From One War to Another
The terms of heroism and brutality remain the same
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last Thursday, I’ve been thinking about little but this war. Putin’s unprovoked assault forced an entire country to choose, overnight, between fight or flight. And it turned a whole lot of young Ukrainians and Ukrainian sympathizers into involuntary combatants.
Like many Americans watching from afar, I’m horrified and terrified for the people of Ukraine. The stakes of this conflict are almost unimaginable, not just for them but for all of Europe and for democracies the world over. If they lose, the global imbalance could well put us all at risk.
There have been plenty of other wars since World War II, but the potential consequences at this moment seem graver than any I can recall since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That, too, was a crisis of Russia’s (then the Soviet Union’s) utterly unprovoked making, threatening countless lives. Unlike that stand-off, however, today’s already involves the suffering of millions, and the death toll among innocent civilians is climbing by the hour. While the nuclear threat hangs over this conflict, too, the present combat is happening on the ground, one life at a time. Throughout Europe and the world, the relatives and descendants of Ukrainian families agonize over every news bulletin not just about the fate of their nation but of individual human beings.
For all the hyper-tech arsenals and tactics of modern warfare, what we’re watching in Ukraine reminds us that the fundamental experience of war never really changes. It’s the ultimate shock to the system, utterly unlike anything that we can or should experience in everyday life. Nothing about it is natural, and it completely upends any sense that we humans have of normalcy. It tests everyone in its path, crushing many, turning some into monsters, and revealing others to be heroes.
I’m one of the millions who feel that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has proven himself to be the ultimate hero of this war. His courage to stay with his people, to risk almost certain death if Putin succeeds, is beyond any I’ve ever witnessed personally. And yet, the unlikeliness of his conversion from local comedian to the epitome of courage does remind me of someone closer to home: my uncle Herb.
Coincidentally, I was working on Herb’s story in my family memoir in the weeks leading up to the war in Ukraine. This chapter was distilled from a slew of letters, discovered after my father’s death, which traced Herb’s WWII odyssey from Chinese teenager to American war hero. Unlike anything my father had ever told me, these letters personalized the war. Soldiers gone missing. Boys in the trenches. Innocents frozen by war. And, for their families, day after day of waiting, silence, frantic speculation. Herb’s suffering was hardly unique. I know this, and yet the immediacy of these exchanges pulled me like a vortex every time I read them.
Herb was the only member of my family ever to join the military. He did so under threat of deportation, and it nearly cost him his life. (Since 9/11 I’ve read about other immigrant soldiers whose experience with the U.S. military paralleled Herb’s, though not always with the guarantee of American citizenship that he was granted. It strikes me that the simple fact of fighting to protect the interests of a country that’s not your motherland should make you more of a patriot, not less. Certainly, I felt that it made my uncle even more deserving of his Purple Heart.)
I decided to excerpt and share Herb’s story as a reminder of the universal human truths that emerge in any war, wherever and whenever it is fought. It was posted on Medium the same day that Russia struck the Ukraine. Because this piece is quite long, I won’t republish all of it here, but if you are so inclined, I invite you to read it via this link:
How My Chinese Uncle Became an All-American Hero
Here’s the opening:
My uncle Herb was an American war hero. Except, he was Chinese. The explanation for this seeming contradiction will sound familiar to many immigrants, but it came as a shock to me. Born and raised an American, I took my family’s right to U.S. citizenship for granted until I grew up and learned just how varied and fraught that “right” actually can be. For Herb, it was life-threatening.
Now, I realize that my uncle’s story is far from unique. But that’s all the more reason, it deserves to be told and shared, especially among Americans who believe that patriotism and heroism are in any way dependent on race.
In the context of Russia’s savage attack on a sovereign country, Herb’s story reminds me just how vital it is for us to remember and record the bitter truths of past conflicts. As Churchill famously observed, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
And yet, it’s human nature to shut the door on past suffering. Like so many of his generation, Herb rarely spoke of his WWII ordeal. He only shared the full story with his family when he neared the end of his life. And as I scan America today, I realize that we are far more ignorant about past wars than is good for us. So I share Herb’s story as a reminder that we need to resist the temptation to “just move on,” and instead keep the door to the past wide open.
Whatever the outcome in Ukraine, we must bear witness, honor the heroes, and confront the brutality of evil. If one good thing comes out of this nightmare, let it be the wisdom to safeguard peace and stop the next war before it begins.
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