What does justice for Danny Chen look like?

by Esther Wang

[This piece first appeared on December 22nd as a note on Esther Wang's Facebook page.]

In October, news broke that 19-year-old Danny Chen – a US Army private who was born and raised in Chinatown – had died while posted in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. It soon surfaced that he had been killed by a gunshot wound, which he suffered not during battle, but while on base. Military officials claimed he had committed suicide, and it came to light that before his death he had endured months of harassment and physical abuse from his fellow soldiers. He had written letters home that talked of how he was subjected to anti-Asian slurs and hazing – and then he was found dead. It’s still unknown whether he committed suicide or whether he was shot by another soldier.

Almost immediately, his death galvanized the Asian American community in New York City and throughout the United States. Not since the death of Vincent Chin in 1982 has an event produced such an outpouring of sorrow, anger, and cries for justice. Organizations like OCA, an Asian American civil rights group, demanded accountability from the military and for those responsible to be punished. Vigils and marches commemorating his life and calling for justice drew hundreds of people, and elected officials and community groups from New York traveled to Washington DC last week to meet with the Pentagon to discuss his death and call on the military to fully investigate his death and institute measures to prevent such harassment from ever happening again.

And today, it was announced that eight soldiers were charged with manslaughter, negligent homicide, assault, and a host of other crimes in connection to his death.

For many people, this is justice – hollow, to be sure, as a young man is still dead, the victim of what seems like endless abuse and harassment from his supposed brothers and comrades – but justice in the only form that seems available to us.

My heart hurts at the death of such a young man (really, a boy), hurts at seeing his parents cry over the loss of their only child. No one should have to suffer through these kinds of trauma.

And yet I can’t help but think that the response to his death points to a lack on the part of many Asian Americans to delve into some of the deeper issues that his death has brought to the surface – why he felt compelled to join the military, why Asians are compelled to participate in war and militarism, the seemingly endless wars we have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11 (with the Iraq war only recently “ended”), the long history of US aggression in Asia, and what true and compassionate justice would look like for him, his family, for veterans, and for all of those around the world who suffer and have suffered at the hands of US empire.

There are currently about 300,000 Asian Americans serving in the military. Asians in general make up about five percent of the US population, but our participation in the military is much less than five percent, a disparity that the military, and the Army in particular, has noticed. During recruitment, officials tout their education benefits, the healthcare, the potential of expedited citizenship, and try to convince potential recruits that most people who enlist will not see military combat.

What they don’t share or spend much time talking about are the following facts:

  • The US has the largest defense and military budget in the world – and it constitutes half of our federal budget. Almost a trillion dollars is spent every year on the bloated military budget – this, at a time when funding  for education, social services, and other necessary programs is being slashed to the bone.
  • Our military is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. We have more than 1,000 bases abroad, with hundreds in Asia alone that host more than 70,000 military personnel. And we are not wanted – protests occur regularly in Japan and Korea, demanding that bases be closed and that soldiers leave.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began more than 10 years ago – children, elderly, parents, young people. The military has not discriminated when it comes to whom it will kill.

It is clear that the US military is one of the greatest purveyors of violence in the world – the past decade and century have been littered with enough examples to prove this without question. And these wars have often been waged on Asian soil – the Philippines in the late 1800s, Japan and the use of the atomic bomb during WWII, Korea in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s.

Too many of our families have an intimate knowledge of the devastation of war, including my own. My grandfather was born in China in the 1920s, when the country was still reeling from civil war and European imperial aggression. When he was a young man in the 1940s, he joined the army to fight in the war against Japan, and saw firsthand how destructive war could be. When I was a child, I only knew him as a gentle man with a quiet sense of humor who was a librarian at a branch of the Dallas public library system and loved watching wrestling. Only later in life would he tell me of watching his friends die, and of his own many brushes with death. It was this experience, he explained to me, that led to his opposition to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to his voting against George Bush in 2004.

I think too of my friends who have enlisted, often because they couldn’t find another job and felt this was their best chance at a decent living. They come back struggling with PTSD, haunted by memories of what they saw, and gaps in their memory that their minds have simply erased because to remember would be too traumatic.

I think back on the last decade, and of the horror stories that have emerged from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere. I think of the recent past – of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of napalm, of the millions who died during the war in Korea. Danny Chen’s name is one more to add to the list of millions whose lives have been claimed unnecessarily by war.

In the face of the death and destruction that our military has waged around the globe, including in many of our home countries, Asians in this country must go beyond pressing for accountability in the death of one young solider.

We should, and must, call for our military budget to be cut so that our pressing needs at home can be met, and so that young people can have options other than the military. In a spirit of solidarity, we must call for the closure of bases that are currently scattered around the world that serve no other purpose than to allow us to cling to a corrupt vision of global military and economic might. We can, and should call for the end of the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, a misbegotten war that began on false premises and that has only led to the death not just of Danny Chen, but of tens of thousands, and to the destabilization of an entire region of the world. We need to make these connections between the violence that claimed the life of Danny Chen and the violence of militarization, and understand that to prevent this from happening in the future, this is the critical work we need to be engaged in.

We must remember that as Asians in this country, we have a long history of discrimination but also resistance, and realize that we have a crucial role to play in reclaiming our collective humanity and clearing the fog of war.

Rest in peace, Danny. May your life and death be a moment for all of us to think about our complicity in the wars our country have waged, a moment to remember history, and an opportunity for us to unite around a renewed commitment to fighting the logic of US empire and militarism and to push for justice not only for you, but for all peoples around the world.

Esther Wang is a staff organizer at the New York City-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and the director of  their Chinatown Justice Project.

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