As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.
On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.
It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.
NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.
We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.
As Japan has worked to contain nuclear fallout, recover bodies, and rebuild towns after the earthquakes and tsunami, U.S. political leaders and journalists have been eager to praise the Japanese people’s “resilience” in the face of disaster. A week ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed America’s support for Japan thus:
This has been an unprecedented disaster, but it has provoked an unprecedented show of resilience by the Japanese people and a pledge of cooperation and friendship from the American people.
It seems a kind of amnesia has taken hold of Clinton, and of many others who marvel at the speed and orderliness of Japan’s disaster response. Some have chalked up the resilience to “culture”—but that’s the default explanation when anything to do with “the Orient” seems different from “us.”
The more obvious explanation is that the Japanese have more experience with mass destruction and radiation than almost anyone. That experience comes courtesy of the U.S., which in 1945 dropped atomic bombs on two densely populated Japanese cities with the intention of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific war crimes, ones the U.S. has never had to account for because it was the victor in that war.
War historians might argue over whether the bombings ultimately saved lives by ending the war. But as we offer our “pledge of cooperation and friendship,” let’s at least be truthful about the history of our two nations. It’s not that Clinton has forgotten; her omission is willful, even systematic. America loves being the benefactor, the friend, especially while it is waging two (now three?) unpopular wars abroad. Maintaining our moral standing in today’s world demands a certain amount of brazenness, or apparent amnesia.
According to the Children of the Atomic Bomb project at UCLA, conservative estimates place death tolls at 150,000 in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki. It’s hard to know the true extent of the damage because of the far-reaching and time-delayed effects of radiation. What we do know is that the bombings were multi-dimensional disasters, with death and injury occurring in a variety of ways, including burns, crushing, radiation sickness, and cancer.
Today, it is no wonder that Japan’s disaster response is fast, organized, and effective. Japan’s Red Cross Society, developed after World War II, has over two million registered volunteers. Is some of this because of “culture”? Maybe. But let’s start with the obvious explanation.
The controversy over a historic slave and free black cemetery in downtown Richmond appears headed, finally, for a reasonable resolution. The Burial Ground for Negroes (c. 1750-1816), which currently lies under a parking lot at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been the subject of community protest and an unsuccessful lawsuit.
Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that VCU plans to remove the asphalt from the parking lot, which is slated to be turned into a memorial under a deal between the state, the city, and VCU. VCU will use state funds for the removal. But it’s still unclear how soon the work will be done, since the new plans depend on a budget amendment that won’t take effect until July 1.
I’ve been following this story since last fall, when I began researching the site’s history and analyzing the legal case that arose from it. Richmond was a major slave trading center, and the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood where the cemetery lies was once “ground zero” of the city’s slave trade, according to a documentary film by Shawn Utsey. The cemetery was always an abject space, located on flood-prone land adjacent to Shockoe Creek. It was near a notorious slave jail, as well as the gallows where Richmond’s most famous slave rebellion leader was executed. Over the years, the area experienced waves of redevelopment, much of it racially inflected, as black homes and businesses were torn down to make way for Interstate 95 and other structures. With such a sensitive history, it was no wonder that emotions rose when VCU purchased the 1.6 acre site in 2008 and began using it as a parking lot.
In early 2010, Sa’ad El-Amin, a former Richmond City Councilman and a divisive figure in local politics, filed a mandamus petition seeking to force the state to find the cemetery’s historic boundaries so that the site could be properly preserved. The suit was dismissed, as the standard for mandamus was clearly not met.
However, the case was instructive because it demonstrated the obstacles that descendants of slaves face when they seek to access or protect from desecration the burial sites of their possible ancestors. Due to conditions of slavery and racial inequities that continued after Emancipation, many descendants do not know or cannot prove their ancestry and, therefore, do not have standing to sue under the common law for cemetery access. (Alfred Brophy wrote a great article on cemetery law, available on SSRN.) El-Amin, not being able to prove direct descent from anyone buried in the cemetery, was limited in his legal options. The controversy, therefore, had to be resolved in the political rather than legal arena, and as such it was subject to the vagaries of local politics in a city that has historically “buried” its ugly racial past.
As with most conflicts over the dead, this one is really about relations between the living. Last fall, El-Amin stood in front of the Richmond courthouse and spoke to reporters about his mandamus suit and another suit he filed over the cemetery:
“We are here to get VCU’s asphalt off of our burial ground,” El-Amin said on the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building downtown, elongating the first vowel, as in “ASSphalt.” One can only imagine, El-Amin said, if the shoe were on the other foot.
“What do you think would happen if I drove over to Hollywood Cemetery and parked my car on one of those Confederate generals?” he asked.