The uproar triggered by Donald Trump’s remarks about the speech of Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) were predictably abhorrent. Khan, a Pakistani immigrant whose son Humayun was killed in combat in Iraq, denounced Trump for his racist rhetoric. And Trump snapped back with racialized insults for the parents, prompting many to defend the “gold star family,” and their son’s “ultimate sacrifice.” Amid the media din, fraught with outrage and patriotic grandstanding, that one phrase, “ultimate sacrifice,” took on a surprisingly complex, ambivalent undertone. What was, after all, Humayun Khan’s sacrifice?
One thing Trump tweeted actually spoke to this point: he noted that it was actually Hillary Clinton who had voted for war, not him. That Senator Clinton voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq was obscured in the flag-waving theatrics, but it’s a crucial fact that the politician who has positioned herself as the Khans’ champion also helped send their son into battle. Clinton has since expressed regret over her vote, but she’s gained dubious redemption by embracing a young man’s “sacrifice” despite having played an indirect role in his avoidable death.
The young soldier died for a war that should never have been waged, paying a price for which war’s purveyors will never be fully held to account. The sacrifice was, in a sense, not his to make; he and his fellow fighters didn’t sacrifice so much as were sacrificed, at the altar of geopolitical rivalry robed in falsehoods. Perhaps the soldiers believed in their mission in their last moments — believed they were overthrowing a tyrant or making the world safer for democracy. We, who now know the unsettling truth, cannot allow ourselves that comfort.
We can appreciate the pain surrounding these deaths and extend sympathy and solidarity to the bereaved. But we need not justify needless sacrifices.
Khan’s mother, Ghazala wrote in The Washington Post that Trump does not know what sacrifice is. That’s certainly true. Moreover, how many officials truly understand the sacrifices they force upon others for political gain? If they did, they might be less cavalier about sending so many to the frontlines.
None of this justifies or offsets Trump’s vicious words, including his threats to bar Muslim immigrants or fear-mongering rants about “radical Islamic terrorism.” But the sanctioning of mass killing isn’t the product of mere campaign-trail hate speech, but rather, of official orders and bureaucratic quiescence within the gears of the militarized state.
The “noble sacrifice” of an immigrant family in war carries a peculiarly American value. The history of migrant soldiers seeking to prove their loyalty on the battlefield is as old as the nation itself; it’s a form of heroism born of desperation. Signing up also has pragmatic functions: Immigration laws allow non-citizens who serve in the armed forces to be fast-tracked to naturalization. But the political meaning is also salient. Being willing to die for a country automatically settles any question of the immigrant’s allegiance to the flag, or at least buffers against accusations of disloyalty.
This dilemma of allegiance versus segregation challenged another marginalized minority community during World War II. The Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in detention camps were recruited to fight in the US army, both as a test of their loyalty and perhaps a convenient way to goad desperate young men into fighting on the frontlines in order to free themselves from prison. Young men in the detention camps were literally given a test, in the form of a questionnaire with a double question: Would they serve in the US military, and did they swear unwavering loyalty to the US government?
Some refused to fight, bitterly. The so-called “no no boys” were then further ostracized, sent to a separate camp for “enemy aliens,” which ultimately drove many to relinquish their US citizenship. Others did go to the frontlines, joining other non-detained Japanese Americans to fight the German and Japanese “enemies” they had been lumped together with a few weeks earlier.
For the children of Japanese immigrants, a military blood oath was the ticket from one side of enemy lines to the other; it was the price they would pay for acceptance.
Daniel Inouye, future senator, then an 18-year-old Hawaiian-born student (and one of the Japanese Americans who fortunately avoided imprisonment), captured the complex emotions coursing through many young Nisei’s minds as they calculated the risks and rewards of the “ultimate sacrifice.”
On his decision to volunteer, Inouye told PBS: “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien . And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.”
Many Japanese Americans proudly went into battle, eager to defy the perception that they were “enemy aliens” and show white America they were just as, if not more, loyal. And the government did recognize their “sacrifice” eventually, bestowing honors on many Japanese American veterans. But they never received the full embrace from their country that they thought their service would earn. Sadly, like the Black soldiers who served as icons of the “Double-V Campaign” — victory against fascism abroad and against Jim Crow at home — Japanese Americans returned from the battlefront to find that anti-Asian bigotry still roiled in their own communities, betraying the lie behind blind nationalism in the name of democracy.
Decades later, the Reagan administration, under mounting public pressure, did own up to the government’s shameful persecution of Japanese-descendant communities, agreeing to pay reparations to families who had suffered from wartime imprisonment. The paradoxical twisting of patriotism to mask government misdeeds still reflects the central paradox underlying the nation’s identity. To live with acceptance of that contradiction is perhaps one of the sacrifices that comes with calling oneself an American.
By the end of World War II and its aftermath, some 33,000 Japanese Americans had served; roughly 800 never came home. An untold number had been maligned by the government just months earlier as suspected disloyal “enemies.”
Today, Trump has lobbed the same kind of smear against Muslim Americans that the Roosevelt administration, and much of the public, weaponized against Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, portraying the “other” as a foreign threat.
So what to make of the Japanese American detainee soldiers’ sacrifice under siege, on behalf of the same government that stripped their communities of freedom and dignity? Were those who refused to fight cowards, war resisters, heroes? Were those who went to the frontline sellouts, traitors to their people, patriots? The moral dimensions of their plight can’t be flattened into glib labels. Whether these individuals fought or refused, their sacrifices should be honored without pride, while acknowledging the oppression they faced in their final life-or-death choice, as they checked the box with all the dignity they could muster in that moment.
Whatever their choice, it was not heroic; it was human. And perhaps that’s the most we can ask of anyone in the midst of war. For Khan, for the Japanese American veterans, and for all the other youth who have given and lost all in their “service,” the dignity of their humanity is the true sacrifice they leave us — the sacrifice that we all own.