When I was a child, my father used to buy me Mylar bags full of green and tan Army men. The green ones were the good guys, always fighting under the red-white-and-blue. The tan soldiers stood in for the enemy, fighting under foreign banners—Germany’s, Iraq’s, but most prominently in my memory, Vietnam’s. This taught me an important childhood lesson—that I was your enemy. I saw it in your Hollywood films, where Vietnamese stood in for an age-old “Yellow Peril”: as venal whores corrupting American youth, or as raped and murdered civilians reduced to set dressing, or invisible assailants waiting to take the only lives that seemed to matter—American ones.
As a child I never understood why the talking heads on the nightly news insisted that people like me were stealing your jobs, why we needed to only speak your language, why we needed to shed identities to fit the world you’d made—a world shaped by violence that had driven us from our homes and into yours. America’s whitewashed history books diminished the slavery and genocide central to the nation’s founding with the same amnesiac insouciance that forgot it had lost what had been its longest war just one generation ago. American stigmas reached me on the playground, casting me as enemy, no different than in the movies or those bags of tan army men. This lesson showed me the lens through which America sees the world—green and tan, good and bad, us and them, friend and enemy.
It’s been 10 years since I returned from my own deployment to another American war in Afghanistan, and recently it’s as if I’ve been living in my parents’ memories—escaping Vietnam by boat at night, escaping a city on fire, abandoning their fields and ancestral graves and families, fleeing a victorious country starved because of American pride and American malice. I have been living in my rage for weeks, a rage borne of the same dehumanizing violence once wielded against my parents, rage I directed inward when I wielded American force against people just like my mother and father.
I have used American slurs for Afghans, no different than slurs Americans have used to strip Black and brown and Asian and queer and so many marginalized people of their humanity. I’ve used American shells to kill someone’s husband and brothers in an embattled valley and an American rifle to kill someone’s son in a barren field without having to answer for their deaths. I’ve used American lies when promising village elders more funding or security or access to services that my unit would never deliver—because killing the enemy was more important than caring for the people. I failed Afghanistan, my Afghan friends, and my own family’s memory by not recognizing the irrefutable fact of Afghan humanity, and in doing so, I must bear complicity and sorrow and guilt in yet another catastrophe of America’s making.
Why, then, should a child of refugees choose to serve in the same military that had inflicted such brutality against her parents? I can only say that I needed the Army. I wanted so badly to not be hated, wanted to be American, to shed my role as the other, as an enemy. I grew up amid American abundance, watching wealth from afar while past-due bills swamped my family’s kitchen table. The Army offered a way out, tuition for school, steady benefits and pay and three square meals and a chance to see a world I was too poor to see otherwise. It offered a way out of the battlefield my parents made in our living room from their untreated trauma. I’d hoped going to war would help me understand why I was not as important as their pain and longing for the past. I got all these things, but the cost—cancer, a broken marriage, a return to poverty, and the ghost of a war that torments my heart—was far too dear.
I wish I could write to you about all the suffering I witnessed and perpetrated and felt. I wish you could understand the pain of learning that your friend in the Afghan police was murdered in his home for working with you. I wish you had cast out your friend, an interpreter, because you’d asked him to call the enemy on a cell phone, which your country then used as evidence of an alleged betrayal. I wish you had promised safety for women teachers who took their lives in their hands every day to serve their community or their students who braved drive-by shootings for the crime of attending school. I wish you had consoled a mother whose son’s lower half had been reduced to red slurry by an American bomb or a son whose civilian father had been cut down by an American bullet—all while wearing the flag of the America that stole those lives. But forcing my memories on you would be futile, in the end.
As much as I want you, my fellow Americans, to pay war’s price, to feel the depth and intensity of my rage, to feel Afghanistan’s suffering and carry it for the rest of your days, I fear that like your defeat in Vietnam, the humiliation you feel now will overshadow your victims’ humanity. We Vietnamese were never people to you. Nor were Afghans. We were caricatures, numbers, props for political rhetoric, but never people. This failure of imagination brought you defeat. If you only ever imagined us as your enemies, could we be anything else? You made us what you needed us to be: your worst fears, your worst crimes reflected back at you. But we have always been so much more than you failed to imagine us to be.
Instead, I choose humanity over rage. I want you to remember the Taliban cleric who shared tea with me, despite being my foe. Remember the school headmaster who wished his students would go to university and read poetry in tea houses and study literature in libraries brimming with books. Remember the traveling mullah who offered me and my men the bread and meat that’d been meant for his supper. Remember the children who yearned for lessons in arithmetic and chemistry that’d been denied their parents. Remember the farmer who welcomed me and my men into his home for a meal in the bitter winter cold. Remember the young men who traveled bomb-ridden roads to apply to university in hopes of becoming doctors and engineers and professors to make their country a paradise. Remember a little girl doing her washing by a stream in Wardak province, humming an old Persian folk song. Remember the Afghan soldiers who hoped and waited for the war to be over to return to the children they had not seen since they were born.
I want you to remember their names. I wish I knew whether they are alive or dead, I wish there were something I could do to save them all, I wish you would know them as I knew them, though you’ll never have the pleasure. Their names will have to do:
This is my meager gift to you, America. If you will not give up your armies or your empires or the corporations that profit off the dehumanizing legacy of violence you’ve wrought on us, then this gift will do nothing but haunt you. If you can begin to shed the mantle of power and profit and control; if you can begin to disabuse yourselves of the brutal mythos of American dominance; if you can finally see us as human, perhaps you’ll have earned yourselves some small measure of grace.