Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reflections on Fort Hood

In the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre, Monday’s NY Times carried an article (“Complications Grow for Muslims Serving Nation,” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/us/09muslim.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=akgun&st=cse) that invites commentary on two parts of the story.

First, a personal note—during World War II my father spent some time at Fort Hood prior to his discharge.

Now on to the Times story.

Midway through the article, a veteran, Amjad Khan, is depicted as saying that “the most difficult part of his wartime service came before he was deployed, when a senior officer found his Islamic faith cause for suspicion.

“He said, ‘I have to watch my back because you might go nuts,’ ” Mr. Khan recalled.”

I don’t doubt this happened. There are bigots throughout the military, regardless of rank.

What the remark reminded me of was a similar though antithetical incident in my uncle’s wartime experience. Uncle Willy, my father’s brother, survived the Nazi extermination of his family and friends in their Polish-Ukraine village in October 1941. He hid in the area for two years until the Russians liberated the region, whereupon he was conscripted into the Russian army and sent to Siberia for training. When his unit was ready to be sent to the Western Front to fight the Germans, they mustered at the base. As was the custom of the Russian army, the commandant asked if any soldier had reason not to be sent to the battle lines. Uncle Willy and several other Jewish soldiers stepped forward. They told the officer they did not fear the Germans. What they feared was getting shot in the back by their fellow soldiers, many of whom were anti-Semitic Ukraines. The commandant kept them in Siberia. Uncle Willy always suspected he was sympathetic because secretly he might have been Jewish.

The Times article also reported on a debate within the Muslim community about the righteousness of a Muslim “engaging in combat in a Muslim country on behalf of the United States military. The consensus was yes, provided the conflict met the Islamic standard of a ‘just war,’” which one scholar explained as, “in the Koran it says that war is to end the state of oppression and to uplift the oppressed,” but that the killings of civilians, local corruption and prisoner abuses had undermined the support of Muslims for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is very difficult for me to understand the Muslim community’s antipathy toward the U.S. military when every day Muslims are killing Muslims through indiscriminate acts of terrorism within Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even more difficult to understand is why the Muslim community has not universally and publicly condemned the perpetrators, especially when, according to the Times article, returning U.S. Muslim veterans “hear at their local mosques that they will go to hell for ‘killing Muslims.’” The double standard makes no sense.

I can understand why Muslims would compare their situation to “the Civil War, where brothers fought each other across the Mason-Dixon line.” But their predicament is not unique in the annals of our military history. The largest group of immigrants to the United States came from Germany. Before both World Wars, German-Americans had to reconcile their allegiances, as did Italian-Americans and Japanese-Americans during WWII. Though religion did not enter their deliberations, they chose to fight tyranny, even if it meant possibly facing their kin across enemy lines.

Our pluralistic nation of immigrants has been a beacon for people of all creeds, races, ethnicities and religions. For many of them, the military has been the closest thing to a melting pot. Our military has not always been right. Innocent civilians sometimes are killed. Rogue servicemen sometimes do bad things. But the overall conduct and intent of our military are exemplary, and we should be proud of their service, every day and on Wednesday, Veterans Day.