire. Throughout the history of Orientalized peoples in the Americas, we have participated in the subjugation and immiseration of Black, Native, and even other Asian communities. This manifests in the present in a variety of manners: from opposition to justice for Akai Gurley to lawsuits against Affirmative Action, and from Chinese American resistance to AAPI data disaggregation to tacit approval of the military-prison industrial complex.

These realities demand a reassessment of the Asian American project. What does it mean to seek inclusion and recognition in an empire that has clawed its way to hegemony through the ongoing colonization and destruction of our lands and people? What does it mean to claim “Americanness” as a right when America has always existed through the negation of others’ rights? What claim do we have to the labor, lands, and very lives of Black and Native people? What does it mean to seek belonging in a society that advocates for the wholesale slaughter of people that look like you without a shred of shame or hesitation? What does it mean to profess loyalty to a country you live in because it once bombed the lands of your ancestors, and seeks to do so again?

Towards the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his fear that African Americans were “integrating into a burning house.” After years of organizing in what became known as the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King came to recognize that integration alone would not deliver African Americans, so long as the necessary poverty mandated by capitalism persisted. His invocation of a house in flames illustrated, at once, the precarity of integration and a recognition of its inability to sufficiently rupture the self-perpetuating violence of America itself, a house eternally in flames.

I fear that much of the Asian American movement, especially its mainstreamed liberal and conservative iterations, risks doing the same. Where we go from here will influence the legacy and future we leave behind not only for our descendants but for all colonized peoples. We must move from a politics exclusively concerned with the social mobility of some of us (middle class, cisgender, citizen or documented immigrant, non-Black, mostly East Asian) towards a politics of insurgency that seeks to interrupt and subvert systems of violence that sow death and poverty here and around the world.

Senator Graham defended his and the President’s genocidal outlooks with an appeal to loyalty. For Korean Americans in particular, this presented something of an ultimatum reminiscent of similar demands placed upon Muslim, South and West Asian American communities in the present and on Asian Americans more broadly throughout history. Once again, Senator Graham’s Orientalism reveals the often-unstated truth of the matter—that this is a question of our allegiance. We are faced with a choice: to be loyal to our colonizers or to keep faith with those we might call kin. Will we continue to stand on the necks of others as we reach for the shuttered windows of this burning house, or will we step back from the flames and take part in the work of building the world anew from the ashes?

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