Why The “Asia Pivot” Has Not Excited Americans

2 Jan

no respect for mongolian throat singersRobert Farley and Matt Duss ask, why hasn’t the “Asia Pivot” torn the American public’s attention from the Middle East? It’s not as if Bo Xilai, Coast Guard vessels scrambling to repel fishing vessels, and three elections didn’t generate maybe a little hype. Corruption, South Korea’s first female executive, and war – the media was pretty much satisfied.

Mongolian throat singer Kongar-ool Ondar and the volunteers for a Rose Bowl float commemorating the Korean War can speak to the frustration of the “forgotten” region.

The U.S. was one of 16 nations fighting for South Korea under the United Nations’ banner. But it was our country that did the heavy lifting, supplying 90% of the effort’s military power.

More than 33,000 Americans died in three years of combat in Korea — almost five times the number of U.S. troops lost in 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, “people didn’t know what we were doing there,” said Minoru Tonai, who was a UCLA student when he was drafted in 1950 and sent to the front lines in 20-degrees-below-zero weather. And “nobody paid attention” when Tonai, an Army sergeant, returned home.


With the Korean American contingent according them rock-star status, the elderly veterans — wearing shiny boots and freshly pressed uniforms, with medals and ribbons pinned to their chests — drew a steady stream of strangers offering thanks.

I was embarrassed, as I listened to their stories, to realize how much I didn’t know. They were young men who had signed up or been drafted, never imagining they would go to war. They survived unimaginable horrors and came home to silently shoulder the burden of what is still nicknamed “the forgotten war.”

Many were unwitting pioneers, the first minorities to fight in our country’s newly integrated armed forces.

“We wound up integrating the barracks in Korea,” recalled [Encino’s James] McEachin, {an Army sergeant when he was wounded in an ambush and earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart] who had been assigned at enlistment to an all-black regiment. “There was lots of tension.… It was hard on all of us. But once we got into the trenches, you didn’t see color, you didn’t think color. We were all just soldiers.”

For many, the war was an abrupt shove from adolescence to manhood.

“Nobody even knew where Korea was,” said Robert Castillo, who was born in East L.A. and enlisted because the vets returning home from World War II “looked so good with their shiny boots.”

“It seemed pretty exciting at 19,” he said. Castillo thought he would wind up on a military base in Germany or Japan. Instead, he parachuted behind enemy lines in Korea, where he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for bravery.

When Cpl. Castillo was shot and rotated out, his paratrooper comrades urged him to “go home and tell them what’s going on over here,” he said. But “nobody wanted to hear it.”

Still, Castillo said he wasn’t surprised by the elderly Korean Americans who showed up at the float to volunteer. “They have always been grateful. It’s exciting to me that these people never forget,” he said.

Obviously, the Asian-American community is insufficient to the task of keeping even one dramatic episode in the United States’ connection to the Asia-Pacific region vital to the lives of younger generations of Americans. Stories, like integrating barracks, cannot appeal to African-Americans today. Whatever lessons Japan’s democracy, enfeebled by partisan divisions, has for America are lost in translation. There just isn’t a powerful enough constituency for East Asia in the political battles in the nation’s capitol.


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