Racial Camouflage

by christine tran

Hazing Asian American men in the U.S. military

Looking back at last year’s events, it’s apparent that for Asian American soldiers, to “Be All You Can Be” is as hopeless an achievement as the “American Dream.” No matter how much blood, sweat and tears colored people may shed for the sake and pride of the red, white and blue, reality often undermines their so-called freedom to prosper and succeed.

Although Danny Chen died on October 3, 2011, I didn’t spot any news articles circulating his case on Facebook until December. It was one of those posts my friends shared with half-hearted remarks, such as “Poor guy,” “That’s horrible!” and “How could anyone do this?” It’s easy to distance ourselves from a person’s harsh situation and think, “I’m blessed to be living a life like mine and not his.” But this hate crime is based on something much larger than the individual. The military hazing of men like Chen is founded upon racial inequalities and prejudices that communities of color struggle against every day.

What’s frightening about this reality is that we American citizens put our faith in the hands of the men who “serve our nation,” the so-called “Army Strong.” Yet judging by how vague and unresponsive the U.S. military is in uprooting these blatant hate crimes, how can APA communities not wonder how many others are undergoing the exact same brutal practices?

These military hazings were first brought up in two high-profile 2011 cases: Harry Lew and Danny Chen. Although both were in different branches of the military, they faced similar circumstances of aggressive treatment by their peers.

New York Magazine revealed that “eight men charged in connection with [Chen’s] death are all white and range in age from 24 to 35,” and that these men were guilty of racial slurs, neglect of duty, and abuse of authority, even going so far as to put Chen in a hard hat and force him to give commands in Chinese.

It also mentioned that because Lew fell asleep on guard duty, “his fellow lance corporals ordered him to do push-ups, then stomped on his back and legs if he didn’t do them right; poured sand in his mouth; punched him in the back of his helmet; and forced him to dig a chest-deep foxhole.

When questioned whether Lew faced any racial discrimination within the military, however, “several Marines said Lew was the target of some jokes and teasing, like many other Marines of all ethnic backgrounds, but they weren’t aware he was discriminated against because of his race,” according to Associated Press.

Whether or not Lew’s sufferings explicitly stemmed from racism as in Chen’s case, ignorance alone can’t propel “jokes and teasing” to the harsh aggression that led Lew to kill himself. To present Lew’s suffering as an accident is an insult to the glaring issue at hand—that those in the military subconsciously accept hazing and bullying without understanding that these are manifestations of social inequalities.

While these military reports suggest a strong correlation between the hazings and the suicides, the court rulings determining the perpetrators’ fates don’t reflect the gravity of these violent events. In fact, the Army recommended dropping the charges of involuntary manslaughter against Specialist Ryan Offutt, one of the suspects involved with Chen’s death.

An MSNBC update this February on the latest court-martial decision stated that “Orozco was acquitted of charges involving the assault, cruel treatment and humiliation of Lew.”

Defense attorney Captain Aaron Meyer maintains these actions as well-meant, justifying that “Orozco was authorized to have a Marine in the squad do physical training like push-ups if the purpose was to maintain good order and discipline, there was no malice involved, and the training didn’t physically exhaust the Marine.” Of course, every soldier needs to have a battered body and a mouth full of sand to know good discipline.

Although military superiors like Meyer acknowledge the presence of these actions, they make light of the situation when these victims’ families are in grief, their demands for compensation unheard. The fact that racism against ethnic minorities is never explicitly stated as the main cause of these hazings is but a testament to the lack of social justice within the military system. How ironic that our nation fights for freedom and justice when we can’t enforce that within our own ranks of power.

Since Sept. 11th, America’s race awareness has spiked with a hypersensitivity to the threat abroad in the Middle East. It’s unlikely, perhaps even unpatriotic, to address any threat within our own country in a time that calls for nationalistic pride and support for our armed forces. During a recession when everyone needs money to keep afloat, mainstream news stations can’t highlight any discriminatory issues within our military without fear of being labeled as traitors to the “greater good of society.”

What’s even more shocking is the lack of awareness and reception by the APA community, let alone by the general public. How much does the community reallycare about military hazings in the realm of public issues?

In the struggle to integrate themselves into American society, Asian Americans have grown up emphasizing certain social values over others. In fact, New York Magazine quotes that Chen’s mother was against him going to the military, “preferring him to be something else, something safer. Maybe a pharmacist.

Perhaps that in itself is adopting a cultural hegemonic value that it’s uncommon and somewhat remarkable to see Asian Americans in the U.S. military. There’s also the fact that the U.S. military-industrial complex has influenced the countries from whence APAs came from. Considering what happened with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, it’s not surprising why Vietnamese American immigrant communities don’t exactly idolize the military.

When it comes to issues of racism and discrimination in the military, different Asian American communities can’t seem to relate on the same level due to their unique cultural and immigrant backgrounds. Considering how insulated Asian Americans are in their respective communities, different ethnic groups may be more focused on their own local issues and concerns. The overall apathy towards military hazings could additionally be attributed to a general lack of political awareness and participation.

Contrary to however the U.S. military and media may try to put it, the actions escalating to Chen’s and Lew’s suicides were not unforeseen and could have been addressed. APAs deserve every right and opportunity to do well in the military as much as they do in education, business and politics. Even though it’s important to retain individual ethnic backgrounds and histories, it’s about time that APAs gain a “panethnic” sense of unity and solidarity and overcome being pushed aside in America’s peripheral vision. In doing so, we can promote social and economic justices that benefit all groups of color. We can develop a strong political awareness that can see through the racial camouflage that the U.S. military has slipped into, and protect our soldiers from discriminations that go by unnoticed.