Make Allies, Break Empires

“Do you want to join the army, or do you want to go to jail?” This question—typically posed by a judge to a teenager charged with a petty crime—animated ...

“Do you want to join the army, or do you want to go to jail?” This question—typically posed by a judge to a teenager charged with a petty crime—animated countless decisions during the Vietnam War. This was especially true in places like Crenshaw, a predominantly African American and Japanese American neighborhood in South Los Angeles. Here, for young men growing up at the intersection of overpolicing and underemployment, the question spoke to the circumscribed possibilities of racialized groups in the postwar United States.

More generally, this prison-or-war binary, as Simeon Man shows in his innovative book, Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific, spoke to a particular idea of counterinsurgency employed in Cold War battlegrounds at home and abroad. For populations whose very existences evoked the threat of subversion—such as African Americans and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, or Filipinos and Koreans in their US-occupied homelands—the military could function as a proving ground of loyalty to the US national-security state.

Incorporation into the war machine signaled “fitness” for self-rule, in inner-city Los Angeles no less than in occupied Tokyo, Seoul, and Saigon. Rejecting the military’s call, in this logic, betrayed an unshakable deviancy against the interests of the United States. Whether foreign or domestic, such deviance demanded containment.

In a genre revolving around battlefield coordinates, the “genius” of particular officers, and technological advances that qualitatively change the conduct of war, Man’s military history stands out for its different focus: a sharp analysis of everyday life. Documenting how labor and laborers traveled transnationally across the Pacific Rim, in the service of the postwar US empire, Man foregrounds ordinary people whose hopes and desires became bound up in the infrastructure of war in unexpected ways. And in highlighting linkages between the militarized spaces of the mainland United States and those of the “decolonizing Pacific,” he shows how Asian and Asian American identities were forged and contested, within the crucible of American empire and Cold War racial liberalism.

The postwar US military, Man argues, served as a mechanism for sorting “good” Asians and “bad” Asians, on both sides of the Pacific. Upon proving their loyalty to the capitalist West, “good” Asian servicemen and contract workers could hope to gain provisional inclusion in a superficially multicultural society. “Bad” Asians, by contrast, remained the target of repression, whether inside or outside the nominal borders of the United States. Resistance prompted more repression, which further stoked the flames of rebellion. And this cycle emerged, according to Man, from “the contradiction at the heart of the US empire in an age of decolonization: that the impulse to militarize and liberate Asia from communism reproduced and magnified the very problem of subversion it sought to contain.”


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A particularly illuminating example from Man’s book is the case of Crenshaw native Mike Nakayama. When Nakayama decided to join the Marines in 1967, he figured it was only a matter of time before a judge would force his hand. Like members of his parents’ generation, who were given a choice between remaining in internment camps or enlisting in the US effort in World War II, he reasoned that enlistment was the best of bad options. More optimistically, the armed forces seemed like the quickest path to the benefits of citizenship, at least for a third-generation Japanese American teenager from a working-class neighborhood.

But once in the military, Nakayama discovered a different path. He began to see his alienation from Anglo-American society in a wider historical context. While stationed in Vietnam, he found himself on the receiving end of racist slurs that US soldiers lobbed at Asian nationals on both sides of the war. The experience radicalized him. After his tour of duty, he felt compelled to enlist in a new cause. This time he responded to the call of the anti-imperialist left.

The series of personal negotiations leading Nakayama to the Marines—and, ultimately, to the antiwar movement—illuminates, from the bottom up, how individuals live with, contest, and evolve under empire. That is, Nakayama’s interactions with, and decisions about, the warfare state he served illustrate the process by which empire is experienced on the most intimate scale. His story shows how purveyors of state violence sustain exploitative systems by structuring choices that ordinary people make in pursuit of better futures.

Yet his story also shows how individuals operating within these very systems can make decisions that foster emancipatory visions and insurgent collectivities. Behind every border wall and military occupation are the labors, resentments, and dreams of individuals with diverse biographies and complex desires. To understand how such desires blend and congeal into selves and allegiances is to understand how imperial relations are made and unmade.

The Cold War policy objectives of liberation and militarization, which hinged on the US military’s identification and support of “good” anticommunists, cohered under the banner of “Asia for Asians.” More often than not, the slogan translated into government programs aimed at producing “native” proxy armies across the Pacific, so as to further US interests without lending credence to Soviet charges of American imperialism.

For those “good” Asians serving in the US military, the postwar era offered new opportunities for work and travel throughout a “subimperial” region.

During the Korean War, for example, hundreds of Asian nationals trained in US service schools sponsored by the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP). Established in 1949, MDAP groomed future leaders of allied forces and postcolonial armies. The program also functioned, in Man’s words, as “a cultural industry for the military”: inculcating “American values” in people who could organically disseminate them, as military commanders in Cold War theaters. Similar reasoning informed the US military’s decision, after World War II, to assign Japanese American GIs to occupy Japan. Such “good” Asian Americans, in the minds of the US military, could work both as soldiers and as racially kindred “ambassadors of democracy.”

And yet, the racial order of the mid-20th-century United States complicated this dual mission. Experiences of wartime internment, glimpses of Jim Crow policies in southern military towns, exposure to the nexus of militarism and tourism in the settler colonization of Hawai‘i, and other encounters with liberalism’s violent conditions of possibility haunted Cold War projects of intercultural diplomacy. For the managers of the “transnational security state,” such encounters threatened to turn “good” soldiers into “bad” ones, from democracy’s ambassadors into double agents. Again and again, imperial distinctions between “good” and “bad” subjects proved far more stable in theory than in practice.

For those “good” Asians serving in the US military, the postwar era offered new opportunities for work and travel throughout a “subimperial” region: a region whose formal independence thinly veiled its devolutionary status, within an American empire devoted to securing global capitalism in an age of rising anticolonialism. The US government, in consultation with quasi-sovereign Asian states, under pressure to develop “modern” militaries of their own, engineered the formal circuits of “soldiering through empire.” But the roots and routes of identity formation in the transpacific world were much harder to pin down. Parsing the desires and imaginations embedded in imperial relations and political-economic arrangements, Man conveys the complexity of individual migrations across a constellation of bases and occupied territories.

Such soldiering, according to Man, promised more than simply working and traveling. These vocational journeys became almost like a diaspora enacted in real time: a passage through a range of possible identities in diverse locations. Laboring in territories administered by the US military could, on the one hand, mean remittances, travel opportunities, and new intimacies. But it could, on the other hand, mean brutal exploitation, racist insults, and premature death.

For Koreans navigating the perilous borderlands between formal decolonization and violent integration into the capitalist world-system, US empire embodied both the pleasures and the dangers of mobility. South Korean soldiers deployed in Vietnam in the 1960s earned roughly 20 times the wages they received at home. But of the more than 340,000 Korean troops who served in the US-aligned “Free World Forces,” more than 4,000 died in the course of the war. Many more sustained lifelong physical and psychological injuries.

Ironically, the decision to risk one’s life in an American war often emanated from the hope for a life free of deprivation and violence. And these various hopes animating the imperial workforce yielded a variety of interpersonal and geopolitical allegiances.

During the Vietnam War—which, Man rightly argues, cannot be severed from the pre-1945 history of Japanese and French colonialism—solidarities developed among communities pitted against each other. Unexpected and unsanctioned connections (or “alternative affinities”) between Asian American soldiers and Vietnamese revolutionaries surfaced throughout the war.

These illicit bonds sparked visions of alternative futures, futures in which freedom and militarization were mutually exclusive concepts. By illuminating these fugitive imaginaries, Man tells a history of “what could have been.” In doing so, he occasionally abandons the linear march of historicism to linger on what scholar Lisa Lowe calls the “past conditional temporality.”1

In a present defined by the militarization of national borders, Man’s work can help us see the seeds of dissent sprouting below the barbed wire.

But this was not all clandestine dreaming. In this labor history of US imperialism, individuals and communities frequently turn solidarities into action, disrupting the means of war production and developing new alliances in the process. The empire did not work on numerous occasions, because the military workforce engaged in rebellion. Man is careful to show how emergent collectives struggled from below, in ways that altered the balance of power.

A prominent example occurred in the early 1970s, in and around the US military base in Iwakuni, Japan. In this outpost of empire, long-simmering tensions boiled over after the implementation of Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy.

Announced in 1969, the policy significantly increased the number of bombing sorties departing from Iwakuni and other regional air stations. Nixon marketed this pivot, from US-led ground combat to airstrikes supporting a ground war principally fought by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, as the beginning of the end of US intervention.2 But the escalating bombing campaign, as well as the concurrent US invasion of Cambodia, belied the official narrative of a waning war.

As public outrage mounted, US soldiers and base workers grew increasingly oppositional. This culture of dissent paved the way for a series of protests, which provoked anxious countermobilizations from the US military and played a critical part in the repeal of the draft in 1973.3

The Japanese peace movement proved integral to these protests. Responding to the crisis of legitimacy in the armed forces, Japanese organizers worked with American antiwar activists and dissident soldiers to create spaces of solidarity, where disaffected GIs mingled with local leftists.

The Hobbit café was one such space. Located near the Iwakuni base, this antiwar coffeehouse drew the ire of US and Japanese officials alike. An order barring military personnel from visiting the café signaled its threat to the status quo.

Amid the crackdown on solidarity, print media provided another public sphere for burgeoning political communities. The same Japanese activists behind the dissident coffeehouse helped local GIs publish Semper Fi, a staunchly anti-imperialist underground newspaper that circulated on the Iwakuni base.

In May 1972, the paper published a letter written by Angela Davis, on her last night in the North County Jail in Palo Alto, California. Addressed to American military personnel, it was both a statement of solidarity and an analysis of the overlap the freedom movement in US prisons shared with the peace movement in the armed forces.

“In both [American military bases and US prisons], there are growing enclaves of resistance,” wrote Davis, “resistance to the war in Indochina and to the war on the home front against people of color and other working people.” In the letter’s conclusion, she noted the urgency of bringing “our movements closer together.”4

Soldiering through Empire takes up Davis’s provocation to treat the domestic and foreign geographies of US militarism as part of the same network of repression and resistance. Empires sow divisions from which prisons and fortresses grow. But in their globalizing zeal, they inadvertently give rise to alliances and imaginations vital to making a world without walls. In a present defined by the militarization of national borders, Man’s work can help us see the seeds of dissent sprouting below the barbed wire.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

  1. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke University Press, 2015), pp. 40–41.
  2. That the appearance of a military drawdown could generate political capital for a hawkish, “law and order” president attested to the power of the antiwar movement as well as to mounting war fatigue on the home front after a particularly deadly year for US troops. Around 14,000 US soldiers died in Vietnam in 1968 (the year of the Tet Offensive), roughly a quarter of the American war deaths between 1959 and 1975. Of the war’s several million total fatalities, Vietnamese, both North and South, constituted the overwhelming majority.
  3. For an in-depth account of the broader GI movement, see Ron Carver, David Cortright, and Barbara Doherty, eds., Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War (New Village Press, 2019).
  4. Angela Davis, “Angela Davis Speaks to G.I.s,” Semper Fi, May 3, 1972.
Featured image: ARVN offensive on a village briefly occupied by the Vietcong and the North Vietnam Army (1972). Photograph by A. Abbas / Flickr