Like much of the Asian American community, I was stunned and saddened to my core a couple of weeks ago to hear about the terrible murder of Sikh people in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Adding to the tragedy, there seems to be little empathy or coverage of this terrible event in the mainstream American press and consciousness. What little there has been in the mainstream press has been problematic.
Shortly after the incident, I received an email from Preeti Kaur with a poem about the hate crime. I was floored by it. I asked Preeti to write an artist's statement and her thoughts for this blog. Her response follows, with a link to her full poem at the end.
On August 5, 2012, while morning services were starting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a gunman barged into the place of worship with assault weapons. For over two hours, he terrorized the worshipers -- an innocent crowd consisting of faith scholars, elderly, women, and children. He ultimately shot six dead, seriously wounded three others including a police lieutenant, and ended his terror by fatally shooting himself to death. Posthumous investigations indicated the killer, Wade Michael Page, was a decades-long out-spoken member of white supremacist groups and bands.
As an American and a practicing Sikh, I was deeply aggrieved that this could happen in one of our places of worship. In times of grief, poetry can give us the space to connect our personal grief with external grief. Letters Home is a collection of poems which seek to connect the tragedy in Oak Creek with the larger narrative of violence in the name of a deep-seeded racial hatred in this country.
The Oak Creek shooting calls us to seek the guidance of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Punjab, India, who fought for the United States in World War I, but was denied American citizenship because of xenophobic laws during his era.
The Oak Creek killings rekindle our American remorse for the heinous murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11, for being an immigrant practicing his faith by visibly emphasizing his difference in wearing a turban. Practicing Sikh men, and some women, wear a turban to cover their long, unshorn hair, which they maintain as a commitment to acceptance, and to being a distinguishable beacon of sanctuary in times of danger. Yet in America, this difference exhibited by practicing Sikhs, especially in the post-9/11 years, has meant being subject to bullying in schools, being subject to racial epithets or violence in society, to the most extreme punishment: death.
Oak Creek calls on the Sikh community itself, again spotlighted in a time of tragedy, to respond with the dictates of our teachings: compassion, resilience, and a lived strength, especially in a time of loss.
Oak Creek re-awakens our historical amnesia and reminds us of the Bellingham Riots of 1907, where the Asiatic Exclusion League, a xenophobic organization of the time, violently ejected over 400 Sikh lumbermen from a Washington lumber-town.
Oak Creek brings alive Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed in Detroit in 1982 in a hate crime which has been historically labeled a case of mistaken identity. One cannot help suggesting, in this era of extreme Islamophobia played out on the national policy and media theaters, that perhaps Sikhs, who might look like a version of the so-called 'enemy' to people with crude knowledge of the world, were 'mistaken' for an alternative target-- a Muslim target. No one deserves brutality for being stereotyped as an enemy, no matter what their faith. No one deserves a political climate which justifies racist collective punishment. In the last two weeks alone our nation has seen eight attacks against places of worship, most of them Muslim places of worship. America needs to address the political climates which give vigor to hate-based violence within our borders.
Oak Creek also calls us to question collective punishment and supremacist ideologies around the world, from the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs in Delhi, India, to the recent March 2012 massacre of villagers in Panjwai, Afghanistan.
Finally, Oak Creek should evoke a dirge of grief from all Americans. The symbolism of white supremacist violence against a place of worship inhabited by people of color is something our country witnessed in the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. We have moved mountains since then, yet mountains remain.
President Obama still has not visited the families of the Oak Creek victims, as he has done in other recent mass-shootings in our nation, leaving many to wonder why a tragedy against a minority racialized community does not deserve the dignity of a President's gesture of shared national grief. What happened in Oak Creek is an American tragedy. I grieve for America.
Excerpt of poem Letters Home:
please forward to the 50 states/ the white house/ all territories/ the flagged patch on the moon
the gurdwara door is open
our bare feet like cracked glass
our covered heads bulletproof from ego
we turn our backs on bellingham
build our gurdwaras from post traumatic cinder
of bombed birmingham black church
nina simone sings tera bhaana meetha laage*
to tune of mississippi goddamn
gunpowder lines noses of children
left behind wailing mummy papa we will never forget you
‘the love that forgives’ a lullaby
which sears obedient
into a bittering lemon
i stand half mast, america
i grieve for my future son, america
i grieve for all nights, america
i grieve for all nights
*A Sikh prayer invoking acceptance of sacrifice. Literally, it means “May I experience Your will as sweet to me.”
For complete poem, please see here.
Preeti Kaur attended Gurdwara at the local Sikh center in Minneapolis for years as a student. She currently lives in California. Her poetry can be found at Qarrtsiluni Literary Magazine, The Loft's ¿ Nation of Immigrants? spoken word CD, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, and The Sikh Review.
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was at his bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a strip club in suburban
At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was high. Many blamed the decline of the
After the altercation, Chin and his friends parted ways, but Ebens and Nitz weren’t done. They went looking for Chin, reportedly paying a friend $20 to help look for him. They found him at a McDonalds, dragged him outside, and one of them held Chin down while the other brutally beat him with a baseball bat. Four days later, Chin died – five days before his wedding.
Both Ebens and Nitz got three years' probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs. To this day, neither of them have spent a day in jail.
I will repeat that: Ebens and Nitz sought out an unarmed man, held him down, and beat him to death in front of witnesses, and to this day they haven’t spent a single day in jail.
How does one make sense of that. In a few days, it will be the 30 year anniversary of his murder, and still, thinking about Vincent Chin is like ripping open an old, raw wound. Even after years of struggling for change, of witnessing terrible injustice after injustice, of trying to educate yourself about institutional racism, how do you make sense of this.
How do you reason with people who *still* don’t think racism exists.
Sure, there have been many much less visible incidents of horrific racist violence against Asians before Chin. And unfortunately, many after him. That just makes it worse. It is a reminder to all of us, that our lives simply aren’t worth as much as a white person’s.
The race of the perpetrator is important, absolutely. But so is the race of the victim. Statistics show that in the
But still, even armed with this disappointing knowledge: no jail time served for the brutal murder of an Asian American man.
I’m not even a vindictive person. Punishing Ebens and Nitz won’t bring Chin back. Nor will it even the scales for all of the people of color who have suffered from the racism in our legal and penal system.
You can talk about how this all started at a strip club, and how we should be critical of all men and their patronage of such places. Just as long as you ask yourself, do all men regardless of their race fear death by baseball bat by going to a strip club. Is that a reason to murder anyone.
The fact that he was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry – it still would have been horrible if he had been Japanese and worked for Honda.
And still – Fong Lee was killed in 2006, in a case that is highly suspect, by a police officer with a history of violence both while on duty and at home in his personal life – he was given a Medal of Valor for shooting and killing Lee, a teenager.
Lili Wang was murdered in 2002 by her classmate, Richard Anderson, who had stated he had a “preference” for Asian women. Richard shot and killed Lili, a married woman, after he was allegedly frustrated that she had turned down his advances.
In 1992, 10 years after the murder of Vincent Chin, 16 year-old High School student Yoshi Hattori was looking for a Halloween party with his friend. They knocked on the door of 30 year old Rodney Peairs and his family. No one answered so they began to walk away. Bonnie Peairs, Rodney’s wife, looked out her window, spotted “an Oriental person,” and called out to her husband, “Honey, get your gun.” Rodney Peairs shot Yoshi Hattori point blank in the chest, killing him. His defense was that Yoshi, a Japanese exchange student, had an "extremely unusual manner of moving", one which any reasonable person would find "scary”.
Peairs has also never spent time in jail for the murder of Yoshi Hattori.
There are also the countless Arab, Muslim, and South Asians who have been harassed, beaten, and murdered, both prior to 9/11 and afterwards, including 78-year-old Gurmej Atwal and 67-year-old Surinder Singh, gunned down and killed while on an afternoon walk in Sacramento.
It’s not just us Asians. 25 year old Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez was brutally beaten and killed by two white teenagers – who were acquitted of all serious charges and face 7 to 23 month sentences. Trayvon Martin, a teenager, was killed by George Zimmerman – it was a long time before Zimmerman saw the inside of a jail cell.
Justice is not even on our side when we act in self defense. CeCe McDonald, a local transgender African American, defended herself when she and her friends were verbally and physically assaulted outside Schooner’s in
I’m not saying that I like the prison-industrial complex of this country. However, I do believe it is worthwhile to look at the inequalities. Koua Fong Lee was driving a car that malfunctioned, and another family was killed in the accident. He did not flee the scene – and his own family was in his car – and yet no one believed him when he insisted it was an accident. His own family was in his car – why would he endanger their lives as well? He spent three years in jail before the
Contrast that to Amy Senser, who killed Anousone Phanthavong in a hit-and-run, knocking him nearly 50 feet, fled the scene, and did not turn herself in until days later, after she had consulted her lawyers. She was not jailed during the trial, and though she is convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide, and though there was expert testimony that Phanthavong was flung onto her car and there was no way she could not have known she hit a person, the jury inexplicably sent her a note saying they believed her.
Who you believe says a lot about you.
And the list goes on. John T. Williams. Oscar Grant. Chonburi Xiong. Michael Cho. Cau Thi Bich Tran. Tycel Nelson. And these are just the more well-known names. How many more dozens, or hundreds, of nameless brown people are killed twice: once by murder, and again by a racist judicial system.
30 years later, and we can’t forget Vincent Chin. And we shouldn’t.
There is no way for me to make sense of this case. I try to write intelligently about it, and all I have is unbridled, bottomless anger. I feel provoked, to my core. That one of my earliest memories is that kids were calling me chink and I had to ask my dad what it meant. To have a lifetime of micro-aggressions and not-so-micro aggressions directed at you, stacked on top of people telling you your experience and insisting that racism doesn’t exist towards your people, and to top it all off, that people can murder you in the street in front of McDonalds and get a slap on the wrist for it. And though Vincent Chin’s tragic murder is relatively invisible, it’s horrifying to think his case is actually one of the more visible, known cases of anti-Asian violence. I feel that there is no room for love, or reason, in a world like this. I feel tired, and defeated. Stupid and useless.
Of course, if there is any bright side at all to this, it is that the memory of Chin and the blatant injustice has galvanized many Asian Americans to activism. I asked some respected Asian American activists and community workers to talk about this case for my blog.
I asked them two questions: What do you remember about the first time you heard about Vincent Chin? Why do you think this case is still important, 30 years later? Their answers follow. I thank them for their time, and energy.
I do not remember how or where i first heard about Vincent Chin, the white men who murdered him, and the justice system that supported them to walk free -but it wasn't until my college years. I do remember feeling awful that so many years of my life had passed before his story made its way to me. This was something i should have learned in elementary school and discussed throughout my adolescence along with Emmett Till's case.
This case will be forever important and forever relevant. Here I offer questions. What is acceptable for this country to mourn and permissible to bury? What is convenient about the collective unconsciousness surrounding Vincent Chin's case? Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners, another axis in how People of Color are racialized. How have devastating instances of brutality and injustice upon Asian Americans been confined? How even our struggles are "outsiders within"? How in celebrating our strength and power we are welcomed?
Eva Song Margolis is a Minneapolis-based activist.
The gruesome Chin murder forced us to ask deeper questions and seek more complicated answers. It is elementary to answer the question “Who Killed Vincent Chin;” Ron Ebens and Mike Nitz killed him. But a more complicated answer is white
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, have we failed to ask the deeper and broader questions that the Chin murder case taught us to ask? Where was the massive public outrage over the 1,400+ Arab, Arab Americans, Middle Easterners and other “non-whites” being detained without regard to their civil rights? How critical have we been to the steady flow of legislation being passed in the name of “homeland security” that violates our basic civil rights?
Daren Rikio Mooko is an activist and Associate Dean of Students at
The first time I heard about Vincent Chin was in 1995. Ping Chong's company presented a performance piece that included baseball bats and a dramatization of Vincent Chin's murder. I was shocked, especially because I grew up in
The case is still important because these kind of hate crimes still exist today, in our own backyards: in
Sun Mee Chomet is an actor, playwright and collaborator who lives in the country of St. Paul,
The first time I learned about Vincent Chin to any great extent, was when I first watched the film "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena. I had been invited to perform in an Artist Exchange event at the Asian Arts Initiative in
I believe the Vincent Chin case is still important because it reminds us that racial violence continues to be perpetrated against members of our community, particularly young Asian American men, as was the case in Fong Lee's murder in
Michelle Myers is spoken word poet, activist, and educator in Philadelphia, PA.
Pan-Asian Voices for Equity,
A few hours after they accuse you of playing the race card for merely mentioning the word race, the powers that be execute a Black man, Troy Davis, though there seems to be ample room for doubt that he was the one who committed the crime. Nevermind, for the time being, your opinions on the death penalty and the criminal justice system as a whole.
Instead, if they want to talk about facts, let’s examine some facts:
In 1982, two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, murdered Vincent Chin with a baseball bat in a racially motivated hate crime. They blamed “japs” like Vincent Chin for the declining American auto industry, though Chin was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry. This act was witnessed by two off-duty police officers. Ebens and Nitz, to this day, have not spent a single night in jail for Vincent Chin’s murder.
In 2006, Officer Jason Andersen, an officer with a troubled record, shot and killed Hmong teenager Fong Lee. Officer Andersen claims Lee had a gun. There has been inconsistencies regarding the case, including lack of forensic evidence linking Lee to a gun reported on the scene, video footage analyzed by a video expert stating Lee did not have a gun. Officer Andersen was acquitted of use of excessive force.
In 2009, Oscar Grant was executed point blank by Officer Johannes Mehserle, while he was prostrate. He was unarmed. The murder of Oscar Grant was witnessed by dozens and caught on cell phone cameras. Officer Mehserle was sentenced to two years minus time served.
A few hours ago, Troy Davis was executed for allegedly murdering an off-duty police officer. 7 of 9 key witnesses against him disputed or recanted all or parts of their testimony. Some asserted that they had been coerced by police. The murder weapon was never recovered.
My people, we know that they accuse us of playing the race card because they always stack the deck in their favor.
If you look at this logic, it’s clear who is really playing the race card. Our unfortunate history, and our struggle, tell us this.
But this is not about them. They get to voice their opinion all the time. Their comfortable hate already takes up too much room. They are the only ones responsible for their hearts, their souls. Let this space not be about them, but something else. Dare I say – let this small space, and any small space that you may have, dear friend, be a space for us. Take a breath.
Like you, I don’t quite know what to do, or feel. It’s a sad night, in a history thick with sad nights. Forgive me, all I have is this, my thoughts and my writing. And this little space. But it’s yours.
I was 17 when I got hit by a car. I don’t recall seeing my life flash in front of my eyes. I did see the world spin.
I had borrowed my older brother’s mountain bike to go riding with a friend of mine by the Mississippi, and then dropped by Cedarfest to hang out with friends and see some of them play in bands. I was riding the bike home when the car came out of nowhere on
I seem to remember grunting in surprise, and the world tumbling, lopsided and fast, in every which way. Then a thump as I landed in the street. Then the squeal of tires, and a crunch, which I would later realize was the sound of the car running over my brother’s mountain bike as the driver took off.
On the asphalt, I remember being dazed and feeling strangely fine – wondering what just happened. There was some bewildered curse words in there too, which I won’t print in this family friendly paper. A Native American woman was the first to find me, reassuring me that someone had called an ambulance, that I was young and handsome and that I’d be fine. What a strange thing to say, I thought to myself.
On the ambulance ride, I was sad that my brother’s bike was ruined by the driver. Then the adrenaline wore off and the pain set in. And there was my father cursing me on the hospital bed for being careless and my uncle urging him to take it easy, my militant sister wondering if I was hit on purpose and if it was racially motivated.
All in all, not a fun experience.
Let’s not make a big deal out of it, but the difference in a couple of seconds, a couple of feet one way or another, and that could have been the end of it all for me.
For being struck by a car in a hit and run I was relatively lucky. Small fracture in my collarbone, muscles bruised to the bone, some scars that are still faint on me to this day. But no serious permanent injury, and I had health coverage through my dad’s work – and I was introduced to the dubious modern miracle called doctor prescribed pain medication. To top it off, my brother was pretty cool about his mountain bike getting run over.
The driver was never caught, though I doubt anyone looked too hard for him or her.
I remember being pretty angry at whoever hit me, then took off. I remember feeling guilty that I made my mom cry and my parents take off from work to see me.
Now that I’m older, I drive carefully, because over the years I’ve also thought to myself how terrible it would be to hit someone with a car. What a terrible thing to live with – that you are responsible for tons of metal and rubber, this symbol of modern times and years upon years of science and engineering and progress, propelling it towards something as fragile as another living being. That something many of us take for granted everyday could mean grievous harm, and even death, to another.
A friend of mine sent me the article about the tragic death of Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong, in a hit and run. Days later, it was revealed that the True Thai cook was killed by someone driving a vehicle owned by former Minnesota Viking, restaurant mogul, and sports broadcaster Joe Senser.
Recently Anna Prasomphol Fieser, co-owner of True Thai, recently wrote an impassioned and frustrated blog posting about the case, which you’ll find here:
(thanks to Leslie Ball for originally posting this a while back)
I’m glad that the Star Tribune did the right thing and eventually published Anna’s blog. I don’t have much to add – I think Mrs. Fieser’s blog entry is an important alternative perspective and has a lot of insight.
As a community member, I’ll be watching this case with great interest. Here, in this specific blog entry, I am not going to write about any theories or inconsistencies. Nor debate the legal aspects, of which I am not knowledgeable enough to contribute to a reasonable discussion. What I am very interested in, is how this case plays out.
Race and class may have nothing to do with the unfortunate tragedy of a man, successfully turning his life around, only to be killed in a tragic accident close to the place where he worked, the killer for whatever reason speeding off into the night dragging his body to paint an exclamation point in red on the asphalt. Race and class probably have nothing to do with the tragedy itself.
We have yet to see if race and class have anything to do with public perception, media coverage, and how this case plays out in the judicial system. Unfortunately, not every case gets the same treatment. All these things are impacted by race, class, gender, in ways obvious to some and not-so-obvious to others. Those who know, know. You don’t need me to explain a thing. We can hope for better, but not expect it.
Above all else, I hope the family members of the late “Ped” Phanthavong can find some peace, and some justice, if that is possible, in however and whatever shape it takes for them.
(The children awaiting execution in the photo were part of the Daejeon massacre of a re-education collective. The photograph is from the US National Archives. It was taken by US military advisor, Major Abbot, and was a “top secret” photo until recently.)
Being a relatively dedicated gamer, I was more than a little concerned when I heard about this game called Homefront. Written by the same scribe that wrote the 80's cult movie Red Dawn, in which Russians invade the U.S. ("Wolverines!"), the game imagines a future where the U.S. is somehow invaded and occupied by North Korea. As silly, paranoid , and racist as this seemed, I also wondered how it would be perceived by mainstream audiences. I also wondered if anyone in the mainstream press would write about it. At this point it seems no one in the gaming press has addressed any possible racism or yellow peril used in the images and advertising for this upcoming game.
I've always been interested in socio-political issues in video games (and gaming in general), but unfortunately I am woefully ignorant and misinformed about Korea and the Korean War. As luck would have it, my friend and fellow gaming enthusiast Sajin said he had been following the development of the game and had been working on an essay about it.. So here is a guest post from him. I found it to be highly educational and a much needed alternative perspective. I read it, and learned a lot, and it made me think. I hope it does the same for you.
Homefront, the upcoming military combat game from THQ, is set upon the premise that a united Korea, under control of the North, invades and occupies the United States. The game promises to break new ground in the genre by providing a story that makes players emotionally invested in the action. Specifically, it promises to arouse anger and indignation in players as they watch Koreans commit atrocities towards American civilians.
North Korea has been riding a tide of negative publicity ever since the end of WWII, and continuous hostilities with the US and South Koreamake North Korea a country that is hard for most Americans not to hate. Thus, it should come as no surprise that North Koreans are cast as the villains in a video game with American protagonists. At the same time, the game’s storyline is deeply troubling because it is rooted in historical ignorance and revisionist rhetoric about the Korean War.
Clearing up the Historical Record
Most Americans think that the US liberated Korea after the Korean War and established democracy, freedom, and human rights in the South. This “freedom fighting” perspective might make a game like Homefront seem relatively harmless. However, in light of the truth about US involvement in South Korea -the astronomical civilian death tolls and the US-backed totalitarian governments in the South- this game’s premise becomes deeply troubling.
Advertisements for Homefront feature CGI clips of Korean soldiers bulldozing American bodies into mass graves and brutal reeducation camps for the remaining American civilians. Bound Americans have bags placed over their heads as they are dragged away. Another scene depicts faceless Korean soldiers tearing an American family apart as individuals are forcibly herded into camps. Firing squads kill civilians. Bodies hang from posts. This is the dystopic picture painted in the game. However, all of these things did happen to Korean people under the US command in South Korea.
Understanding the US military’s role in the violence that occurred to Korean civilians provides critical insight into how disturbing Homefront is. This violence began from the US occupation of Korea after WWII (1945~1950), continued in the Korean War (1950~1953), and exists to this day in a period of Unending War (1953~present). During all of these periods, the United States military has maintained operational control of the South Korean military. For decades, the US armed and outfitted South Korean soldiers, and US military authorization is required for troop deployments and military engagements. Even today, South Korea does not have sovereign control over its own military. Thus the US bears responsibility for both the violence it committed directly and the violence committed through its South Korean proxies.
Conquest, not Liberation
It is critical to insert complexity into the typical narrative of “American freedom fighting” in order to understand the egregious nature of Homefront’s decision to cast Koreans as aggressors, and American civilians as victims. From the beginning, Korea’s relations with the US were rife with problems. For example, in 1882, the United States signed a treaty to protect Korea from foreign invasion, but in 1905, the US made a secret agreement with Japan consenting to the Japanese colonization of Korea. This act helped initiate Japan’s militaristic expansion which culminated with World War II.
During the Second World War, Koreans continued to fight against Japanese domination, while the US claimed to fight for the liberation of Japanese-occupied countries. However, once the war was over, the leader of the US occupation in Korea, General John Hodge stated that “Korea is an enemy of the US and will be treated accordingly.” Subsequently, the US occupation of Korea seemed like a betrayal to a nation that perceived the US as an ally and a liberator. Upon arriving in South Korea, the US military promptly dismantled local democratic governments, reinstalled Japanese collaborators to power, negated all egalitarian land reforms, and wrested factories from the workers, placing control ofboth farming and industry in the hands of pro-Japanese Koreans. Leftists who opposed Japan during World War II were jailed, tortured, and executed during the US occupation. The remaining anti-Japanese activists were forced to join “re-education collectives.” The brutal prison camps of Homefront recreate these conditions, but in reality, it was Korean civilians in the South who suffered at the hands of the US and their Korean proxies.
Homefront portrays an atmosphere of despair in which totalitarian Korean forces bully and brutalize a downtrodden US population. This fantasy inverses the reality of US-occupied Korea. In Korea’s Place in the Sun, Bruce Cummings quotes former ACLU leader Roger Baldwin who toured Korea in 1947 and noted, “[T]he country is literally in the grip of a police regime and a private terror; you get the impression of a beaten discouraged people.”
Imagery from Homefront advertisements shows the burnt-out husks of American cities and dead bodies strung up from telephone lines. Although this fictional imagery is solely intended to provoke, it doesn’t come close to matching the scale of death and destruction that actually occurred on Jeju Island. In 1948, Jeju Island residents resisted US-sponsored “democratic elections,” after political opponents of the US were imprisoned, executed, or assassinated. A campaign of terror was launched to put down the resistance. Indiscriminate killing and a scorched earth campaign ensued. A 2000 Newsweek article (“Ghosts of Cheju”) gives this survivor’s account,
“[S]oldiers arrived by moonlight and took away 150 men and ‘then picked out about 20 pretty girls’… the men were moved to a beach and executed four days later. Soldiers allegedly gang-raped the girls over a two week period then killed them.”
In the end, 30% of the island’s population was wiped out. 230 out of 400 villages were burnt to the ground. Human bones can still be found washing up on the island to this day. Such acts would test the limits of believability even in a game as far-fetched as Homefront.
The Korean War
Homefront promises a compelling storyline that unflinchingly presents the brutal truths about the effects of war on civilians. But, the game’s brutal truths are actually based on the fiction of “freedom fighting,” both in the future and in the past.Although in reality, Korean civilians suffered and died due to US acts, this truth cannot co-exist withthe game’s rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and has therefore been erased.As a result, Homefront’s story looks less like an inversionof the past than a logical continuation of a fight for freedom.In this way, Homefront perpetuates ignorance about the reality of the Korean War, obscuring the suffering of Korean civilians.
The mismanagement of the US occupation set the stage for one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century. The Korean War was a disaster, with countless civilians slaughtered (estimates place civilian deaths as high as 10% of the total population), untold atrocities, a scorched earth campaign designed to "leave no building standing outside of the Pusan perimeter," and a cease-fire instead of a peace treaty.
At the time of the war, Pyeongyang had a population of 400,000, and the US dropped one bomb on the city for every inhabitant, plus 20,000 more for good measure. Hospitals, orphanages, and every other civilian structure in the city weretargeted. Not a single building was left standing. Civilians were also victims of US napalm attacks. In Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace Cho notes that “US bombers dumped as much as 600,000 tons of napalm over the Korean peninsula… this was more than had been used against Japan in WWII and more than would later be dropped over Vietnam.” In addition, the Associated Press also broke various stories detailing US attacks on Korean civilians. The story of US soldiers receiving orders to fire on refugees at Nogun Ri won a Pulitzer prize for journalism, and their follow up story about the US Airforce Policy to strafe civilians demonstrated that the US had a policy of targeting non-combatants.
The worst of the wartime atrocities occurred under the watchful eyes of American supervisors as the leftists that were forced into “reeducation collectives” (Bodo Yeonmaeng) were systematically executed. Since many local governors were pressured to fill quotas for these groups, they forced non-leftists including children into the re-education collectives as well. Civilian estimates place the number of dead from these massacres as high as one million, while the most conservative estimates place it at 100,000.
The reality of American-sponsored mass executions during the Korean War stands in sharp contrast to Homefront’s depiction of American civilians being massacred by Koreans. In an interview about the game, Rex Dickson, lead level designer for Homefront noted,
”You’re gonna see a lot of scenes in the game of these poor passive (American) civilians who don’t have the means to defend themselves (against Koreans), and these horrible things are happening to them… either they are getting shot (by Koreans) or they are being brought to these internment camps… When war (initiated by Korea) comes to the homefront it is really horrible for (American) civilians.”
Unending War, Quagmire, and Brutality
As Homefront pushes forward with its commercial blitz, the truth about war crimes is still being uncovered, questions remain unanswered, and even today, more than 28,500 US soldiers continue to occupy South Korea. Since no peace treaty was ever signed, the US is still at war with North Korea. A cease-fire was signed in 1953, but hostilities continue today. From the time of the ceasefire, the US has supported various undemocratic military despots, directly participated in the trafficking and prostitution of more than one million women, fathered and abandoned endless children, and committed crimes ranging from murder, to drug trafficking, assault, rape, and theft. These acts contradictpopular American notions about “freedom” and “democracy” in South Korea after the cease-fire.
A Blunt-Force Appeal to Violence
Violence towards Korean civilians was rationalized by the rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and Homefront’s narrative is solidly grounded in this ideology -both in its use of history, and in its imagined future. As Homefront continues to blur the line between fantasy and reality by juxtaposing the fictional game narrative with real life events, the distinction between truth of civilian deaths and “freedom fighting” rhetoric becomes less and less clear. For example recent tragedies, like the exchange of fire at Yeongpyeong Island, served as a springboard to launch press releases for the game. These press releases speculated that the threat of a North Korean invasion is real and the fictional events in the game could actually become a reality. As Homefront blurs the line between fiction and reality, andas it exploits the continuing tragedies of the Korean War, the war’s toll on Korean civilians get pushed further and further into the background.
In addition to obscuring the past, games like Homefront allude to the possible repetition of these tragedies in the future. Popular gaming site Kotaku featured this headline about Homefront: “Get Excited to Kill North Koreans with Homefront’s new ‘Resistance’ trailer.” The headline fails to distinguish between North Korean civilians and the North Korean military, with a flippant attitude towards Korean lives. It is an attitude that underlies Homefront’s entire promotional campaign, which included a recent anti-North Korean rally held at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. These promotions make repeated, blunt-force appeals to American contempt towards Korea, with the promise of a bloody catharsis and violent wish fulfillment through the game.
This ultimately makes Homefront an appeal to violence towards North Korea. Given the US’s history of violence on the Korean peninsula, these appeals reflect the trauma, death, and war that happened in the past and continues to this day. The truth about this violence has been buried for decades beneath revisionist rhetoric about “freedom,” and “democracy.” This same rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” in turn, drives the narrative of Homefront and its appeals to violence towards North Korea. As the game shows Koreans brutally massacring Americans and bulldozing them into mass graves, one cannot help but feel that the dismissal of Korean War atrocities continues today with the same rhetoric, the same rationale.
Kwok Sa Jin is a Korean Amerasian activist focused on Korean social justice issues in the