Another fleet of American aircraft abandons another broken capital, and again, a familiar wound opens in me. It bleeds through time, staining my present with the past. I see my Vietnamese parents: my father watching his city burn on the horizon from an American warship. My mother huddling among packed bodies on a boat that will take her to an island, to a camp, to a plane, and finally to a country that’d dropped bombs on her since she could remember. Though I’m separated from their war by distant decades, a mother tongue I can no longer speak, and battles I never fought, I feel the pangs of my parents’ pain, my invisible inheritance, today, every day.
On TV, the U.N. secretary general says, “We cannot and must not abandon the people of Afghanistan.” A veteran holds back tears as she describes farewell notes from her abandoned Afghan friends. I watch men cling to the side of a U.S. Air Force transport, as if clinging to a deserting father, only to fall to their deaths immediately after takeoff. I’m back inside a bunker on an American base, putting a pistol in my mouth and releasing the safety. My mother is back in Viet Nam, gathering soft-shelled crabs by a riverbank as an American bomb nearly decapitates her. Dad is sobbing as he learns his father died in a communist reeducation camp. A civilian in Molakheyl is crying over his father, murdered by an American bullet.
Like an abusive father, my adoptive country’s trauma metastasized into denial, into rage, into violence repeated once more in the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, and more battlefields than my heart alone can hold. We wage war under a banner of peace — call ravaging our enemies police actions, peacekeeping operations, international intervention — gaslighting ourselves into complicity. I shouldn’t have been surprised when America sent me to Afghanistan to win hearts and minds only to compel me to hurt Afghans the way Americans hurt my family decades before. I watched our traumas follow us home, mutating into cancers of body-armor-clad, assault-rifle-toting police on our streets, recycled fascist rhetoric passing itself off as political discourse, and politicians indifferent to hundreds of thousands lost to disease for a president’s pride.
I trace lines between insane memories, how trauma is a chain around our necks. Saigon falls and Kabul falls. My friend screams because she doesn’t know if her family escaped Afghanistan and my grandfather starves to death in a jungle camp. Vietnamese scramble over the embassy walls and Tomahawk cruise missiles vaporize a wedding party. I watch my mother’s empty eyes stare out the window the day America invades Iraq, and I imagine she sees her cousin, returned from fighting, punching holes in the walls of her childhood home in his sleep. President Johnson passes the Great Society reforms and President Obama orders the Afghan troop surge. My father rapes me and I murder a man reaching for a hand grenade. These memories tangle into an epigenetic noose, passed from my parents to me, and the violence I committed passes from me to someone who now watches their country burn and their children will trace these same bleeding lines through their own pasts.
But I can’t survive here among these insane memories. To dwell among them too long would kill me, as it slowly kills my country. I have no choice but to end this vicious cycle. But I fear that like an abuser, America will take this pain only to forge it into a more hateful weapon. I fear that the dissonance of our defeats will drive us to choose force over compassion. I fear for you, my countrymen, but I can do little but invite you to bear this pain with me, to revive memories that nourish. Our sisters at our mothers’ breasts. Fathers teaching us to swim the ocean. Our first loves, the taste of their lips. Mulberries picked from trees in summer. Discovering the warmth of strangers whose language you don’t share. Watching the moon take the sun’s place over the valley.
I can only invite you to nourish beauty in your memory, to let the selfish myth of a heroic America fade. I can only ask you to break these fetters, the ones you wield against us, the ones that chain you to power.