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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

October 31, 2006

Written by C.N.

Questions of Loyalty and Asian American Identity

Is it morally right to fight in Iraq? This question is at the heart of Lt. Ehren Watada’s story, featured in the L.A. Times, October 16, 2006, by Teresa Watanabe.

Watada, 28, is an Army first lieutenant who earlier this year became the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, calling the war illegal and immoral. Although other soldiers have refused deployment, his status as an officer sets his case apart. The Honolulu native of Japanese and Chinese descent faces a general court-martial and up to seven years in prison for charges involving refusal to deploy, criticism of President Bush and “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”

…The elder Watada [Lt. Watada’s father, Bob] said his son joined the Army to help protect the country after 9/11. But when his superiors told him to study up on the Iraq War, Watada concluded that U.S. officials launched it in violation of U.S. and international laws. The turning point, the elder Watada said, was in January, when Ehren heard the father of an injured soldier lament on a radio show: “Why can’t anyone stand up and stop this?” “He thought the guy was talking to him,” Watada said of his son. “He thought he was the person who had to stand up.”

This case is reopening old wounds among Japanese Americans. Most Americans are more likely to know about the internment camps and of the Nisei volunteers who served in the military, rather than the draft resisters derisively labeled as “no-no boys.” Lt. Watada’s refusal to serve in Iraq has touched a nerve among Japanese Americans, particularly among the veterans, despite his willingness to serve in Afghanistan.

… “The Watada case has provoked so much emotion because it raises the question of loyalty, and that question severely tested Japanese Americans during World War II,” said Lane Hirabayashi of UCLA, the first professor in the nation to hold an academic chair dedicated to the study of Japanese internment. “It raises a lot of controversies that I don’t think have ever been fully resolved.” Debate lingers over how Japanese Americans responded after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Even as the attack prompted the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents in remote camps, thousands of young men and women enlisted in the U.S. military, determined to prove their loyalty. Their service record has made them community icons of mythological proportions. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion, composed mainly of Japanese Americans, became one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history.

But a small minority refused to enlist and were harshly ostracized, Hirabayashi said. They included draft resisters who refused to serve unless their civil and constitutional rights were restored. They also included those know as “no-no boys,” for answering negatively to a government loyalty questionnaire asking if they would serve in the U.S. military and renounce allegiance to the emperor of Japan.

Bitterness between the two sides persists today. Hirabayashi and others, for instance, tell tales of brothers who never spoke again after one resisted and the other served. Ellen Endo, editor of Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles Japanese newspaper, calls the Watada debate the most emotional community divide she’s seen in four decades.

Nisei and other Asian American veterans deserve respect from their for their valor and service, but uncritical deference blinds us from examining the deeper issues of Asian American identity. To allow uncompromising veterans and pro-war factions to brand Lt. Watada as a modern day “no-no boy” and disavow him from Asian America, is to fail to exorcise the ghosts of the internment camps. It is to say that we Asian Americans must wave the flag more vigorously than whites to prove their loyalty.

Citizenship and patriotism does not equate to flag-waving and blind obedience. Soldiers are sworn to defend their country, but they are also citizens and thereby have responsibility to refuse criminal or immoral orders. If such posture is unpatriotic, shameful, or foolish as some critics call it, I wonder how history would have been so different if the Japanese and German soldiers had taken that same stance in large numbers.

Lt. Watada is not a coward; his physical courage is corroborated by his willingness to deploy to Afghanistan. This case highlights a deficit of moral courage in American society; be it members of the press who evade questioning the morality of going to war in Iraq, or pro-war cohorts who deflect moral responsibility by taking refuge behind the uniform and flag.

In the words of Bill Moyers, “come to think of it, sometimes standing up to your government is to stand up for your country.” Perhaps the time has arrived for us Asian Americans to treat the Watada case as a chance to assert our individuality and independence as a people, rather than treating it as another test of loyalty.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Questions of Loyalty and Asian American Identity" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/10/questions-of-loyalty-and-asian-american-identity/> ().

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