Keynote Speaker LTG Michael K. Nagata, USA (Ret). Photo: N. Ford
LTG Michael K. Nagata, USA (Ret)
2021 JACL, JAVA, NJAMF Memorial Day Service Remarks (As Prepared)
Arlington National Cemetery Columbarium
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Veterans Association, and the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation and for inviting me to attempt a small contribution to this important Memorial Day observance, and particularly on such hallowed ground as Arlington National Cemetery.
It is a privilege and honor to address all of you today as we recognize the significance of Memorial Day, and at the same time, having had the chance to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month across the United States. As a career Military member who also happens to be of Japanese descent, that convergence is both remarkable and poignant in ways that I know that so many in this audience, and many thousands more who are finding other venues to reflect on all that has come before us, are recognizing and remembering this month.
As we all learn in school, the origins of Memorial Day trace back to the American Civil War in the late 1800s. In fact, the ground that we stand on today was part of that upheaval, and in ways only the unpredictable trajectory of human history can create, went from being the ancestral home of General Robert E. Lee during a time of enormous divisiveness and fratricidal conflict, to becoming America's most important National Cemetery that honors the sacrifices that have been necessary to secure and advance American unity and liberty. After that catastrophic upheaval in the 1800s, wherein a million Americans became casualties, a movement that some began calling "Decoration Day" gradually evolved into what is now formally enshrined as the national, annual observance we are here to honor and celebrate.
The millions of American men and women who have served in our Armed Forces over our history, and in many cases have truly given the last, full measure of devotion, have only reinforced the importance and significance of this day and of this place. I'm sure that almost everyone who can hear me today knows of someone, or perhaps even has someone in your own family, who deployed overseas in defense of this Nation, and came back bearing the scars of conflict, or perhaps has been laid to rest in hallowed ground somewhere, including this place all around us.
We are all taught in school that the Civil War was based on a profound schism among the American people over the enslavement of the Black population in our country. It may seem today like such a distant, perhaps even archaic, fact that almost 20% of the American population once lived without freedom. Yet, even now, we are faced with unsettling reminders that we still too often struggle to achieve the ideals of equality and freedom... just in this past year we've had too many reminders of continued mistreatment of minorities of all types, including Asian Americans. We should certainly recognize America has made enormous changes and progress since the 1800s, but it is also obvious that we still have a long way to go to fully realize the standard that Martin Luther King once urged all of us to strive for... that the content of our character should matter far more than our race or, indeed, anything else... and we must recognize that our own children, and our grandchildren, will have to continue to work to advance this after we are gone.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month has a more recent pedigree--- it was formally introduced as a proposal in Congress in 1977, and was signed into law a year later. Very importantly, the month of May was chosen to mirror the completion of America's transcontinental railroad in May of 1869, and as I'm sure most of you know, to recognize the tremendous and back-breaking labor, and unfortunately the often terrible mistreatment, of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who built that railroad for America, and laid the foundations of so much of the prosperity and "sea to shining sea" traditions that we enjoy today. Another driver of the creation of this day is something that I and many in this audience have a historical family connection to, and it was the bravery and heroic example that thousands of young Japanese-American men and women gave us during World War II, in the face of terrible treatment by the very Government they chose to serve.
My remarks today are my attempt to blend the two themes that emerge from my own reflections on the significance of both our Memorial Day and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month... the first being a primarily military observance, and the other a more broadly cultural, societal, and perhaps even spiritual one.
Many of us here are an example of this "blending." Both sides of my own family immigrated to the United States, seeking opportunity and an escape from poverty, from Japan in the 1930s... just before World War II began. I spent a career of nearly four decades in the U.S. Military, and my father was also an Army officer after the War, serving more than two decades as an Army Chaplain. He and I shared the experiences of deploying into harm's-way in defense of America, though we both had to sometimes deal with various degrees of discrimination and prejudice, whether from our military colleagues or from some of the very same Americans we were striving to safeguard.
But, a far more important and compelling example lies a little farther back, in the America of the 1940s. As is now widely known, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 by Imperial Japan, the United States Government decided to gather all persons of Japanese ancestry in many of our Western States, most of whom were American Citizens, and place them in so-called "Internment Camps" scattered across those States for the duration of the war. Over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to abandon their homes, surrender their property, close or sell their businesses, relinquish their relationships with American society, and were essentially imprisoned for years without any due process or right of appeal. Even the U.S. Supreme Court of that day upheld this practice... a blot on the history of that body.
But, as sometimes happens in the wake of tragedy, unexpected and powerful events can emerge that show all of us what it is to rise above even the worst of circumstances.
History now records that, in the wake of this disgraceful Government treatment of its own Citizens.... obviously driven by racial bias and bigotry... over 33,000 Japanese Americans nonetheless volunteered for U.S. military service during that terrible conflict. Two of the most notable examples of this choice to willingly serve a Government that had betrayed them were the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service of the U.S. Army.
In the case of the 442nd, three complete combat infantry Battalions were raised... one comprised by young Japanese-American men from Hawaii, and the other two battalions were raised in the Continental States... and often from the very Internment camps where their mothers, fathers, and siblings remained imprisoned. One small footnote- I'm very proud to say that I had three uncles, from both sides of my family, who served in the Regiment. Yet, even though all these men had volunteered to serve, the U.S. Army of the time would not allow Japanese-Americans to be officers, so these three battalions, and the entire Regiment itself, were only commanded by white officers during the war. Yet, despite these things, the 442nd would go on to participate in some of the most important military campaigns in the liberation of Europe, and in the process, become the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. military history; and sadly also absorb terrible casualties among its ranks. When I've had the chance to ask the surviving veterans why they fought so hard, and sacrificed so much, they would always tell me that they were determined to prove not only their own loyalty to the United States, but by extension, prove that their Families were loyal Americans as well... despite how they had been treated.
The Military Intelligence Service was also comprised of thousands of Japanese Americans, both men and women, again many of them volunteering from the Internment Camps, who served in intelligence and communications roles to support America's campaigns in the Pacific. Rather predictably, very few Americans understood either the Japanese language or Japanese culture, and waging war against Imperial Japan across the enormous Asia-Pacific region... including all of Southeast Asia and much of China, made the language translation and intelligence contributions of these volunteers strategically vital for eventually compelling the Japanese government to unconditionally surrender to the U.S.and its Allies in 1945. These men and women who silently served in the Military Intelligence Service were decisive and irreplaceable for that victory.
And, of course, over America's history, thousands of similar stories can be told of the contributions and sacrifices of so many other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in defending or strengthening America... whether in or out of uniform, whether in or out of Government. Collectively they are all a reminder of the strength and vibrancy of an America that, at its best, strives to harness and propel the virtues and strengths of all of its people, regardless of origins, religion, race, gender, and so on.
As I reflect on my own life and career as a Japanese American who chose a path of military service, I am struck by how incredibly fortunate I have been... not only because I was born in the United States, but because I was able to enjoy a highly successful Military Career that both challenged me and strengthened me in ways that I never imagined when a very much younger version of me first enlisted in 1981.
That's not to say that discrimination or prejudice were unknown to me. It is important to recall that, in the post-Vietnam era when I joined the Army, race-relations within the U.S. military were alarmingly bad, and often violent... particularly between black and white soldiers. I have very vivid memories of being warned, the very first time a young 2nd Lieutenant Nagata pulled the night duty called "Staff Duty Officer" in my infantry battalion in Korea, about the possibility of a violent melee in any of the barracks that I had to monitor until the morning. Nothing even remotely like that exists today, four decades later, and one need look no further than the fact we today have a black Air Force Chief of Staff and even a black Secretary of Defense to see how much things have improved. But, that also should not mean we can afford to rest on our laurels. Among the many things that we will all have cause to regret during the past year of a historic pandemic, we must also regret and deal with the mistreatment of minorities that we saw, all too vividly.
There were also my own experiences with bigotry and discrimination as I rose through the ranks since then that were sharp reminders for me that America still has work to do to realize the ideal expressed in our own Declaration of Independence, that all of us are "created equal." I did not always react as effectively as I should have, occasionally lapsing into either self-pity or fruitless anger. But, when I was at my best, I instead chose to use these unhappy experiences as motivations to just be better. Even all these years later, after one of those unhappy experiences, I can remember a small voice in my head saying, "okay, then I'm just going to prove that I'm better than these people that wish to discriminate against me..." That was often neither the easy nor the safe path to take, but I guess I was either too stubborn, or perhaps just too young, to see how difficult and risky that kind of reaction could be. But, in the end, I somehow managed to retire after 38 successful years in uniform, as a Lieutenant General, and as the most senior Asian American to serve in U.S. Special Operations Forces... so I guess it didn't turn out too bad.
So here we are... seeking to celebrate these two important observances while we also begin clawing our way out of the dark, COVID tunnel we've been in, and weighed down by the controversies, outrages, and scandals of the past year. We sometimes are inundated by pronouncements and reporting that seem to all be trying to remind us of how angry, or sad, or regretful, or frustrated we should be. It's so easy to focus on what brings us down or what divides us... and it is all too often the path of least resistance these days.
Yet, my own experiences that I've tried to share with you today cause me to choose a different path, and I commend this path to all of you. It is the path that combines recognizing how far we have progressed despite all of our remaining flaws and terrible failures. It is the path that accepts the risk of trying to be better; which also requires the courage of attempting solutions that may fail, but by learning from failure, as humans always have, we will learn to make future progress. And it is the path that allows us the opportunity, and encourages our ability, to occasionally lay down our burdens and toils for a brief time, to look back, and both remember and honor those who came before us. Those millions of our Citizens who offered up their very lives and fortunes for defending America and what it has tried to stand for since the American Revolution. And among and alongside those veterans, the millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have contributed so much, often against great odds and deep-seated prejudices, toward building a better country and a more generous humanity.
Do I follow this path I've described for you perfectly? Of course not... I have feet of clay just like anyone else. But I remain determined to try... and I see today's event with you as a way of reminding myself that this is how even this retiree can still "give back" to the admittedly imperfect America that nonetheless has truly been the land-of-opportunity for me and my family.
It's been a privilege to speak to all of you on this important occasion, and I pray that fair fortune will smile on each and every one of you, and all your loved ones, in the months and years ahead. Thank you for listening to me, Godspeed to all of you, and though it may seem rather old fashioned to some, on this day, and in this place, where we are surrounded by the spirits so many of America's heroes... may an ever kind and watchful providence continue to steady our hands and guide our sometimes faltering feet, safeguard our children and the fruits of our labors, and protect and advance what I still believe is the greatest ongoing experiment in human liberty, the United States of America.