The Truly Forgotten

Sacrifice and the American Experience

Truly Forgotten

What an insult it would be.

That was the thought running through my mind as I watched Khizr Khan give his speech at the Democratic National Convention in July. What an insult it would be to this man’s son, Captain Humayan Khan, who died fighting on behalf of our country in Iraq, and to his family that made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and its ideals. What an insult it would be to them if we elect as President someone who has suggested that all those sharing Mr. Khan’s religious background are undeserving of the opportunities afforded by his son’s selflessness.

In hindsight, perhaps I should not have been surprised by the slap in the face the American electorate delivered to the Khans and all other Muslim-American and immigrant military families on Nov. 8. As long as the United States has existed, its success has rested on the willingness of people who enjoy only partial inclusion in its political community to lay down their lives in defense of it. From the African-Americans who fought with Massachusetts militias at Lexington and Concord to the Navajo code talkers of the Second World War, American wars have been won by soldiers whose citizenship and humanity were not fully recognized by their government or many of their fellow Americans.

Sometimes, the devotion of these men and women has affected the political trajectory of the nation. As former United States Senator and World War II Medal of Honor winner Daniel Inouye put it in an interview for a PBS documentary, “One of the most important results of [World War II] was to begin the process of integration.”


Undoubtedly, the World War II-era service of African-Americans helped jumpstart the Civil Rights movement, just as the service of Mexican-Americans was a prelude to the landmark case Hernandez v. Texas, which extended Fourteenth Amendment protections to that community, and as the sacrifices made by Japanese-Americans helped lead to eventual reparations for their internment during WWII.

But “begin” is the key verb in Senator Inouye’s recollection. One favorite trope of those who have argued against greater military integration is that the perils of the battlefield make the armed forces an especially dangerous venue for so-called “social engineering.” In reality, the opposite is true. War has a tendency of underscoring common humanity, ugly and positive. A Mexican-American World War II veteran in the same PBS program described the Marines as being “like a mini-United States…where you got Jews, you got Italians, you got Indians—and they all learn to live together.”

While military life can adapt to diversity with relative success, however, social and political life outside of the armed forces has found it more difficult. One need only note the lag between victories for military integration and victories for social integration, or look at recent protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline and police killings of unarmed black men, to see the limits of military service as a primary vehicle of social integration.

For me, this issue is particularly personal because it implicates the life of my grandfather, who served combat stints in Korea and Vietnam as an African-American over a period of tremendous social change. In 1971, he and 31 other members of the 326th Medical Battalion of the 101st Airborne received bronze stars, likely for operations undertaken in support of the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos known as Lam Son 719.

I know very little about my grandfather’s motivations for serving in the Army, but I still thought of him on election night, along with the Khans. It seems that even if the military has managed, imperfectly and intermittently, to accept the inclusion of a wider circle of Americans—my grandfather when he enlisted in the late 1940s, Humayan Khan in the early 21st century—American society at times struggles more profoundly to do so.

Donald Trump may represent an oddly pure expression of this American reality because of his outright disrespect for the military as an institution. Over the course of the campaign, he managed to insult prisoners of war and Purple Heart winners, as well as Humayan Khan’s family. Perhaps Trump, at some implicit level, knows that the military, at its best, has not stood for making America “great again,” but rather for taking America forward—past slavery, past segregation, past fascism, past a world that needs militaries at all. Certainly my grandfather and the other men and women of color that have served over the centuries had no mythic past to which they could hope to return, only a more just future to which they could look forward.

Many never saw that future, because our society tends to forget the hard-won lessons of war in the comfort of peace. And in forgetting, we have repeatedly insulted the sacrifice of those who were willing to die to consecrate an America they knew they would never enjoy. These patriots, like Captain Khan, are the truly “forgotten men and women” of Trump’s America.

Over the next four or eight years, it is our duty to ensure that they are remembered, and that their memory is not further insulted.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a History concentrator living in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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