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ow do we narrate histories of war, displacement, and migration when those histories have been erased or were intentionally redacted from state records? How do refugee discourses, activism, and cultural productions crack open the secrets of empire that have unjustly displaced minoritarian histories? Ma Vang’s monograph History on the Run: Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies employs a feminist refugee methodology of reading Hmong refugees’ experiences in the United States in order to critique the violence of U.S. empire during the long durée of Cold War orientalism and imperialism in Laos from the 1950s to the 1970s. Starting in 1961 and lasting until 1975, the U.S. illicitly manufactured an army of proxy soldiers in Laos, mostly among Hmong ethnic minorities, to fight Lao and Vietnamese communist forces in the larger Vietnam War. These secret military activities not only violated international treaties such as the 1954 and 1962 Geneva Accords which mandated Laos’ sovereignty and neutrality, but they also performed violent ideological and epistemic functions by (re)fashioning historical knowledge about the contours of an ever-shifting U.S. empire. Truly interdisciplinary, History on the Run joins a growing body of scholarship in critical refugee studies and critical ethnic studies grounded in political activism, anti-racism, and decolonial struggles over claims to knowledge, history, and freedom.
At the heart of History on the Run is the dilemma of how histories of violence are constructed and narrated in archives, within both dominant and minoritarian discourses, and their attendant implications on epistemology itself. Taking secrecy as a structuring logic of U.S. militarism and empire during the Cold War, Vang argues that this hegemonic epistemological operation underlies the colonial process of displacing and rescuing refugees after the end of the secret war in Laos. Yet, secrecy also structures refugee narratives themselves, particularly of Hmong refugees, whose long histories of “statelessness”—or what Vang terms “history on the run”—remains unintelligible within the context of French and American colonialisms from the 1860s to the 1970s. As Vang states, “history on the run underscores the ungraspability of Hmong statelessness when the group’s historical knowledge and presence cannot be comprehended by the state” (pg. 22). Yet, the structuring logic of secrecy also enables the dialogical arrangement that exists between the state and the refugee. The competing topographies between “official” secrecies and refugee histories also suture the civilizing projects that the U.S. enacted at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Thus, the irregular geographies that underline both imperial and refugee configurations of secrecy provide the means for a critique of militarism and empire as well as provide avenues of redress and justice for those who were most affected by the U.S. secret war.
Vang forcefully lays out her theories of the structuring logics of secrecy in the beginning half of the book to demonstrate the connective tissues between history, geography, and epistemology. Laos, as a French colony from 1890 to 1953, was considered France’s least important colony. Yet, inter-imperial struggles during the French colonial and the American military periods also positioned Laos as geopolitically significant. Laos’ seemingly “neutral” status mandated by the 1954 Geneva Accords after the disintegration of the French colonial empire in 1953 then rear-ended with Laos’ complicated (post)colonial moment to render Laos as a “neutral yet available” space where the U.S. could carry out its military activities after WWII (pg. 30). This colonial history enabled the U.S. to frame Laos as a problem for global geopolitics and its ethnic minorities (Hmong) as needing to be civilized through soldiering to implant them into a postcolonial modernity. Thus, the 1954 Geneva Accords enabled Laos’ “neutrality” to metamorphosize into a project of U.S. imperial “secrecy.” Secrecy, then, is a resultant effect of a long history of violent French colonialism and international liberalism which culminated in U.S. militarism.
Moving to analyze specific redacted state documents pertaining to the secret war in Laos during President John F. Kennedy’s administration, a redacted memorandum to President Kennedy in April 1962 actually revealed secreted military activities undertaken in Laos, whereas CIA maps detailing Communist activities in the Southeast Asian region demonstrates Laos’ strategic position as a politically neutral, yet geographically available space to execute military aggressions. In this vein, so called “declassified” materials actually reveal more than they hide, divulging the inexplicability of Laos within Cold War cartographies and historiographies. Its inhabitants—Hmong—also became a political quagmire. In fact, Hmong were violently conflated as part of Lao’s natural landscape, racializing them as capable of traversing Laos’ difficult terrain while also remaining primitive. Their liminal status as primitives who are readily available to be turned into soldiers is congruent with the discursive framing of Laos as a politically neutral, yet geographically available space. In sum, Vang performs a genius methodology that reads state documents discursively to reveal the absences in the archives which affirm traces of militarism and empire, both historically and geographically.
Chapters 3, 4, 5, and the epilogue highlight how Hmong refugees in the U.S. themselves have confronted these secreted histories through their activism, everyday acts of silence and refusal, and cultural productions to emphasize Vang’s central analytic of “history on the run.” Vang takes up paradoxical figures—the refugee soldier, the terrorist ally, and the refugee grandmother—to demonstrate how these figures dislocate history and bring into view secreted histories on the run. For example, the paradox of the “refugee soldier” shows up in the legislative hearings on the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 1997, which sought to waive English language requirements for Hmong soldiers/refugees seeking U.S. citizenship after their resettlements to the U.S.. Vang demonstrates how the secret history of militarism creates an impossible condition to reconcile the refugee soldier, a figure whose military service was never documented. Consequently, citizenship law becomes the litmus test of reconciling secret histories when they rub up against refugee testimonies, particularly Hmong claims to citizenship and belonging in the U.S. Yet, Vang’s reading of the legislative hearings suggest that the U.S. strategically sidesteps risking these secrets spilling into the public purview by reimagining citizenship not as payment for Hmong sacrifices, but further entrenching its imperial past by offering citizenship as gift, denoting the centrality of the “gift of freedom” in the liberation and rescue narrative of U.S. empire that critical refugee studies scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen (2012) has poignantly articulated. This begs the reader to ask, what is a morally just payment for Hmong refugees’ sacrifices made during the U.S.’s unjust war in Laos, if not citizenship?
In the post 9/11 era, (im)migrants and refugees were grotesquely transmutated into “terrorists.” This shift in the meanings of who is a “terrorist” distorts history by deploying ahistorical framings of the brown Other in order to fortify reinvigorated U.S. militarism and empire, most evident with Arabs in the United States. The figure of the “terrorist ally” examines these shifting collusions between the incongruent histories of Hmong as historical “allies” to their contemporary manifestation as “terrorists” of the nation-state. In 2007, the U.S. government arrested former military leader General Vang Pao and his associates for allegedly violating the Neutrality Act by conspiring to purchase military weapons in order to overthrow the Laotian government, a state in which the U.S. is supposedly at peace. Vang argues that this antagonistic history of Hmong as both “allies” and “terrorists” ushers in an ontological problem for the narrating of history. Precisely, it was the secret activities of the U.S. government in Laos that was the real “terrorism” which subsequently produced the liminal figure of the terrorist ally (pg. 119). Reading news media articles and online reaction comments by Hmong Americans, coupled with analysis of subsequent Hmong protests defending General Vang, Vang suggests that Hmong American retellings of their truths about the war utilizes histories on the run as a frame to challenge the distorted histories of U.S. empire. Vang’s theorization of the queerness of the terrorist ally deserves more attention, particularly how this non-normative figure may represent an affront to normative epistemologies, and relatedly, to the “closet” as a metaphorical space for keeping secrets hidden while enabling antagonistic knowledges to proliferate, akin to the “secreted” archives that Vang engages with (Sedgewick, 1990).
Lastly, Vang takes up the figure of the refugee grandmother found in Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer and Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino to demonstrate how she enacts histories on the run through her acts of mobility and refusal. Yang’s grandmother in The Latehomecomer carries with her unspoken histories as she moves from place to place, ensuring that her seven sons and grandchildren can be safely resettled in the U.S. At a grander scale, the characters in Yang’s memoir inscribe themselves into the land as they traverse the globe, imprinting footprints in mud, burying photos as they fled the war, and making a home in the U.S. These acts of embodiment within the land, Vang argues, signifies Hmong place-making in order to trace their journeys as they simultaneously place themselves into history. Relatedly, in Gran Torino, the grandma’s antagonism towards Clint/Walt and her unsubtitled and improvised lines throughout the film haunt and disrupt the film’s central narrative about Clint/Walt’s white masculinist redemption. Thus, Vang asserts that “Hmong women disrupt and work through the silencing of Hmong histories to unsettle the masculinist narratives of loyalty and refuge and assert Hmong presence in becoming” (Pg. 178). Vang’s genius readings offer new insight on two texts that have already been analyzed a dozen times over by various scholars, giving new life to how Hmong women’s storytelling, mobility, and acts of refusal enable a feminist methodological approach to uncover histories on the run.
History on the Run advances a set of powerful interventions about the production, circulation, and narrating of history itself. Additionally, Vang also clarifies the links between history and geography, particularly how refugee histories of migration produce frictions against the imperial and liberal histories of war, humanitarianism, and resettlement. For example, Vang’s epilogue analyzes Hmong American poet Mai Der Vang’s Afterland to showcase how Hmong migrations and return migrations constitute counter/decolonial cartographies. Afterland demonstrates that refugees are not fully resettled as their histories oscillate between groundedness and groundlessness, remapping the territories of Hmong people’s ontologies outside colonial cartographies. Critical refugee studies have forced us to rethink refugee agency outside the context of liberal humanitarianism. What do refugee experiences, perspectives, and histories teach us about justice, liberation, and agency? History on the Run does not simply reveal how agency is materialized within readily apparent refugee lifeworlds or cultural productions. Instead, Vang introduces a methodology of reading those “silenced” histories as sites of agency and decolonial ontologies. To that end, the intertexual methodologies that are employed throughout the book shows how the interstitial narrative structures between and within refugee cultural productions, activism, and acts of silence are all imbricated in refugee decolonial counter discourses. That is precisely the most compelling strength and contribution of the book.
Throughout the book, Vang takes great care of the stories and experiences that carry histories on the run as they move across temporal planes and geographical terrains. Subjugated histories abound in the age of liberal empire. How many stories are still missing/redacted in the archives and omitted from history altogether that we do not know about? And what happens when we search for what is not there? A simple recovery project would likely cause more harm than good to histories that are perpetually subjected to state surveillance and destruction. Instead, Vang demonstrates how these histories unsettle the project of liberal empire at its very core, imbuing minoritarian discourses with a power all on its own. In one example, Vang reads Hmong refugee documents, particularly resettlement records, that reveal traces of militarism when Hmong refugees detailed their work histories for resettlement. Listing occupations such as “soldier,” even though they were applying as refugees, confronts secreted paper trails of empire and strategically inserts traces of those same secrets into the refugee archive.
Vang’s interlocutors, both within the archives and those whom she interviewed, subjects which included Hmong refugees who simply carried old military ID cards, online commentators, memoirists, grandmothers, actresses, and poets, provide us with the unique recognition of fugitive histories that are still running and unfolding. I am reminded of the missing baggage claim that opens History on the Run about the ways luggage—as an allegory for minoritized histories—get lost within air travel specifically and are politically absent within state discourses more generally. And like losing precious luggage during air travel which may prompt phone calls, filing paperwork, and complaints against airline companies, losing histories through imperial warfare will also prompt colonized, stateless, and refugee subjects to struggle against the technologies of state violence.
Vang’s interdisciplinary book may unsettle readers who want straightforward histories of the secret war in Laos or post-1975 Hmong refugee settlement in the U.S. I argue, however, that Vang’s book contributes to larger conversations occurring within history about the value and machinations of historiography and its implications on human geographical mobility and minoritarian subjectivity. In essence, Vang’s magisterial book is a field-defining and paradigm-shifting work in critical ethnic and critical refugee studies. Vang’s interdisciplinary engagements with cold war histories, state archives, and minoritized discourses present possible itineraries for cohering refugee and minoritized histories that are constantly on the run.
Kong Pheng Pha (He/Him/His) is assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His scholarship examines Hmong American experiences in order to rethink Asian American racializations, queer theorizing, and social justice.