Syria: Imperial Responsibility, Imperial Conscience (Yes, We Have a Syrian Friend)
September 7, 2015
Come on, America. We could better and should do better.
I am not an unbiased observer of the Syrian refugee crisis, for we have a Syrian friend. She is a young woman, with legal residency in the U.S. She is completing her university studies in computer science. Her uncle served honorably in the U.S. Army for many years in theater (Iraq) and recently retired in California's Central Valley.
Her brother is completing his medical studies and wants to practice medicine in the U.S.
If you've been to a major hospital in the U.S. recently, you know that if all foreign-born doctors vanished, the current shortage of physicians would be much, much worse.
This is to remind us all that not every immigrant or refugee is a terrorist or welfare recipient.
We have a number of young Vietnamese-American friends who are the children of Boat People who fled Communist oppression after 1975. Those who were unable to escape often served years in re-education labor camps, i.e. concentration camps, for the heinous crime of working for the Americans during the American war in Vietnam.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese risked their lives and the predations of pirates as they attempted to reach freedom in overloaded leaky craft. Uncounted thousands lost their lives in the process.
Today, it is self-evident that the Vietnamese-American community has paid back the help extended by the U.S. to those who bore the brunt of our Imperial meddling in Vietnam many times over.
In 1975, the U.S. did not wait for the full catastrophe to strike before accepting tens of thousands of refugees. Tiny Wake Island, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific and home to a mere 251 U.S. military and civilian personnel at the time, processed 15,000 Vietnamese refugees. (Tens of thousands of others were processed through Subic Bay and Guam.)
With the imminent fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces, President Gerald Ford ordered American forces to support Operation New Life, the evacuation of refugees from Vietnam. The original plans included Subic Bay and Guam as refugee processing centers but due to the high number of Vietnamese seeking evacuation, Wake Island was selected as an additional location.
In March 1975, Island Commander Major Bruce R. Hoon was contacted by Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and ordered to prepare Wake for its' new mission as a refugee processing center where Vietnamese evacuees could be medically screened, interviewed and then transported to the United States or to other resettlement countries. A 60-man civil engineering team was brought in to reopen boarded-up buildings and housing, two complete MASH units arrived to set up field hospitals and three Army field kitchens were deployed. A 60-man Security Police team, processing agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and various other administrative and support personnel were also on Wake. Potable water, food, medical supplies, clothing and other supplies were shipped in.
On April 26, 1975, the first C-141 military transport aircraft carrying refugees arrived. The airlift to Wake continued at a rate of one C-141 every hour and 45 minutes, each aircraft with 283 refugees on board. At the peak of the mission, 8,700 Vietnamese refugees were on Wake.
When the airlift ended on August 2, a total of about 15,000 refugees had been processed through Wake Island as part of Operation New Life.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how America once acted: with responsibility and conscience, not with tepid half-measures but with presidential orders that mobilized the U.S. government to alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of people.
If you want a taste of frenzied fear and hatred of immigrants, please refer to the response of native-born Americans to the flood of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. It was feared the nation could not survive the onslaught of poor Irish, who brought with them a full spectrum of destruction: drunk, prone to criminality, ready to use their fists at the drop of a hat, typically Catholic--the list of horrors appeared endless.
Now might be the right moment to mention that I'm 38% Irish, and one branch of the family (Scots-Irish) immigrated to the U.S. in the Great Potato Famine. (As for rest of my mongrel mix: 37% Scots/English, 14% Viking, oops I mean Scandinavian, and 11% French, i.e. everything that mixed it up in France. Oh, and let's not forget the 2% Neanderthal buried in the mix... that 2% might have kept me in one piece after many an injury.)
I wonder how many of the mealy-mouthed congress critters who oppose aiding Syrian refugees have relatives who arrived in the U.S. as immigrants or refugees (or slaves). Shall we hazard a guess that it's 100% if we set aside traces of Native American heritage?
The hypocrisy is self-evident. That the U.S. has covertly supported the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria is an open secret. That there are no American boots on the ground (at least officially) does not absolve the U.S. of partial responsibility for the refugee catastrophe unleashed by the Syrian war.
Of an estimated 4 million Syrian refugees, the U.S. has accepted a mere 1,500. We're told Many Obstacles Are Seen to U.S. Taking in Large Number of Syrian Refugees. I am sure President Ford was told the same thing: it was "impossible" to absorb hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
Fortunately, President Ford (a Navy veteran himself) rejected both the defeatism and the implicit wish to wash our hands of any responsibility for our decisions and actions.
Our friend has told us of her childhood visits to relatives in Old Damascus, one of the most ancient cities in the world. Rather than reprint photos of the horrific destruction that has been wrought on Syrian cities, I want to share a photo of Old Damascus by photographer Hasan Bryiez:
According to our friend, a cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities and religious faiths co-existed peacefully in Old Damascus.
Now that world is no more. The social order that enabled peaceful co-existence has been shredded by the war. Though Old Damascus may appear materially undamaged, it too has passed the point where the previous pluralism can be re-established.
This is the bargain that Damascus and Syria made: live under an iron fist in exchange for a social safety net and a space for religious and cultural, if not political, pluralism. Then Syrians took peacefully to the streets in early 2011, claiming that a family mafia oppressed not only the Sunni majority but all citizens. The government responded with overwhelming force, and its opponents turned to arms.
The war in Syria is being fought on multiple levels. One is the Great Game, the geopolitical chess game that I have often addressed: Oil, Empire and Playing the Great Game (October 1, 2014).
It's clear that the goal of ridding the region of the Assad regime will eventually succeed; what is much less clear is what will be made of the torn battlefield.
The U.S. has around 317 million residents. How much of a burden would 50,000 or 100,000 Syrian refugees place on a nation of 317 million, a nation that once airlifted supplies to West Berlin for over a year in defiance of a Soviet blockade, a nation that airlifted 15,000 refugees to a remote atoll in the Pacific in hundreds of C-141 sorties?
Empire comes with responsibilities, and it should come with conscience. The U.S. is not a passive observer in Syria. Those of us outside the Deep State have no idea what's been done or supplied or promised in the name of the American people.
Shall we accept 5% responsibility for events in Syria? That equates to 5% of 4 million refugees or 200,000 refugees.
There are many Syrians already here who are willing to sponsor relatives and friends. There are Christian churches willing to sponsor refugees of any faith, because they seek to walk in the path of Jesus.
There is no shortage of good will in the U.S., only a lack of political will. Sadly, we no longer have presidents or congresspeople who make the "impossible" happen to alleviate the suffering of civilians fleeing war zones.
So every refugee has to be interviewed, screened, and possibly receive medical care. How could the U.S. do so for tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in a matter of months, yet now we are so crippled we can only manage to process 1,500 refugees from the Syrian war?
Politico toadies who like to pin American flag buttons to their lapels while ignoring our Imperial responsibilities and the conscience that should go with it are beneath contempt.
Come on, America. We could better and should do better. If we feel no obligation to the refugees from Syria, we owe it to those Americans who stepped up and did their part for refugees from wars past.
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