By Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
All rights reserved.
KQ: You’re a regular contributor to Raw Qari.
DK: Are you protecting our names?
DK: Then yes.
KQ: And for the readers who don’t know, Raw Qari is…
DK: A small poetry journal, produced and published here in Iraq. Anonymously.
Completed this interview with 2nd Lieutenant Daniel Kumasaka just yesterday morning. Over the past few weeks, I’ve interviewed a number of Asian American military personnel, several of them contributors to Raw Qari, and am hoping to include various selections from those interviews in this post.
Since have learned that of this group of interviewees, Private First Class Joey Moua was killed in combat; Master Sergeant Stanley Wu, Private Alan Park, and Sergeant First Class Cynthia Liem have been seriously wounded. Please keep them and their families in your thoughts.
All names have been changed for protection — even Private Moua’s. There is such a thing as a posthumous court martial.
[from interview with Lt. Kumasaka:]
KQ: In issue 9 of RQ, the poem “Piano,” reputedly yours —
DK: — Yes, it’s one of mine.
KQ: — references the Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Can you say more about what you’re up to? How does the Internment factor into your imaginative processing of the War?
DK: Like many Japanese Americans, I can’t help but see the specter of the Internment hovering above Guantanamo. Under the guises of security and expediency, then and now, civil liberties and human rights get violated, and grievously. Once is once, twice is questionable, three times and beyond? You don’t have to look too closely to spot the pattern in American history. No white male landowners getting locked away.
[from a different interview, conducted two weeks earlier, roundtable format
KQ: Much of your imaginative work suggests you all have serious reservations about the War. How do you reconcile these reservations with your continued military service?
SW: I joined up with open eyes. Past misdeeds, even ongoing misdeeds, don’t erase the need for service. They only strengthen the need — for clear-eyed, principled commitment.
AP: not so sure about that formulation
CC: i haven’t been able to figure out the question for myself yet. let you know when i get it figured out…
KQ: What about Watada’s option?
[1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada was the 1st commissioned officer in the U.S. armed forces to refuse deployment to Iraq, arguing that the War was illegal and deployment would make him party to war crimes. His initial court martial trial in 2007 ended in a mistrial; the second, later that year, was stayed by judge’s ruling. The Army is currently challenging the injunction].
CC: brave guy, i for one salute him
AP: did anyone really even notice?
TG: Most of us aren’t in position to do what he did. I’ve read reports and as many as 75% of troops polled say they signed up not for patriotism, not for concern about national security, not as a response to 9-11, but for financial reasons. The military offered packages they couldn’t hope for otherwise. My family needs my salary. I’ve got a special needs kid at home. Getting court martialed isn’t an option.
KQ: So why write for RQ, then? Isn’t that risking a court martial? If not charges of treason?
TG: I didn’t say I don’t support Watada’s decision. Just quietly. You do what you can.
SW: No one’s ever getting charged for RQ. There’s no paper trail.
TG: Plus the whole freedom of speech issue.
AP: i say court-martial my ass. i’ll write a poem about the trial.
reeking over their lives, as if
the War was perpetual spoil, but what happens
when we get back Stateside?
—”Fifth Floor”, by Anonymous, Raw Qari 3
Run reeking o’er the lives of men, as if
‘Twere a perpetual spoil, and till we called
Both field and city ours, he never stood
To ease his breast with panting.
“Perpetual spoil”: continual slaughter, nonstop battle. As opposed to “both field and city ours,” the notion of battle with distinct terminus. At first Shakespeare’s Coriolanus fights as if there’s no end to battle, as if he exists in a constant state of violence, one that extends beyond the markers of victory and defeat. But when field and city have finally been won, he “eases his breast with panting”; he contains his impulse to violence, or perhaps exits his state of violence.
The significance of this pairing has to do with context, and it speaks directly to the larger tension between soldier and society. Can the soldier be violent when the occasion calls for fighting, but check this impulse when the occasion does not?
(Modern audiences might recognize this as the John Rambo question, as in Rambo, Part 1. Back from Vietnam, can’t stop fighting. Must be hunted down).
But the critical question isn’t about Coriolanus’ choices, or even the larger society’s. It’s about Shakespeare’s. I’m thinking this now as I look back over some of the interviews and page through a recent issue of RQ, printed on the ultra-cheap, on what appears to be butcher paper, with font nearly the size of half-dollars —
For vets with vision impairment, Lt. Kumasaka explained to me.
The choices of the writer in wartime, any wartime, are heavy with moral significance. And consequence. Shakespeare staged ancient Rome at war, never Elizabethan England, and Kumasaka and his cohorts write anonymously for an underground journal almost no one outside the service has ever heard of.
There’s another factor to consider. Not to fault the Bard, but by most accounts Shakespeare enjoyed considerable royal favor throughout his career. Certainly he was never on the wrong side of the English imperial war machine. As were the parents of Lt. Kumasaka, Private Moua, Private Park, and Sergeant Liem — on the wrong side of the American imperial war machine.
Asian American means once upon a time (in the not-too-distant past) on the business end of an American rifle.
[from another interview, early October, also roundtable format over IM:]
KQ: Whats your sense of RQ and its impact?
JM: I know it has a regular readership. Not stateside, though I’ve heard it makes its way around some military hospitals.
SW: Official word is that RQ is tolerated by military brass. Considered useful as a means of venting, or at least shunting, the reasoning goes. Better to write a poem than hit your wife. Or go AWOL.
GN: they don’t want to give it more weight by denouncing it
CC: i have to admit it’s not always that good :) but it’s something.
KQ: Various media figures have compared Abu Ghraib with My Lai — including Seymour Hersh, who first broke the My Lai story in ’69. As scandals, that is, they’re supposedly comparable as sort of groundbreaking
moments that change international perception, not in terms of the enormity or form of suffering, I should be careful to add that.
CL: And in terms of who’s responsible. Are we talking about soldiers acting independently or carrying out orders passed down from high up?
KQ: Yes. What’s your sense?
CL: Abu Ghraib? Passed down. This willingness to trample on Geneva conventions. This contempt for non-Americans, whether they’re enemy soldiers or innocent bystanders. Starts at the top, no question.
My Lai? Maybe not passed down directly, but the spirit was everywhere, permeating everything — this contempt for “these people we’re liberating” who don’t know enough to let themselves be liberated properly. Non-Americans.
KQ: You’re obviously very angry.
CL: At myself most of all. So why are you in the army? It’s the obvious question. I thought things might be different, change might be possible. I still kid myself into thinking it can be honorable work.
KQ: Talk for a moment about your poetry.
CL: Every poem, one helicopter. The image is omnipresent in my mind. The chopper of course is the signature icon of the Vietnam War, at least the Hollywood version, the evening news version. The chopper leaving, escaping, getting the troops out. The heroic escape. That’s how we frame the downward slide, the messy business, then and now, to hold the myth of righteousness in place: we’re getting the troops out. We’re not sulking away. We didn’t handle this whole thing miserably. You’re focusing on the wrong thing. We’re getting the troops out.
KQ: “Bringing our boys home.”
CL: Right. Hence the chopper in every poem. Hold the myth up — so we can look underneath it.
The moment of reckoning, soldier versus society, arrives when Shakespeare’s Coriolanus returns home from battle and is asked by the clamoring plebians to show his wounds. A time-honored tradition in ancient Rome. According to Plutarchan history, the actual Coriolanus showed his willingly.
What does the tradition signify? Submission to the populace, self-abnegation, symbolic transformation into object of service. Soldier becomes wound, sign of violence absorbed (and enacted) on State behalf.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus refuses.
The reversal highlights a tension always already there. It marks Coriolanus as a threat to the State, but that threat has always been present, beneath the surface. The violent soldier is by nature — or rather by nurture — violent. Coriolanus must be exiled from Rome.
What the play ultimately shows us is that Coriolanuses are repeatedly, systematically produced by societies — Elizabethan England included, of course — then pushed out. Create and push out, create again. At once we need and cannot abide the soldier.
(Stallone’s movie perhaps shows us something else).
And now? We famously disappear our veterans, the wounded first and foremost. We don’t ask them to show their wounds, physical or psychic, but to cover them, hide them.
So the wounds manifest unbidden.
over the jungle noise, Viet Cong Betty
in her busted-up English.
Can hear her
even from a chopper perch
up above the treeline
appealing to black soldiers,
between the “colored” oppressed —
We’re the same. Don’t fight
the white man’s war.
Muhammad Ali says famously:
“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Viet Cong Betty booms out over
the jungle: I never call you nigger.
Psych warfare that happens to be true.
It might be playing now in Basra,
Province. Insurgent Betty.
You can’t escape the perennial
idea of colonization, always
with colored skin
—Anonymous, RQ 11
I am uneasy about this post. I strongly suspect it may be removed in the upcoming days.
Raw Qari reportedly receives complaints by the thousands — both the shadowy editorial board and military brass get outraged mail by the bag-full, outraged email by the server-full — and that figure would be even greater if the journal had bigger print runs and greater scope. Despite the censoring pressure, RQ holds on, hauls itself out of a score of anonymous soldiers every three months.
Taking that fact as my cue: if this post is taken down I will post it again elsewhere.
There are no official outlets for acquiring copies of RQ. But look for them and you will find them.
posted by Ken Qiao 11:47 p.m. Sunday Oct. 19
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04:32 AM Oct 25 2008
THESE ARE VERY DANGEROUS PEOPLE!!!!!!!! I WOULD NOT BE SURPRISED IF THEY ARE PURPOSELY TORPEDOING MISSIONS AND PUTTING REAL TROOPS IN HARMS WAY! QIAO (WHO’S BASICALLY ASKING FOR THEIR AUTOGRAPHS) IS TOTALLY BRAIN DEAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
04:47 AM Oct 25 2008
Aw come on! Your kidding with this, aren’t you? Who funded this effort? Why aren’t these c#inks and g**ks in jail? Get a grip and interview some real grunts Qiao.
W. Edward Johnson
01:01 AM Oct 25 2008
I was the USAF’s Nuclear Security Inspector 1973-79. These “officers” are a disgrace and a danger to national security. The punishment for wartime treason is execution for a reason.
Wayne Edward Johnson
LTC USAF Ret.
11:47 PM Oct 24 2008
IKE in 1961 was right about the military industrial complex. He said..DO LET LET THEM TAKE OVER OUR GOVERNMENT!
Guess what? They did.
600 BILLION DOLLARS on military spending…And this is what we have to show for it, a bunch of WHINY chinaman poems. Sad.
09:11 PM Oct 24 2008
This story makes me so sick. Your biting the hand that feeds you, wake up people…
05:21 AM Oct 22 2008
is no one going to mention that there were tons of japanese spies here during WWII (and long before)? look it up Qiao the camps were tough but necesary measures we were protecting real Americans and most of the japanese immigrants volunteered to go in the camps…
03:31 AM Oct 22 2008
Barack Hussein Osama is taking money from Hamas to keep paying these communists’ salaries
11:55 PM Oct 21 2008
Yes, Lets all run out and be like the Romans & vote for NERO! IT WORKED OUT GREAT FOR THEM, DIDNT IT!
10:03 PM Oct 21 2008
as one of these “soldiers” says himself, he’s there to make money for himself not because he cares about our country, he’s leeching off America. (bet you he wants those education benefits too!) don’t get me wrong I don’t think we should be in Iraq (let those muslims kill each other off) and by all means stop letting them immigrate to the US. I am a 23 year Air Force and Army Veteran retired in 2005.
09:09 PM Oct 21 2008
off off off with their heads
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is a Vietnamese American writer living in the Washington DC area. His poetry has been published in AGNI, The New York Quarterly, and The Louisville Review.
This story is included in issue #42: The Artist in Wartime. Copyright © 2009 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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