The U.S. Military’s Long History of Anti-Asian Dehumanization

When soldiers returned home, they brought with them stereotypes that became embedded in American culture

An archival photo from the Korean War. Carrying her baby brother on her back, a war weary Korean girl walks by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, June, 1951.
A Korean girl with her baby brother walks by a stalled M-26 tank in Haengju, Korea, 1951. Photo: RV Spencer/Interim Archives/Getty Images

“Fry ‘em out! Burn ‘em out! Cook ‘em!” You wouldn’t be faulted for guessing this dialogue is from a new cooking show. But it’s actually from the 1951 documentary, This Is Korea. Directed by distinguished filmmaker John Ford, the documentary was commissioned by the U.S. Navy to show off its military prowess to American audiences. Hollywood hero John Wayne narrates the film, including one scene where he exhorts a U.S. soldier with a flamethrower to “cook ‘em” — the ‘em in this case being Koreans.

Ford’s documentary follows a dark U.S. tradition of treating Asian people as less than human. It’s a particularly insidious form of racism that can be traced back to its imperialist wars and continues today. One has to contemplate the level of dehumanization necessary for a white man to travel to three Asian-owned massage parlors this week, and shoot and kill eight people — six of whom were Asian American women.

The local police responded to the killing spree by increasing patrols around Asian-owned businesses, adding “there are no known threats at this time.” What’s lost here, however, is an understanding that there is and has been a war raging against Asians in this country, that America’s wars in Asia have injected racism into the country’s veins, and this racism will continue to erupt into violence against innocent Americans repeatedly unless we stop to acknowledge and understand it. As is the case for many minority communities in America, existence is itself a threat.

War involves humans killing other humans. One way governments make this process easier is by otherizing combatants, often by race. It’s no surprise that the tactics of America’s genocidal wars against Native Americans were reprised in the Philippines. During World War II, in Japan, the U.S. used nuclear weapons to vaporize not one but two cities full of noncombatants. After the Korean war, the slur “gook” was merely recycled to use on the Vietnamese. The quick succession of World War II, Korea, Vietnam also meant that many top brass served in multiple wars in Asia.

This systematic dehumanization was not inadvertent, and it continues to eat away at American society today. The release of This is Korea was just one of the ways the American public has historically been groomed to see Asians as less than human. In 1974, in the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, the commander of American military operations during the Vietnam War famously said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

Gender and misogyny enter this mix of intentional psychological warping that the government institutes and rationalizes as one of the necessities of war. For instance, while decrying the sex slavery WWII Japan instituted on its Korean subjects — kidnapping and forcing young girls to serve in military brothels euphemistically known as “comfort stations” — the U.S. military ended up repurposing this system and even some of the same women for U.S. soldiers during the Korean war.

Korea’s war ended in an armistice agreement in 1953, and yet in 1965, 85% of GIs surveyed reported having “been with” or “been out with” a prostitute. As scholar Katherine Moon has noted, “military prostitution… has been so commonplace that people rarely stop to think about how and why it is created, sustained, and incorporated into military life and warfare.” These cultural attitudes and stereotypes about Asian women don’t end when a soldier returns home. They become incorporated into American culture such that, like with the nexus of military life and prostitution, the origins of these stereotypes become forgotten and obscured while the stereotypes of hypsersexualized Asian women are unforgettable.

Just ask yourself, are these phrases familiar?

“Me so horny.”

“Me love you long time.”

These are both from one movie “about” the war in Vietnam, a place where the U.S. bombed noncombatants and used chemical weapons. The sexual needs of U.S. troops there were so great, as Columbia University professor Lien-Hang T. Nguyen points out, “Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas fumed that ‘both literally and figuratively Saigon has become an American brothel.’” Years later, there was little objection when a sitting U.S. Senator and presidential candidate used the slur “gook.”

Beyond these flashpoints centered in Vietnam, or Atlanta, our entire cultural training tells us to avert our eyes, to not think of murdered Asian men, women, and children as people who love and have dreams and faces. Doing so would disturb our narrative as a great nation, one where white people cannot really do wrong; that there is always an explanation. And even if it’s a bit wonky, illogical, impossible, the lives it has taken don’t really matter because “they” were just faceless Asians working in a disreputable trade or bodies that got in the way of the good war. In Atlanta, the police captain declared, not even 24 hours after, the poor killer was just “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him,” and noted he was trying to thwart “temptation” by removing these Asian bodies from earth. Many interpreted his point as saying, subtly and not so subtly, a white man’s “bad day” is certainly worth more in this calculus than six Asian American women’s lives.

Attitudes and stereotypes about Asian women don’t end when a soldier returns home. They become incorporated into American culture.

Lest white people mentally compartmentalize the Atlanta shooter as a shiftless uneducated type, it is useful to see how this combination of racism and misogyny flourishes and is even rewarded at the highest levels of society. This year, in the hallowed ivy hall of Harvard Law, a professor of contracts law has been busily trying to “prove” a new point about “comfort women” during the Second World War. This scholar professes that the Korean girls as young as 11 and kidnapped as sex slaves for the Japanese, were “just” prostitutes who had signed contracts with brothel owners. The professor, notably, was never able to produce said contracts, and his assertions contradict all testimony from survivors and the Japanese government, which apologized with reparations in 2015.

American soldiers are not only conditioned to believe humans in their host countries are just there to serve them, they are often also legally protected from jurisdictional crime. Take, for example the murder of Yun Geum-i, a 26-year-old waitress who was killed inside of a military camptown in Korea in 1992. An American soldier left her body “naked, bloody, and covered with bruises and contusions — with laundry detergent sprinkled over the crime site… a coke bottle was embedded in Yun’s uterus and the trunk of an umbrella driven 27cm into her rectum.” What’s most chilling is the fact that this kind of act was so “typical” and also unpunishable that it did not make any U.S. media (I only learned of it when I was working at a Korean women’s shelter in Flushing, where the above quote appeared in their 1994 newsletter). This sexual violence wreaked on Asian women otherwise was tacitly accepted and ignored by both the U.S. military and the Asian host country’s governments who depend on the military support. It took a kidnapping and gang rape of a 12-year-old by three U.S. Marines in Okinawa in 1994 to finally stir any interest from the U.S. media.

This tacit acceptance and ignoring of violence against Asians, especially Asian women, adds to the supersaturation of anti-Asian racism. Donald Trump coincidentally used the racist term “China virus” on TV the night of the Atlanta shooting, which also happened to be the anniversary of the Mỹ Lai massacre, when hundreds of unarmed civilian men, women, and children were raped, mutilated, and murdered by American GIs on a rampage. A sluggish police force puzzlingly more concerned with parsing what the white murderer “means” over individualizing the victims and demanding justice for them tills the same soil of “Life is cheap in the Orient,” leaving landmines for the next racist person who will detonate it, telling himself we are faceless and replaceable, unlike white people, who are individual, complex, inherently worthy.

Thus, while the well-intentioned Atlanta police assures constituents that they will patrol Asian-owned businesses “for the foreseeable future for the safety and comfort of the community,” these are actually words of propaganda.

The solution is not for each Asian American person to get her own police officer, but for America to openly reexamine a culture that is openly killing a portion of its populace. It is necessary to pull off the veneer of America’s saintliness and self-appointed role as the world’s “good guy” policeman, to expose that Americans already know what the foreseeable future is: more violence against Asian Americans — against me, my family, my friends, people of a community I value and love. And to pretend otherwise, to pretend to be shocked when it happens again, is just lies.

Columbia faculty, Writer-in-Residence. Simon & Schuster author. Slate, Salon, NY Times, @Guardian, @TheAtlantic. Famous for being from Bob Dylan's hometown

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