U.S. Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay’s essay in the New York Times comes right on time for Veterans’ Day. His profiles of two Iraqi translators who served with the Marines show the way that the United States is leaving behind people who put their lives and families at risk in the service of this country. He challenges all of us to remember and fight for the values that bring us together, and to reject the racism that tears this country apart.
Ali was an interpreter for the U.S. military from 2004-2007 during the Iraq War. That put him at extreme danger of death in his native country. He was approved for a U.S. visa in 2007, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2008, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009.
Ted was an interpreter for the U.S. military from 2007-2010 during the Iraq War. He applied for a U.S. visa in 2008, but his application stalled.
“First, his career as an interpreter ended with an on-the-job back injury that left him lying in a bed for months without support or medication. Then, as ISIS began taking territory, the State Department removed nonessential staff and discontinued refugee processing for six months. Since security clearances have an expiration date, this created a cascade effect, where applicants who had been cleared had to redo their screening process, all during a time when there were fewer personnel to conduct interviews, and applications were spiking because everyone who had worked with Americans was under increased threat.
“’He’s like a Marine to me,” said the former Marine Ben Wormington, who fought alongside Ted. ‘A Marine that we’ve left behind. If they stamped his passport, I would pay for his flight and his family would live in my house in Omaha.’”
Wormington can’t help his buddy. After Trump’s travel ban and slowdown on all immigration, only 646 Iraqi translators were allowed into the United States last year, and the backlog of thousands of applications continues to grow. That’s not good news for Ted.
“He lives under threat, in an area of Iraq controlled by militias. Not even his children know about his past, because a slip of the tongue could mean his life. The execution of a former interpreter, after all, is a powerful propaganda tool. It would suggest that America doesn’t live up to its promises or keep faith with those who served it. But of course, this would hardly be the first time, or the last, that America has betrayed those who fought for it.”
Klay takes us back to the post-World War I period, when “groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the American Protective Association and the Native Sons of the Golden West intimidated and scrutinized German, Catholic, Jewish and Japanese immigrants.” But, he points out, the worst intimidation and terror was reserved for Black American veterans.
“There was Pvt. Charles Lewis, arrested while in uniform, beaten by a mob, lynched and left swinging from a blood-soaked rope on Dec. 15, 1918, little more than a month after the armistice.
“Wilbur Little, arrested for wearing his military uniform for “too long,” beaten to death in Blakely, Ga.
“Bud Johnson, chained to a stake in Pace, Fla., was reported to have said, ‘Would that I had died in Germany rather than come back here and die by the hand of the people I was protecting,’ then burned alive.”
On this Veterans’ Day, we need to remember not only the veterans who served in the U.S. military but also who we are as a nation. Unthinking patriotism is no patriotism at all. We need to reclaim the ideals of brother- and sisterhood, of equality, and of freedom, which this nation professes but has too often betrayed.
We need to re-commit to fighting racism and anti-immigrant prejudices. That means not just personal belief or words, but dismantling policies and institutions that further racism and xenophobia, and defeating politicians who spew these poisons. That’s not an easy task. As Klay concludes:
“[To] accept this requires faith in the fundamental principles of American life to unify diverse peoples. It requires a love of country, a bitter rage at how far we are from our country’s promise and a determination to work to make that promise a reality. More than anything, it requires a degree of optimism in the face of ceaseless change. It takes courage.”