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BY CARL ROSENSTEIN, a.k.a. The Angry Buddhist | Nearly 300 U.S. servicemen committed suicide in Afghanistan in the last year. Private Danny Chen was one of them. This one suicide by an East Village youth and the resultant court-martial trials of his squad members have been followed closely in The Villager. The Organization of Chinese Americans and Councilmember Margaret Chin have been vociferous advocates for the punishment of Chen’s squad mates who hazed him, stupidly calling him “Dragon Lady” and “Fortune Cookie.” The coverage by The Villager of a complex suicide, as all suicides are, has been decidedly inadequate and simplistic.
Albert Camus wrote, “There is only one philosophical problem and that is suicide.” And an Anglo bard once scribed, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” For Danny Chen the answer was suicide.
Suicide certainly has cultural attachments. Rates in Islamic countries are in general very low, less than 2 per 100,000. Islam like other Abrahamic religions, views suicide as one of the greatest sins and utterly detrimental to one’s spiritual journey. Globally, countries with the highest ranking are former Soviet states, where life is grim and vodka is plentiful, with rates of more than 30 per 100,000. Equally desperate numbers are found in Japan, South Korea and China, where despondency is generated from the heavy demands of social conformity and the discouragement of personal expression and self-discovery.
In the United States and other industrialized nations the suicide rate hovers around 10 per 100,000. The suicide rate has been increasing steadily in the United States over the last decade with 30,622 suicides in 2001 and 36,909 in 2009. Hard times are obviously a contributing factor.
The above are all rates for civilian populations. Danny Chen was not a civilian. He was a lowly private in the United States Army and was stationed in dreaded Afghanistan. His death was actually a common one. Suicide in the U.S. Army stands at 19 per 100,000. As of August 2012, one active service member committed suicide daily, breaking records set in prior years. The 2012 death toll for service members in Afghanistan is greater by suicide than by Taliban attacks. As of October there were 247 deaths by suicide and 222 by military attack. These are sensitive people, broken by life’s vagaries and in the clutches of a merciless institution that is neither just nor compassionate, based upon hierarchy, brutality and designed for the efficient killing of other human beings.
The U.S. military advertises itself in commercials during basketball games as “A Global Force of Good.” Perhaps that was true when the Army stormed the beaches at Normandy to rid the world of Nazis. That is one reason that many young men like Danny Chen enlist today. They have a blind belief in America. But in the last 50 years the U.S. military has been neither heroic nor moral. The U.S. military is not the Boy Scouts commanded by Santa Claus. The U.S. military is by far the largest, most experienced and sophisticated war machine on the planet. From Vietnam to Cambodia, from Iraq to Afghanistan and in dozens of other countries, our armed forces have inflicted nothing but death and suffering on tens of millions of nonwhite and mainly Asian peoples. Danny Chen was a pawn and a member of this same military that is waging a permanent and immoral war against the Afghan peoples who were not 9/11 hijackers and have never attacked the United States.
Who knows what Danny Chen witnessed in Kandahar? Dead children? Massacred villages? Comrades blown apart, limbless and oozing life? “The horror, the horror.” Our most sacred and precious human qualities are conscience and compassion. The horrific experience of combat can twist and haunt the psyche. This psychic distress is normal and why so many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their condition is the moral, human response to the terrible circumstances they bore.
Private Chen was certainly subjected to racial slurs by his squad. And yet, humiliation is used from the first day of basic training to instill unconditional obedience and to dehumanize the recruit. In the military there are no equal rights, civil rights or gay rights. You follow orders. You’re in a prison without the walls.
The OCA-NY Web site states that it was founded in 1976 and is “dedicated to advancing the social, political and economic well-being of Asian Pacific Americans.” They are obviously well organized and funded and their campaign for “justice” has generated much media coverage. My condemnation of their crusade is not in their cry for justice but its misdirection. Glaringly absent from their campaign is any criticism of the continuing imperial and racist war in Afghanistan.
In the 1980s the New York City Council had the moral audacity to pass a resolution condemning apartheid in South Africa. Councilmember Chin may speak up for Private Chen, but more importantly, she should be using this stage and her distinguished position to condemn all of our permanent wars across the Middle East, so youths from Louisville, Lowell or the Lower East Side will die no more for empire.
Introduction of an antiwar resolution before the City Council, now that would be an act of genuine moral courage and truly honor the memory of Danny Chen. OMMMMMMMM.