Etymology has always fascinated me. While teaching English in Japan I learned a few things about conflict, stereotypes, and language. A colleague educated me to the origin of two particular terms heavily tied to American conflicts in Asia that had become parts of our lexicon. The terms, “honcho” and the racial epithet “gook,” seemingly have nothing in common. However, the origins of their inclusion in American colloquial english and their port of entry into it – American exposure to Asian cultures during war time – illustrate the binding power of narrative construction, naming of the other, and imperial hubris.
Reading a book on Malthusian theory some time ago I was exposed to the idea that the act of making war was integral to Europe’s self preparation for the projects of colonialism and imperialism. The migration of peoples due to conflict was generally followed by disease, alterations to gene pools, and at times violent collisions between various cultures. This maelstrom of conflict built up immunity to diseases – many rolling plagues notwithstanding – codified various forms of societal behaviors, and lead to wide ranging alterations to culture and language. This milieu of military action, civil reorientation and language remain important even in today’s world. Terms like “nation building,” and “regime change,” are merely fancy markers used in place of the literal actions of invasion, coups, and colonialization, be it technological, economic or military in nature. The sharp end of colonialism, and this is in no way meant to diminish the pillage and plunder that are it’s stalwart accomplices, is actually its physically non-violent methods. As promoted by the USGovt brass in the latest series of desert excursion into foreign lands – Winning Hearts and Minds – the idea of soft power, HUMINT and psychological operations is the name of the game.
“I apply not my sword when my lash suffices, nor my lash when my tongue is enough.” -Muawiya
Framing the enemy in a certain light, usually that of some low cultured brute who, vis-à-vis an extended cultural attack on the part of their adversary, is always the first step in preparing the minds of a population for conflict. Dehumanization and stereotypical views of their opponent exist on ALL sides of any conflict and no nation or culture is free from having done so through the use of words and images. This essay is about two term used in the American lexicon to describe militarily colonized/subjugated populations and a history of their etymologies. In these cases we’ll see that the drive – conscious or otherwise – to describe the enemy in belittling racialized terms superseded the actual meaning of words.
As a kid I heard growing up in the 1980s, I was exposed to plenty of Westerns and the term “head honcho.” Admittedly the adventures of John Wayne and his clones were not my cup of tea, and the racial overtones of the entire genre were not lost on my young eyes. The head honcho was usually the boss of a Spanish gang of bandits, or occasionally an anglo character would use to describe himself.
Usually this implied an edge to their character seeing as it was a repurposing of the how the word was being promoted – as a way to describe the enemy. Inverting the term used to describe an enemy other on one’s self gave it a hint of darkness and added character to the hero narrative. Clint Eastwood saying he was the head honcho of an area usually meant someone was about to get sprayed. It wasn’t until later that I learned, like many others I had erred in thinking that “honcho” was a Spanish word. In fact it’s Japanese, “hancho”
Hancho in Japanese means “squad leader” and seemingly entered the American lexicon due to GI’s exposure to Japanese troops during the Pacific Campaigns. I found it interesting how something that came to be associated with gunslingers in the faux-Old West had it’s origins in eastern Asia. This also echoed the ideas from the book on Malthus on how the action of military actors was full of social consequences and culturally altering by-products. Via their physical presence in a foreign land the soldiers were exposed to new ideas and terms, usually they refashioned them in real time to fit their cultural sensibilities.
The other term, gook, is an epithet that was used in heavily up to 70s and 80s, and had been used to describe every racial group from Filipinos, to Koreans to the Vietnamese. The histories tell us this term inserted itself into the American GI lexicon in a major way during the Korean and Vietnam War, however its first recorded usages date back to the 1920s. My Japanese colleague was the one who alerted me to the history of this word. The story is actually somewhat amusing. The native Koreans used the term “Migook,” meaning America, to refer to the GIs and others. US soldiers apparently as the person saying they themselves were a gook. In fact the term was being used to delineate the American’s as non-Koreans and also as a matter of simple information but using their own assumptive cultural lens the world was refashioned in real time into an insult.
Reducing various Asian populations to a racial epithet undoubtedly hastened and affirmed their otherness and fostered soldiers seeing them as targeted for control and domination.
Also worthy of note is how a Korean term was repurposed to be used on any Asian encountered in the theater and undoubtedly facilitated the process of collectivizing and othering Asians in the minds of the US serviceman. Another source offers this version of the origin of the term,
“Although many have it originating in Korea either by referring Korea’s original name, “Hanguk”, or during the Korean War when Koreans would ask American GI’s “Mi Guk?” (“American?” in Korean) which sounded like they were saying “Me gook.” Was soon adopted for use in the Vietnam War. Technically this should only apply to Koreans, but the Vietnam War made it most popular when applied towards the Vietnamese.”
As to be expected the term made its way to the home-front and was applied to Asians in the US Armed Forces even while on American soil.
When David Oshiro, who is Okinawan American and grew up in Hawaii, lay wounded and bleeding in Vietnam, his fellow Americans were reluctant to put him on the helicopter.
“I had to whip out my dog tag and say, “I’m an American,’ ” he said. “They’ll get all the black and white guys before they get the Asians out.”
Oshiro, now 50 and a San Rafael resident, served in the elite Special Forces and said he had a good relationship with all the soldiers in his unit, but that soldiers from other units were not as enlightened.
“I’ve been called “gook’ more times than I care to think about,” he said.
While he was at basic training in Fort Ord, a sergeant asked him and several other Asian Americans to dress up in black pajamas, the get-up of the Viet Cong, to show recruits what the enemy looks like. Oshiro refused.
Adams said that was a common occurrence.
The import of this racialized term which only added to the bigotry already extant in many US soldiers exacerbated internecine conflicts within the US Armed Forces:
“Before I got to Vietnam, the disillusion started,” he said. “When I got to Vietnam, the disillusion was completely there.”
While still at basic training at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, he said he was picked on continually.
“I experienced a lot of rednecks,” he said. “It wasn’t only to blacks; the Asians took a lot of hits, for obvious reasons. We were in an Asian war.”
Once he got to Vietnam, he said one sergeant seemed to have it in for him, calling him racist slurs, threatening him with a gun, even waking him up in the middle of the night with a bayonet at his throat.
“I still have a lot of anger and rage toward whites who come off with that attitude, a lot of prejudiced attitude,” Luke said.
Adams said that many of the subjects in the study forged relationships with black soldiers.
“A lot of times, black soldiers took them in, protected them, made friends with them, versus people of other ethnic backgrounds who were not as understanding of what was going on,” she said.”
The parallels of Asian-American soldiers referred to as gooks by their own military brethren is instantly recognizable is related to the treatment of Blacks in the armed forces, especially during Vietnam. Due to the intense political climate in America at the time the Vietnam War was an extremely complex exercise in ‘racially’ fueled imperialism and the use of “conscripted forces.” My usage of conscripted forces in this case refers to the split in consciousness expressed by many Black soldiers concerning the nature and narrative of their participation in the Vietnam War.
For those who question the political activism of Blacks during the Vietnam War a brief reminder of the climate is all I will offer at the moment:
“The fledgling black American conscript was expected to endure the sight of the Confederate flag painted on Jeeps, tanks and helicopters, and sometimes encountered menacing graffiti, such as “I’d rather kill a nigger than a gook”, scrawled on the walls in the latrines of US bases. Other grisly practices, such as cross burnings, were uprooted from Alabama and Mississippi to the war theatre of Vietnam, and some commanders tolerated Ku Klux Klan “klaverns” on their bases.”
The same use of language to dehumanize Black Americans was applied to the Asian targets of imperial aggression. This modality was not lost on either side and lead to a war within a war as Black and White American soldiers engaged in physical, mental and “literary” conflicts with each other in the midst of a war on foreign soil:
“One black soldier, drained by the tense racial atmosphere in the enlisted men’s clubs, commented: “Chuck’s [euphemism for a white man] all right until he gets a beer under his belt and then it’s nigger this and nigger that, and besides, to be honest, Chuck ain’t too much fun, you dig?” Indeed, by the late 1960s in Vietnam, black and white soldiers were socialising in separate bars and clubs. In Saigon, the black servicemen congregated in the Khanh Hoi district and, sometimes, protected their preferred venues with signs that warned “No Rabbits [white soldiers] Allowed.”
On their end the Vietnamese were aware of the power of words and race during war and utilized the tensions which arose from this triumvirate as part of their psychological operations.
“Today, Wallace Terry recalls that, bizarrely, the Vietcong sometimes screamed, “Go home, soul man”, at the black soldiers during combat and Browne, who was interviewed in Terry’s Bloods, described how, “to play on the sympathy of the black soldier, the Vietcong would shoot at a white guy, then let the black guy behind him go through, then shoot at the next white guy”. Other black servicemen, including the deserter Whitmore, reported identical cases.
But the huge number of black soldiers killed in action and the maltreatment of black prisoners of war was ample proof that the Vietcong and the NVA were simply manipulating the racial discord within the American ranks.”
The effect of racist treatment couched in language upon the Asian Americans in the Vietnam War has even been studied and codified.
War, race and the language used to describe the enemy are inexorably linked. They feed into each other and are in fact required to facilitate the massaging of the public consciousness into a state capable to delivering violence upon the enemy. The words we choose to use and highlight reflect the culture we seek to create or maintain. These choices while not always conscious are not the results of accidents.
The history of race, language and conflict in America is a long one, and it continues today. As we can see in this excerpt from the film, “Full Metal Jacket (1987),” the desire to categorize the other and then save them from themselves is an integral part to the self-convincing methods employed by imperialist armies.
The ironic nature of honcho ending up in Westerns, and the term for American becoming a racial epithet against Asians is nearly comical, if not for the long history of racialized language being used to promote certain ideas about adversaries. Some more analysis could be done the meaning behind the sentiments expressed in the quote above and notions of civilizing the third world and ‘exporting democracy.’ Just as the Western literary tradition made arguments to convince itself that slavery was beneficial to the upliftment of black peoples, the fictional Pogue Colonel echoes such sentiments in his desire to “free” the American in every gook trying to get out.