S. Man: Soldiering through Empire

Soldiering through Empire. Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific

Man, Simeon
272 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Frances Steel, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This is a study of the cold war’s ‘forgotten histories’. It addresses the often ignored role of Asian soldiers and military workers in the post-WWII rise of the United States. The advance of American liberal democracy throughout Asia was driven by militarism, recruiting and targeting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Asians to bolster affiliation to the US view of a postwar regional order receptive to capitalism. Soldiering through Empire crosses scholarly and archival boundaries to place histories of Asians and Asian Americans in the same frame, and to follow the connections in regional experiences of the Cold War otherwise submerged by national frameworks of analysis.

Man considers the work of ‘soldiering’ as transnational labour from the late 1940s through to the mid 1970s, pivoting his analysis on the Vietnam War. This work is not a military history, rather it is a cultural history of militarism, race and masculinity. The first chapter considers Asian soldiers who were trained in the US and the expectations that they would return home in the service of ‘modernising’ and ’liberating’ Asia. The role of US-led Filipino counterinsurgency operations in South Vietnam in the 1950s frames the next chapter, an ‘Asiatic-to-Asiatic’ approach with connotations of brotherly protection. Chapter three centres on Hawai‘i and the use of the island of O‘ahu to simulate ‘village’ battle grounds in Vietnam, linking colonial violence in Hawai‘i and Vietnam and thus addressing what the Pacific Islander scholar Teresia Teaiwa described as ‘militourism’. The military labour of South Koreans and Filipinos in Vietnam is the focus of the next chapter, with an interesting take on ‘subempire’, used here to conceive of Vietnam as a site of imperial desire for those struggling with an ‘unfinished liberation’ at home (p. 105). A chapter on the deployment of Asian Americans in the Vietnam War follows, addressing the extent to which the racialised violence they experienced in the US military drove their involvement in the Asian American movement in their own communities and the movement for Third World Liberation. The book concludes with a discussion of collaborations between American GIs and activists in Okinawa and the Philippines. Man is particularly concerned to centre the power differentials and violence that underpinned claims to liberal democracy and racial inclusion. He teases out the tensions inherent in a range of intersecting projects, where Asian soldiers would come to embody US militarisation against communism and the seeming liberation of Asians from colonialism (p. 19), yet in their circuits of action they would also sow the seeds of possibility for other futures and visions of regional order.

The analysis stretches across ‘the militarised expanse of the decolonising Pacific’ (p. 104). Given its focus on US engagements in Asia, this is, necessarily, more of a decolonising north Pacific, but also one that works largely at the Pacific’s continental margins, notwithstanding important insights on the place of Hawai‘i, and briefly Guam, in the ‘preparedness’ of the US for continuous war. Soldiering through Empire aims to contribute to the growing scholarship on the fault-lines of liberal citizenship, and to the literature on regional decolonisation attuned to the affinities and cross-fertilisation that particular modes of mobility generated. This approach is most notable in Tracey Banivanua Mar’s book Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2016), an indigenous- and island-centred history that transcends distinct territories to follow people and their ideas and affinities, and to thereby reframe and reconfigure the meanings of decolonisation. Man’s work might also be read productively alongside recent literature on anticolonial momentum and cross-regional solidarities across Asia from the 1920s and 1930s onwards.

Man stresses that this cold war era should be rendered continuous with, rather than a departure from, American colonialism in the preceding decades. There was, however, scope to articulate more directly with recent work on the US empire. He argues that for many Asians this was a period of transition from a Japanese to a US empire, and that this was a period characterised also by the ‘US-driven revival of Japan’ (p. 27). Japan and its imperial history tend to sit ‘backstage’ throughout the book, though in places it demands greater play, including for the ways in which the US empire was forced to reconfigure its ‘approach to war and military conduct for the age of decolonisation’ (p. 50). There was scope also to probe the limits of shared struggle and the ways in which the promotion of a military modernity may have held other meanings when women’s labour and subjectivities, and their experience of transnational intimacies, are more fully taken into account.

This is a wide-ranging, analytically rich and insightful book which does not lose sight of the ‘big picture’. It will be of immense interest to scholars of war and society, Asian American studies and transpacific studies.

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