Close-up of side of building with a painting of a fighter jet dropping bombs

By A. Naomi Paik

In Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific, Simeon Man examines the role of Asians and Asian Americans in the global ascendance of the United States in the post-World War II era. He specifically focuses on those “good” Asians who worked under U.S. military forces as soldiers and contract workers against “bad” Asians in the Vietnam War. Using a transpacific methodology and framework of analysis, he reveals interrelated histories of what he calls the decolonizing Pacific, “the historical conjuncture” of anticolonial movements bound up with the spread of U.S. military and capitalist imperialism. His analysis unfolds a number of interrelated paradoxes of U.S. race, empire, and militarization. First, the U.S. state formally repudiated state-sanctioned racism at the same moment it pursued race-wars in Asia and the Pacific. Indeed, he argues, the U.S. waged these wars not in spite of, but through its very commitments to racial liberalism and democracy. In this way, Soldiering Through Empire draws on and extends Mimi Thi Nguyen’s concept of the gift of freedom being no ruse or alibi, but the core proposition of liberal war. Furthermore, the decolonization of Asian nations did not obstruct but facilitated the spread of U.S. global dominance. This is why decolonization—across the Pacific as elsewhere—remains an unfinished project. But the story Man tells is not solely driven by the state. He also unveils local and transpacific social movements and moments of resistance to U.S. global racism, warfare, and capitalism. He traces, for example, how base workers in Okinawa found allies in U.S. servicemen, and how anti-war activists in the U.S. and Asia situated their work to G.I.s in a long history of ongoing colonization and U.S. militarization. Man weaves these stories together from his work in the archives and with oral histories to consider what remains of the decolonizing Pacific, and what possibilities we could still imagine from this unfinished business.  

Book cover: Soldiering Through Empire

Simeon Man quickly followed his work in Soldiering Through Empire by co-editing the current issue of the Radical History Review on “Militarism and Capitalism: The Work and Wages of Violence,” alongside Melina Pappademos and me (A. Naomi Paik).

Paik: Tell us about yourself.

Man: I’m a historian of modern United States, with a focus on the study of race, state power, violence, and resistance. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, a place and time marked by the ascendancy of liberal multiculturalism, and I think that really shaped my interest in studying Asian American history and searching for a critical vocabulary to understand race and racism. In my spare time, I enjoy playing tennis, cooking, eating, and binging on Netflix.

Paik: How did you come to this project? What made you want to pursue this subject for so many years?

Man: This project got started as a graduate seminar paper about Filipino WWII veterans and their struggles for military benefits and citizenship. The topic of Asian Americans in the military intrigued me because I found it to be so profoundly contradictory and tragic, in the ways that many had enlisted to claim the basic rights of citizenship, even at the price of risking their lives. For the dissertation I wanted to explore this contradiction further, and I thought situating it in the Vietnam War would help complicate the story. For one, this was a time when Asian Americans became politicized not by demanding inclusion into the nation but by proclaiming a racial affinity with peoples struggling against colonialism and imperialism. It was also a time when Asian American soldiers fighting “an enemy who looked like them” took on particularly violent meanings in the context of counterinsurgency. When I started interviewing Asian American veterans, I was struck by the consistency of their stories—of being singled out in their platoons as an example of a “gook”; of feeling like they had to be vigilant against both enemy and friendly fire; and of feeling a sense of affinity with Vietnamese villagers who they were supposed to view as untrustworthy and as potential enemies. I wanted to make sense of how the military as an institution reproduced ideas about race through violence. The book ultimately expanded the scope of the project, but it was always motivated by the critique of liberalism and an effort to write against the prevailing narratives of martial citizenship.  

Paik: What were the most surprising discoveries along the way in your research and writing? Perhaps a moment in the archives or oral history interview? Or a slow burn of a story coming together over time?

Man: From the start I knew this project would be transnational in scope, but I didn’t expect to write about South Korea and the Philippines to the extent I did. When I learned that troops from these countries also were sent to South Vietnam, I knew they had to be a part of the story about race and soldiering in the Vietnam War. This proved to be my biggest conceptual challenge: to tell a story that spans different countries, territories, and their respective colonial and national histories, and that brings “Asian” and “Asian American” soldiers into a single analytical framework. This was all the more challenging given the institutionalized limitations of Asian American Studies, which has tended to privilege narratives of immigration and assimilation and has tended to reinforce the notion that “Asian American” history should be pursued separate from Asian history. Working through this challenge ultimately made this a better book, I think. It became less a book solely about race and soldiering in the Vietnam War and more about how the war animated different histories of colonialism and decolonization in Asia and the Pacific. Admittedly my argument didn’t come together until the very end.   

Paik: Your book is so clearly situated in multiple fields, including U.S. history, Asian American history, histories of US empire (or US and the world), and transpacific studies. For readers and writers who may not work directly in these fields, what are some of your most “portable” arguments or methods? In other words, how can your work inform a reader who works in a different period, geographical region, or method?

Man: One of my key arguments is that ideas about “freedom” and “security,” rather than being contradictions of each other, historically have been articulated and practiced in tandem. The extension of rights and freedoms to racial minorities and former colonial subjects at the moment of U.S. global ascendency meant that liberated peoples were now freed to take part in the project of U.S. empire, enlisted to police new and constantly-shifting boundaries of exclusion. Liberal inclusion thus produced more violence, more insurgencies, and more insecurities; the ascendency of racial liberalism at mid-century occurred alongside the emergence of a permanent race war. These were twin facets of U.S. imperial culture that needs to be understood and examined together.

This project is informed by an American Studies approach that takes the “imperial” as a frame of analysis and that approaches the study of the United States from the vantage point of its global interdependencies and the peoples who navigated across their boundaries. Focusing on the military as an institution, and as a site of social engineering, racial formation, and political dissent, allowed me to tell this transnational history. The interdisciplinary methods of American Studies and ethnic studies also allowed me to ask different kinds of questions about the Cold War and the Vietnam War that did not adhere to the standard periodization and regional divides of diplomatic history. So, for example, I was interested to show how the legacies of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines manifested in the labor of Filipino medical workers in South Vietnam in the 1950s, and how Hawai‘i statehood amplified U.S. military violence in the war. Throughout the book, I wanted to show how seemingly disjointed places and histories of race and empire were deeply enmeshed and animated by U.S. imperial war-making.

Paik: How does the book help us understand U.S. imperial relations in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere today?

Man: The fact that the United States has been in an endless state of war for the past seventy years is still surprising to most Americans, including my students. Perhaps even less known is that the American way of war has depended increasingly on outsourcing military logistics and labor to other client-states. The role of war-making in the maintenance of the capitalist world order has not diminished since the end of World War II. And, as in the past, it’s the citizens of countries and territories with long and ongoing colonial ties with the United States that are bearing a disproportionate burden of fighting and dying in these wars.

We also see echoes of the past with the recent discharge of immigrant recruits from the U.S. Army due to their alleged foreign ties and suspected loyalties. Racialized soldiers in the military have always been caught in a dilemma: on the one hand being prized for their military and ideological value, and on the other hand being seen as a potential subversive threat who can undermine national security from within. They have always served this double function.  Recruiting and discharging immigrant soldiers in this sense has been a vital part of the U.S. permanent war culture.

Paik: Now that the book has been out for a little while, are there arguments or interpretive frameworks that you’d like to emphasize?

Man: One of the arguments I hope readers take away from the book is about the multivalent meaning of “soldiering.” I want to loosen the association of soldiering with “military service” and show how it signaled a range of labors that developed alongside an evolving U.S. militarism after 1945, such as the work of befriending and caring for the population. The work of soldiering was always both violent and benevolent, blurring the boundaries between “soft” and “hard” power. More fundamentally, soldiering was one means by which Asians and Asian Americans became conscripted into the project of the U.S. empire. Their ideas about freedom—freedom from colonialism, freedom from the structural violence of living in U.S. postindustrial cities, the freedom to earn a steady wage—were routed through their participation in U.S. militarism. In this sense, soldiering also entailed the critical work of imagining otherwise, of undoing the violence of empire and reckoning with an unfinished decolonization that was forestalled by militarism.

Paik: Where has the book taken you? What are you working on now?

Man:I’ve started researching more about antinuclear movements in the Pacific in the 1980s. This is a time when movements for democracy in Asia and the Pacific were ascendant, and I’m interested to know what happened in places where decolonization was not yet achieved. How did Pacific peoples politicize the related issues of militarism, environmentalism, reproductive health, and indigenous sovereignty? How did nuclear energy production in the United States and Japan fuel the movements for decolonization in and across the Pacific? These are some of the questions I’m currently thinking about.

Simeon Man

Author Bios

Simeon Man is an assistant professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. His research and teaching focus on race, militarism and empire in U.S. history. His book, Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific (University of California Press, 2018), is a cultural history of the U.S. military in Asia and the Pacific after World War II. He has published in American Quarterly, the Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, and the anthology, The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State, Violence, and Radical Movements Across the Pacific (ed. Moon-Ho Jung, University of Washington Press, 2014). Most recently he co-edited the special issue of Radical History Review on “Militarism and Capitalism” (Issue 133).

A. Naomi Paik is an assistant professor of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her book, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (UNC Press, 2016; winner, Best Book in History, AAAS 2018; runner-up, John Hope Franklin prize for best book in American Studies, ASA, 2017), reads testimonial narratives of subjects rendered rightless by the U.S. state through their imprisonment in camps. She has published articles in Social Text, Radical History Review, Cultural Dynamics, Race & Class, Humanity, and e-misferica, as well as the collection Guantánamo and American Empire. She is currently writing Walls, Bans, Raids, Sanctuary (under contract with University of California Press), a short book on the criminalization of migrants in the U.S. and radical sanctuary movements. She is also developing a new project on military outsourcing. As a board member of the Radical History Review, she is co-editing three special issues of the journal—on “Militarism and Capitalism (Winter 2019), “Radical Histories of Sanctuary” (Fall 2019), and “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination” (Spring 2020). Her research and teaching interests include comparative ethnic studies; U.S. imperialism; U.S. militarism; social and cultural approaches to legal studies; transnational