Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cold Cold Places on Heart Mountains.

Heart Mountain once housed incarcerated Japanese Americans during WWII. Their property was taken, freedom impeded, dignity buried beneath suspicion and fear. A museum stands on its grounds 70 years later, reminding us to learn from our prejudiced histories. You would think we are all the wiser, able to distinguish fear and suspicion from the innocent; but today, we shun from Muslims and we forbid Arabic architects from ever associating with the symbol that ought to represent peace and good will towards the Islamic world. How much have we learned from Heart Mountain?

Asking if injustice like Heart Mountain could happen again ignores the fact that Heart Mountains are all around us. No one seems to escape, all so imprisoned.

The prisoners are imprisoned by the guards, and the guards are imprisoned by their own ignorance; no one escapes the cold cold places of evil hearts. Heart Mountain is happening often and we either don’t see the bars of our prisons for what it is or else we chose to ignore its presence. In so doing we are all so ignorant.

November 2005.

It had been a busy morning; a few soldiers came to the aid-station that day for diarrhea and severe dehydration. They probably had some “Mujdat’s” dinner specials the night before; the deliciously grilled half-rotten lamb cleverly disguised by the heavy spices was wrapped in stone-oven baked bread; all so especially tempting to many young brave and foolish ones.

It was our first few months “in-country” in the Middle-east; most of us were just getting tired of eating the same old chow-hall food and wanted some local flavors. For variety, our choices were between “Kentacky Chicken” (spelled exactly as you see it) or “Mujdat’s,” the only two independent food vendors on base. There was almost a universal consensus to avoid imitation “Kentacky” fried chicken that can’t even imitate correctly, and everyone seemed curious about the Turkish culture that made Mujdat’s appealing. Someone had to help us wage against boredom and ignorance, and we gladly accepted the invitation.

My stomach had been conditioned by various gut-wrenching foods I grew up with in the Gobi desert, so Mujdat’s did not affect me as much; but for many 18 year-olds who had never been out of the comfort of their hometown U.S.A., the outcome had not been so pleasant. A few came in to the aid station that morning with explosive diarrhea and fatigue from dehydration. That morning, I had put so many IVs in collapsed veins that we had to put soldiers outside on temporarily set-up cots with rigged IV stands attached to various things we can find to keep the fluid above their heart—the only way for the cold cold saline fluid to flow.

Because of the busy morning, I was a little late to lunch. Medina, a fellow medic, and I had been walking towards the chow-hall around two in the afternoon. The sun was heavy in our eyes, the dry air seemed to have drowned all of the noises around us. There were still people just coming back from morning missions and platoons just getting ready to leave for afternoon missions. We knew the chow-hall would still be busy and all the good foods were still available. We walked slowly uphill and chatted about tomorrow.

We always looked forward to tomorrow.

I’m not sure what else we had been talking about on our way up the hill, but I do remember something broke the eerie silence. The next thing I remember was watching a FLA (Front-Line-Ambulance) fly towards us kicking up a trail of dust concealing whatever was happening behind. Sergeant Hanson pulled next to us and said in an inflated calm voice: “there had been a suicide-bomb in the chow-hall, I’ve got Captain Jacobsen in the back. Kong, you run back to the aid station and meet me to get started and be ready to receive casualties; Medina, go to the chow-hall and see if Sergeant Smith needs any help.”

There was no time to think, there wasn’t much to remember. That was the day we lost Captain Jacobsen along with sixty some others. Most are civilians and some are soldiers. It was the single most casualty we recorded in one day and I can’t help but remember seeing the eyes of Captain Jacobsen roll into the back of his head as we put the air-tube down his throat.

“He’s not going to make it.” I thought to myself.

“Dude, do you realize we were walking on people’s brain and guts that day? How fucked up is that? I mean we were trampling over body parts we barely recognize and all I kept thinking about was the stupid food on the ground and how much all of this just seemed like a big spaghetti explosion.” One of my friends would later reminiscence.

I second that sentiment.

The months after that were difficult. We had no hot meals and lived off Meal-Ready-to-Eats. No one visited Mujdat’s not because of fear of diarrhea but because no one trusted anyone who was not a solider, marine, or American civilian. It didn’t help that we were also picking up operation tempo in the city and thus receiving more casualties from IEDs. As more soldiers got hurt or died, the angrier we became; the angrier we became, the more suspicious we became.

I remember after a while that we had to have a guard for every Turkish, Philippinio, or any other alien worker on the base, even when they were cleaning our latrines we had to have armed guards for them. That meant there would be a rotating schedule for everyone to gear-up, lock and loaded, walk from latrine to latrine with the Turkish men who came to the base seeking jobs and paying for their families’ dreams back home.

I had been lucky enough to pull a shift or two. I hated having to wear full gear, Kevlar on my head, along with my aid-bag, and locked and loaded with full seven magazines of ammo attached to my body while watching the Turkish men scrub the artwork left behind in toilets.

Because I am Chinese, and had acquired a dark tan by this time, the Turkish men tried to talk to me. They offered me cigarettes, traded friendly words for me to learn; and in exchange, they vented to me of the name callings and bad intentions towards them.

“They think we don’t understand English, but we are educated.”

“I was an engineer back home. I want to send my kids to the U.S. for school but I can’t afford the tuition. I came to this base because they paid well for a translator, but the job description did not include washing toilets. I don’t mind doing that at all and I have no complaints. I just want the soldiers know I have nothing to do with the bombing. I’m not the enemy, I just want my kids to have a better future. I’m sure Americans want the same, why can’t they see that I had nothing to do with the bombing?”

I didn’t know what to say to the man. As a Chinese immigrant, I had experienced the mob ignorance before. I had been called names and I sympathize with them; at the same time, I can’t say I can trust them all that far. With all my gears and a full load of ammo, I doubt I can throw them farther than I can trust them under the circumstances.

Eventually I made friends with the Turkish workers on base. I tried to learn about their families back home and I tried to share about my family in the U.S. and China. We smoked harsh Turkish unfiltered cigarettes and we traded stories of how to grill lamb and goat on different spices. At the end of my tour in Iraq, I learned that Turkey had beautiful coastal lines on three sides of its borders; I learned to say hello and wish someone well in Arabic, and I learned to love and even miss Mujdat’s half-rotten lamb with troops of flies guarding its pre-cooked existence.

“Evil rarely comes in the form of monsters, but rather in the form of relatively normal people who, for reasons of careers, ideology, or desire for society’s approval, are indifferent to the human consequences of their actions.” – Hannah Arendt

Many of the men I served with were from small towns; many of them never left the comfort of their homogenous sunset places. Many were also washed of their history by a failing education, pressed into a new bigot military that fought a war which made no sense to them. Race no longer divides on the surface, but the sentiment of the old ideologies, of society’s evils, prevailed in their hearts. Many displaced their ignorance and bigotry with a desire to shoot, move, and communicate; many sought refuge in exploding moments.

These are the men and women whom we labeled as heroes; these are the men and women we use to separate us from “terrorists”—engineers who only wanted to better his children’s education and, ironically, experience the American Dream.

“What do you think is the American Dream?” I once asked my Turkish friends.

White houses and expensive cars; never having to have to live as servants in the cold cold places—they would say.

Only if they knew what a cold cold place America can be.

From Scottsboro to Guantanamo, the cold hearts ran evils blood to ignorant boys and girls to do unimaginable things; cold hearts ran evils blood to educated ignorant men to hand down unjust judgments; and cold hearts ran evils blood to fearful men from telling the truth as they would remember them.

The cold cold hearts that ran evils blood and the cold cold hearts find comfort in relatively normal people who, for reasons of careers, ideology, or desire for approval, live in indifference to the human consequences of their actions.

The cold cold hearts ran evils bloods and we hold our breath and pray for justice to prevail. Slowly we began to warm our hearts.

Today, African Americans are awarded the Medal of Honor, elected President, and recognized for their achievements across the spectrum. Yesterday, they were thought inferior, rapists, and incapable of participating in the political process. All through the struggle, justice and the rule of law stand on their side or in their way. Justice, and persistence, it seems, goes hand in hand.

The United States Supreme Court, in 1927, struck down a law that prohibited blacks from participating in the Texas Democratic primary election. Nixon v. Condon was a voting rights case that contested Texas law passed in 1923 asserting that in “no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic Party election.” Dr. L. A. Nixon, a black El Paso physician, argued that the 1923 statute was an infringement of his Fourteenth Amendment rights as established in Nixon v. Herndon (1927). Nixon v. Herndon held any state law creating a white primary election was unconstitutional.

In response, the Texas legislature delegated the matter to the party’s executive committee and avoided justice. The Supreme Court supported Nixon in a five-to-four decision and argued that the Democratic Party’s executive committee was, in fact, operating as a state agent and thus within the scope of the 14th Amendment.

The Democratic Party, however, responded by barring blacks from participation in the party nominations, thus effectively continuing the white only primaries.

In 1934, R. R. Grovey, an African-American, again attempted to challenge the institution in the Texas Democratic primary election. He sought to enter the nomination process and was denied a ballot by the county clerk on account of the whites-only restriction. Grovey sued, arguing the restriction violated his rights under the Fifteenth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice in Texas denied his claim.

The United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Owen Roberts, concluded that the party's restriction had not been authorized or endorsed by the state and therefore was free from the limitations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Go ahead and be a racist.

Contrasting Nixon v. Condon, Justice Roberts noted that the party's rule in Grovey's case could not be limited by the amendments. He writes: "the Democratic party in that state is a voluntary political association and, by its representatives assembled in convention, has the power to determine who shall be eligible for membership and, as such, eligible to participate in the party's primaries."

In 1943, Smith v. Allwright, Thurgood Marshall stood in front of the United States Supreme Court to argue Texas’s Democratic primary system again of prohibiting Blacks from voting in primary elections and thus violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court held this time that the Democratic Party did in fact violate the constitution.

The Court wrote “[the] grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election.” In so ruling, the Court overruled its nine year old decision in Grovey v. Townsend.

Smith signaled the beginning of the Second Reconstruction and the modern civil rights movement. Marshall considered this case his most important case; and the case settles as “so clear and free of ambiguity” that the right of Blacks to participate in primaries was established “once and for all.”

The naivety of the ideal would’ve believed battles won and cold cold places now basking in the warm sun. What else could be more inspiring than the highest justice of the land declaring injustices done? But history tells us a battle won is only a victory in the right direction. The war is never over until no more cold cold places exist in man’s hearts.

In 1946, Irene Morgan, a black woman, boarded a bus in Virginia to go to Baltimore—the home of many more boys and girls who had signed up to die for prejudice. She was ordered to sit in the back of the bus as required by Virginia state law. She objected, arguing that since the bus was an interstate bus, federal laws govern and state laws did not apply. Thurgood Marshall again took on the case. The United States Supreme Court held that since it was illegal for a state to forbid segregation, it was likewise illegal for a state to require it.

We all know buses were still segregated much after the infamous Rosa Parks incident. Today, although buses are no longer segregated, still we find only the poor, the under-represented, and the economically repressed on these buses. While the rich enjoys the luxuries of higher incomes, better private transportations, leveraging the environmental impacts on the underprivileged, we ask, have we really begotten the underlying cold cold hearts that begets segregation?

In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the order excluding persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast war zone during World War II. Heart Mountain delivered the cold cold hearts of justice observing legal restrictions on the rights of a single racial group claiming that “hardships are part of war . . . . Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes . . . when under conditions of modern warfare [where] our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.”

In 2005, my field commander justified the suspicions for every non-American on FOB Merez under the conditions of modern warfare where our men and women are threatened by hostile forces and even colder hearts who are willing to sacrifice the innocent to make a pointless point.

While Korematsu suggested that basic civil rights could give way to prejudice and hysteria, we seem to register such hysteria in complete coherent cold hearts and minds without hesitation. It took four years for Congress to enact the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 to provide some monetary compensation to Japanese American citizens who had lost their homes or businesses during the internment; and it took almost 40 years for Korematsu to persuade a federal judge in San Francisco to set aside his conviction for violating the wartime order. I wonder how long will it take for my fellow service members, boys and girls who had volunteered for a senseless war and killed senselessly the warmth of the Mesopotamian sun, to register the ignorance and separation from the pointless death of 63 men and women who simply wanted to have lunch in a place they never intended to call home, but only wanted to live in better ways and give their children a brighter future.

The Heart Mountain remembers, the cold cold times with cold cold hearts. I remember the cold cold places of an American dream ironically confronting cold cold suicide bombers laying waste to the warmth of that unforgettable Mesopotamian winter. The Heart Mountain never ceased to plague our hearts and we still face a struggle against the evils of our ideologies, conditions, careers, and desire for approval from the social norms that we know are unjust.

I’ve long lost touch with my Turkish friends, but I long to see the beautiful coastal lines that once dominated our conversations. In those places I hope to find the warm warm hearts of a people no more different than I—looking for their Hearts Mountains in cold cold places.

Heart Mountain is happening often and at times when we have no choice but to ignore its presence and live the best we could to survive and morn. Bad things seem to lead to more bad things; but bad things inspire good people to do good things. The perpetual struggle continues and only time can tell if we have given the warmth of our hearts to the world we live—a cold cold place.

I have a dream that one day we would live in a warm place where we can call home. 

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