Simeon Man
Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific
University of California Press, 2018
191 pages

Reviewed by Kerry Knerr

Simeon Man’s Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Decolonizing Pacific offers a clear and incisive transnational framework for the racialization of Asian and Asian-American subjects in global US empire. This study follows the labors of transnational soldiers and military service workers from the conclusion of WWII through the Vietnam War. Drawing on sources ranging from the US National archives and anti-imperial activist publications to novels and personal testimonies, Soldiering Through Empire follows the labor circuits of military service workers to illuminate a history of war-making that cannot be captured by nationalist and other chronological frameworks. 

The decades after WWII in the United States prove something of a paradox in terms of racializations: a formal rhetoric of racial inclusion touted integration and diversity as essential American values, while the promise of civil rights for racialized and colonized peoples—within and outside the US state—remained unfulfilled. Indeed, during the middle of the twentieth century, the ability of the US state to criminalize and make war on targeted groups only expanded and increased the formalization of processes of inclusion and exclusion from the state. Man captures the indeterminate function of US imperial power through his geographic scope, what he terms “the decolonizing Pacific:” “a term that names the historical conjuncture when anticolonial movements in the United States, Asia, and the Pacific became intertwined with the US militarization drive to secure the global capitalist economy.” Anticolonial movements originated from both state powers and local activists, although for widely divergent reasons. For some in the decolonizing Pacific, inclusion in the US war state offered economic mobility, while others rightly identified the insidious influence of capitalist markets. ‘Sub-empires’ of the US state including Japan and South Korea permanently suspended the project of national self-determination in exchange for US military support. Man traces the infrastructures of US military efforts in the Pacific from the suppression of Filipino independence struggles during WWII, through US conversion of ‘liberated’ Japanese imperial holdings, through the US-led war in Vietnam. Man’s chronology and scope show that WWII was not a boundary event for the US imperial state, but one moment in an ongoing war effort. 

Ultimately, Man finds the power of the US state to make war was built through the power to make race. In myriad fora, the development of the transnational US security state demanded the differentiation of “good” Asians from “bad” Asians, between those to be incorporated into the postcolonial state and those to be expelled from it. Racialized anti-communist sentiment furthered these processes while offering a seemingly race-neutral guise. Man deftly shows how domestic American racial constructions of Asian Americans as subversives and as model minorities occurred within and through geopolitical projects. For example, Man argues that the US-backed deployment of Filipino medical staff to South Vietnam effectively imbricated US military power into decolonizing national structures. Doctors, nurses, and medical staff from the Philippines provided essential affective care to Vietnamese refugees fleeing communism, embodying both inter-Asian filial fellowship (“Operation Brotherhood”) and American exceptionalism, as recently emancipated imperial subjects. In this way, Filipino medical staff operated within the US psychological warfare apparatus. Similarly, in his analysis of military infrastructure in Hawai’i through the 1950s, shows how the inclusion of Native Hawaiians into the racial category of ‘Asian/Pacific Islander’ elides Chinese and Japanese settler practices in the islands and disavows pressing demands for Native sovereignty. Hawaiian statehood under the rhetoric of racial liberalism is a direct usurpation of Kānaka Maoli sovereignty and a violent act of empire. Man illustrates this point vividly through vignettes of military training exercises conducted in faux-Vietnamese villages in Oahu in preparation for war in Vietnam. For Chinese- and Japanese-descended kama’āina, those born and raised in Hawai’i, statehood offered political ascendancy; for Kānaka Maoli, statehood was a continuation of the settler state, meant to naturalize imperial violence and naturalize indigenous dispossession. The power of the US military state to reward “good” Asians with military contracts and punish “bad” Asians with military intervention supported global and domestic constructions of Asian racialization.

This work clearly and brilliantly brings together several disparate and important themes: the circuits of American empire, the labor history of war, the transnational construction of race, geopolitical histories of the Cold War, and ongoing resistance to imperial power. Man shows how Asian American veterans centered a critique of US empire in post-deployment Asian American radical activism. Scholars working in US empire, racial formations, labor history, political and diplomatic history, postcolonial studies, and Asian and Asian American studies will find Soldiering Through Empire both a useful source and a model for effective and original scholarship. One point that needs clarification is Man’s exclusion of Pacific Island nations from his geographic scope. Without taking away from the transnational circuits clearly explored in this work, the absence of analysis of colonized nations in the Pacific itself (beyond Hawai’i)—particularly US colonial holdings in the Pacific, such as the Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, or American Samoa—seems odd given emphasis on the US imperial state. How would this argument be augmented by the inclusion of nations currently experiencing direct US colonization, in addition to the self-effacing structures Man describes along the Pacific Rim? Given the history of militarization in the US-colonized Pacific, such a study would add substantially to the historiography of these areas.  Man’s work in Soldiering Through Empire concretely shows the indeterminate nature of US empire. Scholars of US empire such as Lisa Lowe and Aloysha Goldstein remind us that the US national project is constantly in a state of failing forward, that it remains unfinished and incomplete. Asian subjects emerged as a force essential to the construction of postcolonial states and the furtherance of US empire. As Man writes, “soldiering through empire brought formerly colonized peoples into proximity, spurring fleeting alliances that exposed—if only briefly—the limits of these state endeavors and the horizons of their unfinished struggles for democracy.” From the lives and works of transnational Asian military laborers, Man creates an exemplary analysis that resists the magical realism of the imperial state.