After Sunisa Lee won the Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, a reporter (Perry Russom) from NBC10 in Boston emailed me to ask if I would give a little background about Hmong people, given her importance to Hmong-Americans in Massachusetts and around the country. It was a pleasant conversation and he asked good questions about Hmong history. We spoke for maybe 15 minutes. The video below was the result.
The clip is fine. Obviously, not everything we talked about would make it into the final edited version. That’s not how television works. And the focus was where it should be — on Suni Lee’s remarkable achievement and what she means to Hmong people, who have long been overlooked in this country.
I recently saw this France 24 video on the Hmong of French Guiana. I haven’t written about this much here on this blog, but I actually did some of my Ph.D. research with the Hmong in French Guiana years ago (here’s an article I published in the Hmong Studies Journal). It made me nostalgic to see the village again, as well as some familiar faces. My research assistant, KaLy Yang, and I were treated very well by the people in the two main Hmong villages (Cacao and Javouhey), and I think of the people there often.
French Guiana (or Guyane) is certainly one of the more unusual endpoints for the Hmong diaspora. As refugees from Laos, many Hmong resettled in the U.S., Australia, and France, after the Vietnam War, with lesser numbers in Canada, Germany, and Argentina (in fact, I met one Hmong man who originally resettled in Argentina before moving on to Javouhey). When people first learn there are refugees from Southeast Asia in the Amazon rainforest, it usually elicits a powerful reaction, either confusion or amazement. But then you learn the history, and it makes as much sense as any diasporic endpoint in a small, interconnected world where migration (voluntary or not) is common.
Something interesting happened with this one. It was fairly dormant for a year, then in late May 2020 (coinciding with theGeorge Floyd protests) people started to read it again. As far as I can tell, most of these views have been in the US. And most have been organic, with people finding it individually via search engines, not via social media. I don’t know their motivations for searching for something like this. It could be curiosity, maybe fear. Others may be genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of a civil war and a chance to kill people they dislike. Somealready havekilledpeople. Maybe the people in the pro-war group are on to something, so I started thinking of some reasons that another civil war in the US might be worth considering.
(Updated graph. The October 2020 stats are projected)
Wars are notoriously expensive and a great way of dumping any excess cash you have. For example, the first (only?) Civil War in the U.S. cost an estimated $23 billion and $68 billion for the Confederacy and Union, respectively,in 2019 dollars. That may sound like a pretty good way to spend a lot of money very quickly, but the news gets better because modern wars are even costlier. TheWatson Institute for International and Public Affairsat Brown University calculated that the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria was close to $6 trillion. Granted, a civil war in the US has the advantage of not having to travel very far, which would reduce transportation costs (you could have a front-row seat from your own home!). Still, modern weaponry would be much costlier than days of yore.
An added bonus is the opportunity costs of war. Eisenhower knewthat money poured into war cannot be spent on frivolous things like education, health, science, food, housing, roads, etc. Who needs those things, anyway?
15. You Have an Affinity for Apocalyptic Scenery
If you like the scenery in sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” or “The Book of Eli,” then you can make that fantasy come to life by starting an actual war. Art and reality really can mirror each other.
14. You Don’t Like Thinking Too Much…
Adrienne Rich once wrote that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” If there are people you don’t like because their values seem to be all cockeyed, weird, or deviant, it can be hard to think of solutions to bridging those gaps. So maybe it’s better to not try. Just skip all that mental effort at compromise and go straight to the only logical conclusion – some people need to be wiped out. Maybe a lot of people. History shows that people never change anyway, which is why Samurai warriors, Vikings, and the Spanish Inquisition still exist, most people still believe the earth is the center of the universe, and stone tools are all the rage. And, once people are enemies, they stay that way forever. Reconciliation is a fantasy, which is why most Americans started speaking French after the Revolutionary War, just to spite the British.
13. … But You Do Like Taking Chances
If you’ve ever placed a bet on a Super Bowl or World Series, you probably know there are few guarantees in sports. Predicting the future is not easy. And that’s for sports, where the rules of engagement fall within a confined range, with referees to ensure that everyone is playing fair. The rules in war often go out the window, adding an exciting air of unpredictability. Who knows what will happen?!?! As Clausewitz once wrote: “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” Betting on unpredictable, low-stake sports is one thing. How much more fascinating it would be to bet on our lives and homes? What an adventure!
12. Environmental Destruction Doesn’t Bother You
We can’t afford to worry about trivial things like the environment during periods of war. Speed is of the essence, and we can’t delay by taking out all chemical and radioactive contamination from weaponry. For example, naval and aerial bombardment of the island of Vieques left marine vegetation high in concentrations of things like lead, copper, nickel, and cobalt (Massol-Deyá et al. 2005). And that wasn’t even during an emergency. That was just target practice.
Sometimes these things can last quite a while. Long after the Battle of Verdun in WW1, the surrounding area (known as Place-à-Gaz) is still contaminated with lead, arsenic, copper, and mercury as a result of massive artillery shelling and later disposal of ordnance (Thouin et al. 2016). Some plant species still have a hard time growing there, a century later. Andin Laos, massive aerial bombardment has left parts of the country contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), 47 years after they were dropped. Up to 20,000 people have been injured or killed after the war ended, and 1600 km2 of the country still cannot be farmed. But fear not. Laos is a small country. We can farm in Alaska when the war is over.
11. You Think Food is Overrated
“Scorched earth” campaigns in war have existedfor millennia, leading to food insecurity, even famine. Some people got pretty upset when toilet paper and meat were hard to find early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s nothing. Wait until people run out of chocolate, pasta, and coffee. In the meantime, we can sustain ourselves on rage.
10. You Don’t Mind Murder and Atrocity
The WW1 veteranHarry Patch once said that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.” If your conscience is intact, then you may need to work on that. You could be at risk for some emotional devastation at taking another human being’s life, something known as “moral injuries.” If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the people you hate are not really fully human, then you may not have much to worry about. But beware. There have been cases of people who at first convinced themselves that their killings were justified. Some of them, like Anwar Congo below, can build up a pretty sturdy mental wall to keep out any thoughts that might contradict the view of themselves as heroic, only to have that entire edifice come crashing down years later when they accidentally dredged up their buried humanity.
9. You Think Civilians Are Fair Game in War
Speaking of murder… Many people think of war primarily as a competitionbetween two military forces. History buffs often discuss the tactics and strategies of past wars, and the decisions made by leaders. Sometimes they’ll talk about the fallen soldiers and officers who were killed and maimed. Deaths of combatants are to be expected in war. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or eventens of millions of eggs. However, statistics show that civilians are not just occasional “collateral damage” in war, due to an accidental misfire. Rather, civilians often comprise the majority of casualties, ranging between 40% in the case of Bosnia to 90% in the case of Cambodia and Rwanda (Roberts 2010).
8. You Like Travelingand Moving Around a Lot
People have a tendency to move around a lot during war, and they get to see many new places. In fact, 1% of the world’s population(about 80 million people)was displaced by the end of 2019. Being displaced is sort of like a vacation only without money, food, freedom, or the ability to really do many things that are traditionally considered “fun.” Instead of seeing beautiful scenery or new cities, people tend to end up in camps. Some of these camps are huge tent cities, with the chance to meet new neighbors living right next to you. It’s kind of like a summer camp, only you can’t really leave when you want. So let that be a fair warning: sometimes these camps are final destinations, your ability to travel after that may be severely curtailed with authorities keeping an eye on you, indefinitely in some cases. But, hey, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Some lucky Americans will really get to travel by being resettled in other countries (maybe; we haven’t been very open to accepting refugees lately, so it’s not clear how open other nations might be toward us).
7. You’re OK with Trading Mental Health for “Character”
As everyone knows, suffering builds character. For the fortunate people who survive the war, they can expect to have a lot of character-building experiences, and these can last for the rest of their lives. In a review of refugee populations, Bogic et al 2015 found that rates of depression, PTSD, and anxiety were as high as 80 to 88% in some groups, years after resettling in other countries. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become a little more difficult under conditions of war, but if you’re one of the lucky few people to get there, I bet the payoff would be pretty sweet.
6. You Want Your Children to Be Shorter and Developmentally Delayed
With food shortages, unclean water, increased infection, and psychological stress, kids who grow up under war conditions tend to be malnourished and shorter, sometimes by a huge amount. This is a very consistent pattern, and these effects are usually permanent since you can’t get those years of growth back. That’s fine. Althoughheight seems to be correlated with earning potentialin adulthood, shorter kids (and adults) can save money by living in smaller homes and driving smaller cars. See? It all evens out.
5. Sexual Violence Doesn’t Bother You That Much
If the idea of a civil war sounds exciting to you, the prospect of being avictim of sexual violence may not have crossed your mind. Yet, history shows that this is fairly common across wars once social controls have weakened or as a deliberate method of terrorizing a population. In a review, it was found that victims of sexual violence often experience pregnancy, traumatic genital injuries, fistulae, sexual dysfunction, STDs, anxiety, PTSD, depression, social rejection, and spousal abandonment (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). This may not affect you directly, but maybe the people you hate. I’m sure everyone you know and love will be fine. Only other people are victims.
4. You Think Trust Is for Losers
Pierluigi Conzo and Francesco Salustri found that European who were exposed to World War 2 before age 6 had lower levels of trustin adulthood. In their review of background literature, the authors noted that trust is considered almost like a social “lubricant” in helping a society run more efficiently; it is an important factor in economic development, the quality of institutions, and subjective well-being. Once it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild trust and survivors can view each other with suspicion for decades.
On the other hand, if people had been less trusting before WW2, they would have been better prepared for the coming chaos. Think about it.
3. We Don’t Need No Education
War-affected children often don’t have access to a lot of basic things that wetake for granted, including school. In 2017,61% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 92% of children globally. Those numbers dropped to 23% and 84%, respectively, for secondary school. Education is great and all, but no one will really have time for it after the war because the survivors will be too busy doing other important things, like clearing rubble.
2. You’re OK with Chronic Diseases
Wars have a tendency to “get under the skin.” Researchers who study things like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) idea have found that early adversity in life, including in war, can lead to long-term increased risks for chronic diseases like diabetes, schizophrenia, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity (Clarkin 2019). They can even affect your genes and possibly be passed down to the next generation. Some of these maladies can cut off years of your life, but they tend to be the years that areconsidered expendable anyway.
1. You Like Fairness and Sharing Power
Infighting in civil wars tend to leave countries weakened. How could it not? The good news is that in our compromised state, power abhors a vacuum, giving other countries a turn at being global leaders. I’m sure whichever nations step forward, they will be willing to give up the stage after they’ve had their turn.
Ba I, Bhopal RS. Physical, mental and social consequences in civilians who have experienced war-related sexual violence: a systematic review (1981–2014). Public Health. 2017 Jan 1;142:121-35.
Bogic M, Njoku A, Priebe S. Long-term mental health of war-refugees: a systematic literature review. BMC international health and human rights. 2015 Dec 1;15(1):29.
Clarkin PF. The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology. 2019 Oct 21;48:423-42.
Massol-Deyá A, Pérez D, Pérez E, Berrios M, Diaz E. Trace elements analysis in forage samples from a US Navy bombing range (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2005 2(2):263–66
Roberts A. Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians? Surviv. Glob. Polit. Strateg. 2010 52(3):115–36
Thouin H, Le Forestier L, Gautret P, Hube D, Laperche V, et al. Characterization and mobility of arsenic and heavy metals in soils polluted by the destruction of arsenic-containing shells from the Great War. Sci. Total Environ. 2016. 550:658–69
Been looking forward to this. I just published an article in the Annual Review of Anthropology titled “The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict.” In essence, the article conceives of war as an extreme “environment” that has many long-term effects on human biology, particularly for civilians in the earliest stages of life (children, infants, and prenatally).
Obviously, most people know that civilians are harmed during war, including through injuries (fatal and non) and psychological distress. I tried to go beyond this, reviewing the effects various wars have had on biological variables, including birth weight, child growth, maturation (ex. menarche), and the development of chronic diseases via the DOHaD hypothesis.
I’m hoping to build on this.
Figure 2. Some of the stressors faced by conflict-affected populations.
A recentnews storysuggested that the Trump administration has considered another drastic reduction next year in the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States (the annual ceiling), perhaps to fewer than 10,000 people. One estimate suggested the administration could set the ceiling at zero refugees.
This is a continuation of a trend. In each of its first three years, the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country, with refugee resettlement numbers at the lowest levels they’ve been in decades. This is all consistent with some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, which has demonized not just undocumented immigrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers.
One of the recurrent arguments I’ve seen in the debate over the Trump administration’s inhumane child separation policy is that Central Americans are primarily motivated by economic opportunism. The argument goes that people are trying to take advantage of a “loophole” and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be more lenient if adults arrived at the border with children in tow. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even claimedthat the influx of asylum seekers was due to the previous administration giving people immunity from prosecution if they were accompanied by a minor:
“Word got out about this loophole, with predictable results. The number of aliens (edit: ‘people’) illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 — that’s a five-fold increase — in just the last four years.”
A gaping hole with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the United States is not the only country that has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Central America. Instead, the pattern seems to be motivated primarily from “push” factors such as rising levels of violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras than by “pull” factors in the United States such as easier border crossings.
If Sessions’ claim were true, then we would expect that the increase in refugees and asylum seekers would only be seen in the U.S. But that is not what we’re seeing. For example, the number of asylum applications in Mexico increased dramaticallyfrom 2,000 in 2014 to more than 14,000 last year, primarily from Honduras. In the case of Honduras, homicide rates nearly doubled a few years after the President was removed in a coup in 2009. That led to a series of counter-protests, followed by “a wave of political violence that targeted a range of activists, including journalists and human rights defenders.” On top of that, instability allowed gangs and drug cartels to flourish, and a broken legal system has allowed men to kill women at some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, without fear of incarceration.
“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form – whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings – brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunate streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us.” – Jane Goodall (2010: 306)
An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, June 2014. (Photo: Jerry Lara, Staff / San Antonio Express-News).
Earlier this month Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a public speech in Scottsdale, Arizona where he announced that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security would separate all children from adults who crossed the U.S. border, regardless of whether they did so illegally or were claiming asylum. Sessions framed this somewhat ambiguously by referring to the “smuggling” of children. Yet it was also clear that he meant for this to be adeterrent to parents, as they would have their own children taken from them:
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
Several advocacy groups immediatelydenounced the policy as cruel and inhumane, including Amnesty International, the ACLU, and theWomen’s Refugee Commission. The group Kids in Need of Defense stated that in addition to being cruel, the policy would make it more difficult to process cases for families who are seeking asylum from violence, since it is harder to get information from parents and children who are kept in separate places.
The Situation in Central America
The need to process asylum cases efficiently is especially relevant today. Last year saw 294,000 people from Central America (primarily El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) claim asylum or refugee status in other countries as they fled from rising levels of violence. According toUNHCR, that number was sixteen times higher than it was in 2011. In addition, roughly714,500 peoplein Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador remained internally displaced in June 2017. That is, they were forced from their homes but had not crossed an international border. Data from the Igarapé Institute in Brazil show that homicide rates in Central America areamong the highest in the world, with levels of violence that rival war-torn countries.
Furthermore, the number of Central Americans seeking asylum had also increased in Belize, Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, showing that while some cases may be economic migrants looking for work in the U.S., many are simplydesperate peoplefleeing organized gang violence, human trafficking, extortion, and corrupt police/ judicial systems. And some may choose to leave based on a combination of factors. Regardless of the cause, it cannot be an easy decision to make, particularly for parents.
UNHCR’sFrancesca Fontaninisaid that short-term solutions, (which would include things like deportations and parent-child separation) were not likely to ameliorate the situation. In fact, they could even make things worse. According toRobert Muggah, one factor exacerbating the situation in Central America is the sheer scale of deportations from the U.S., in particular people with criminal records:
“Between 2013 and 2015, the US government authorised the deportation of more than 300,000 Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans with criminal records, many of them children of refugees from the 1970s and 1980s. Another 550,000 Mexicans were also deported over the same period.
The return of so many people, many of them convicted felons, coincided with a sharp uptick in criminal violence in Central America and Mexico. The policy of deporting Latin Americans was actually expanded during the Obama administration. For years the returnees have strained local criminal justice and penal systems to breaking point – overcrowded prisons are even referred to as “crime colleges” or “finishing schools for crime.”
Fontaniniadded that “we need the states who are receiving these people to invest in longer-term solutions.” What that would entail, she did not say. But it is clear that instability perpetuates itself, and that this does not stay neatly contained within national borders. It is also clear that innocent Central Americans are being crushed between organized crime in their home countries and a sense of indifference or hostility from neighboring nations. President Trump evenwent so far as to sayabout “unaccompanied alien minors” (i.e., children), “they look so innocent. They’re not innocent.” The implication was that organized criminals, including members of the notorious gang MS-13, were infiltrating across the border with some pretending to be asylum seekers.
The statistics show that this does occur, though rates appear to be low. According toThe New York Times, 240,000 unaccompanied minors entered the US between 2012 and 2017. Only fifty-six of those were linked to MS-13. There is a moral imperative to avoid painting innocent people as the very perpetrators of violence from whom they are fleeing (the same could be said about refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, who are often conflated with terrorists). Furthermore, Trump’s claim was contradicted by his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, who indicated that the primary reason for preventing immigration from Central America wasmore about assimilation than crime.
“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. … The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
“Cruelty is the Point”
When John Kelly was asked about whether he thought it was cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children, hereplied, “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Kelly is an alumnus of UMass Boston, where I have taught since 2003. I think he is an intelligent person, but this seems to be feigned ignorance. All he would have to do is take a moment to imagine a young child being separated from their parents — perhaps imagining himself as a boy in Brighton, or thinking of his own children being taken away when they were young. I’m sure he would quickly conclude that this would be a difficult experience. Again contradicting each other, President Trump acknowledged this when he tweeted that the policy of separation was “horrible,” though he neglected to mention that he was reportedly dismayed that some subordinates “were resistinghis directionthat parents be separated from their children.”
Smoke and flames in Myanmar are seen from the Bangladeshi side of the border near Cox’s Bazar, Sept. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Two recent videos caught my eye, one from Al Jazeera, the other via the New York Times. They both pertain to the massive number of Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Myanmar into Bangladesh, in what the United Nations is calling “ethnic cleansing.” There are many reports of deliberate targeting of Rohingya Muslims by the largely Buddhist Myanmar military, police, and militias.
However, only a few voices have been willing to call this a “genocide,” in part because the charge is so serious and the burden of proof is onerous. According to Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, this reluctance may stem in part from a mental image that a genocide requires “one huge act of frenzied violence,” rather than a steady, slow drip of purging. Another factor may be because of legal obligations required to counteract such atrocities once genocide is declared. For example, the U.S. was hesitant to declare the events in Rwanda and Darfur a genocide partly because a finding of genocide might have required the Clinton and Bush administrations“to actually ‘do something.'”
Images from satellites and on the ground confirm that hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground in a scorched earth campaign, as a deliberate strategy to deny the Rohingya a home to return to after they are expelled. Refugees have reported that soldiers have killed villagers, gang-raped women, even thrown babies into fires, burning them alive. Despite denials from the Myanmar government, the refugees’ reports seem consistent, corroborating each other. In the video below from the New York Times, the reporter says that “It seems like everyone in the camp has a horror story to tell.
Among the survivors, the suffering is not likely to go away any time soon. The distribution of food seems inadequate, overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees. As a form of therapy, children in camps are drawing some of their traumatic experiences in order to cope with them. Several depict soldiers killing civilians and burning houses.
In a 2009 study of 1,500+ elderly Germans, Philip Kuwert and colleagues found that even after 60 years had passed, people who were forcibly displaced as children during WWII were significantly more likely to suffer from current anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower resilience (Kuwert et al 2009). Whether this pattern will recur in the Rohingya is to be seen. There is also a possibility for post-traumatic growth, where individuals can experience positive changes “as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”
But it seems clear that the Rohingya at least face the potential for a multi-generational trauma. If a high-income nation like Germany, with all of its resources, can be still be affected six decades later, then how much higher are the odds for that same effect in the Rohingya now living in Bangladesh, as well as those who stayed behind in Myanmar. This suggests the need for the world to pay more attention to the plight of the Rohingya to prevent more suffering from occurring.
Kuwert P, Brähler E, Glaesmer H, Freyberger HJ, Decker O. (2009) Impact of forced displacement during World War II on the present-day mental health of the elderly: a population-based study. Int Psychogeriatr. 2009 21(4):748-53. Link