The recent announcement by the U.S. Army that several officers and enlisted men were being charged in the death of Private Danny Chen illustrates the problems that can occur when there is a breakdown in command discipline in a military unit. Poor leadership and a tolerance of racism toward Asians created an environment that failed Private Chen and the U.S. Army.
According to relatives, Chen’s fellow soldiers harassed him by taunting him with ethnic slurs and one time pulled him out of bed and dragged him across the floor; they forced him to crawl on the ground while they pelted him with rocks and called him names. They then ordered him to do pull-ups with a mouthful of water- while forbidding him from spitting it out. Not long after that he was found dead in a guard tower, from what the military said was “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.” All this while Private Chen was serving his country in a forward outpost in Afghanistan. Military prosecutors have charged Chen’s tormentors with an array of charges ranging from manslaughter to negligent homicide.
This is not the first case of hazing of Asian-American soldiers by military personnel. In October, 2011, several Marines were ordered court-martialed for their roles in the death of an Asian-American marine, Lance Corporal Harry Lew, from California, who killed himself in April in Afghanistan after being subjected to what military prosecutors said was hazing.
The Army and Marine Corps deserve credit for taking the claims of harassment seriously and bringing charges against those who they believe are responsible for these incidents. If those on trial are convicted and punished it will go a long way towards sending a powerful message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated by our armed forces.
How did hostility towards Asians become so powerful in these units that they engaged in acts of such cruelty it drove the victims to commit suicide? Racism as a tenant of military policy is not new. Dating back to the nineteenth century when Americans feared the “yellow peril,” a code word for Asian dominance of the world, hostility toward Asians was pervasive. During World War II the Allies often used racist code words and imagery to advance their cause. For example they constantly referred to the Japanese as “subhuman” often turning to images of apes and vermin to convey this. Ernie Pyle, the famous American war correspondent wrote, “ In Europe we felt our enemies horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.”
In 1942 hundreds of thousands Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps for the duration of the war. Many were American citizens and yet this official sanction of racial stigma exacerbated anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. No such action was taken against German –Americans. References to the Japanese as “nips” and “gooks” became part of the slang commonly used during World War II.
After fighting another Asian foe in Korea in the 50’s the United States became mired in Vietnam in the 1960’s. The emotional distance between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese they were supposed to be fighting for was enormous. Many American soldiers in Vietnam were notoriously disrespectful of the Vietnamese. Vietnamese were often referred to as “gooks”, “dinks” and “slants.” This cultural arrogance was exacerbated by the body count mentality that permeated the entire military command. One veteran said this permitted him to think that killing the NVA and Viet Cong was like “stepping on ants.” While many American soldiers appreciated the Vietnamese culture, others were often isolated and felt that the Vietnamese they saw were only ever trying to kill them. This gave rise to the suspicion and hatred. One veteran said that to him the Vietnamese “were less than animals.” This cultural distance was part of the desensitization process that military trainers used to train soldiers to kill. It is much easier to kill someone if they look distinctly different from you. If your propaganda machine can convince your soldiers that their opponents are not really human but are “inferior forms of life”, then their natural reluctance to killing will be reduced.
Old habits die hard. While the military has made great strides in trying to eradicate racism from its ranks these incidents illustrate the need to improve on those efforts. The advent of an all volunteer military and the fact that our soldiers today are among the best educated and trained in the world is extremely important. The Chen and Lew incidents are certainly the exception and not the rule. However, one is one too many. Our civilian and military leaders must remain vigilant in rooting out racism in the military so as to not compromise one of our most enduring values. When we project our military power abroad we should be fighting to promote freedom and tolerance.
Historian, Attorney, and Guest Writer Paul J. Noto's upcoming book "At The Crossroads of Justice: My Lai and Son Thang" explores U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and enduring anti-Asian sentiment. World Report News's CFO and Featured Writer on Race Relations Allison Hight will be providing a review of the book later this winter.