Simeon Man’s (2018) Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific makes a number of essential contributions to the fields of Asian American studies, critical ethnic studies, and history. Soldiering Through Empire combines extensive archival research with oral history interviews to map the everyday work of US empire-building as it unfolded across the geohistorical formation that Man names as the decolonizing Pacific (see also Yoneyama, 2016). My use of the verb “map” here is deliberate, for I think Soldiering Through Empire can productively be read as a work of small-g geography. Man cites only a handful of geographers, including Deborah Cowen, Matthew Farish, Derek Gregory, Sasha Davis, and Ruthie Gilmore. His writing nonetheless reveals a keen spatial sensibility, grounded in key geographical terms and concepts. Over the course of the book, Man traces the imagined geographies, the spatial enactments, the imperial circuits, and the transpacific connections that have long played a central role in the making, re-making, and un-making of the decolonizing Pacific. Man introduces the decolonizing Pacific as the Cold War “conjuncture when anticolonial movements in the United States, Asia, and the Pacific became intertwined with the US militarization drive to secure the global capitalist economy.” (p. 8) In Man’s eyes, these reverberations were felt most acutely during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which he understands as constituting a “longer globe-spanning moment” in which “the legacies of multiple colonialisms converged and were fought over by workers on the ground.” (p. 9-10)

Man focuses on the Vietnam War to explore how “soldiering labour” served as the scalar hinge through which the “racial and imperial politics of the decolonizing Pacific” became grounded and contested in the geographies of everyday life (p. 10). Through a close engagement with the everyday experiences of Asian and Asian American “soldiers” – a category he stretches to encompass civilian counterinsurgents and base workers – Man exposes how “race making and war making” were deeply constitutive of US imperialism abroad, as well as diasporic subjectivities at home (p. 13). In so doing, Man illustrates the ongoing need for a closer engagement with the inter-Asian and transpacific “connections that made their travels possible, and that made the war seem inevitable.” (p. 16) In this sense, Soldiering Through Empire is a book about the militarized politics of racialized encounter between Asian, Asian American, Indigenous, and other non-Asian subjects that was foundational to the everyday work of US empire-building across the decolonizing Pacific. But it is also a book about how such asymmetrical encounters were invariably framed by broader relationships of violence, power, and accumulation (Ahmed, 2000).

Soldiering Through Empire makes a number of key contributions to the critical geographical study of US imperialism. First, by foregrounding “the long grasp of the [US military-industrial complex] and the soldiers and workers who traversed it,” it effectively recasts the Vietnam War as a fundamentally transpacific space-making project (p. 186). There is, of course, work in geography and other cognate disciplines that emphasizes how the US empire-state waged war in Vietnam through the production of concrete socio-spatial formations, such as the strategic hamlet, the village, the prison, the jungle, and the refugee camp, to name only a few examples (Attewell, 2015; Cullather, 2006; Espiritu, 2014; Gregory, 2016; Nguyen, 2012; Nisa, 2015). What distinguishes Man’s book, however, is the extent to which it exemplifies Andrew Friedman’s (2013: 13) call for critical scholarship that moves beyond the “single moment of imperial warfare, violence, or occupation that conventionally organizes so much of the study of US intervention abroad.” Using the Vietnam War as a temporal and geographical pivot, Man situates the military occupation within a broader forcefield of imperial relations, sedimentations, and circulations. He tethers the war to prior rounds of colonialism and imperialism in the Philippines and Korea; to processes of settler militarism and state formation in Hawai‘i; to everyday experiences of diasporic life, struggle, and community formation in urban America; to broader geopolitical economies of militarized development across the Asian rim economies; to regional and global flows of racialized labouring bodies. The net effect of Soldiering Through Empire is therefore to rescript war-torn South Vietnam as a space that is (re)produced at the intersection of these “stretched out and sequential connections;” or, following the Doreen Massey (2013), as a geographical “meeting up place” for diverse inter-Asian, transpacific, and Indigenous “stories-so-far.”

The scholarly implications here are twofold. On the one hand, Man usefully emphasizes how race war in Vietnam served as a multi-scalar engine of racial capitalism. The war unleashed violent entanglements of militarism and capitalism that hyperexploited individual workers—soldiers, doctors, nurses, etc.—while  simultaneously offering them a pathway towards upward class mobility. At a more macro-scale, the war was also significant for drawing the newly independent regimes in the Philippines and South Korea into the gravitational orbit of the US military-industrial complex.

But as Man also reminds us, Asians and Asian Americans did more than serve as the subjects and objects of US settler imperial power. As they waged race war in Vietnam, many Asian soldiers “experienced the profound contradiction between the promise of liberal inclusion and the war’s systemic racial violence.” (p. 138) Radicalized by their participation in the war effort, they “began to link the violence in Vietnam to the violence in their own communities, seeing them as parts of a global race war against colonized peoples.” (p. 138) What resulted was a new transnational infrastructure of anti-imperial resistance, solidarity, and organizing that brought activist groups based in Oakland, Honolulu, San Diego, Seattle, and Tacoma into closer collaborative relationships with decolonizing movements working in and around Clark Air Base, Subic Bay, Manila, Okinawa, Tokyo, and Seoul. As Asian American soldiers became swept up in this “larger tide of resistance,” they forged strategic alliances with key Third World internationalist formations—including the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Moratorium, the Brown Berets, and the International Longshore Workers Union—to “[open] up a critical space to imagine and pursue an alternative future.” (p. 187). This is, as Man concludes, an unfinished project that has only acquired additional urgency in a present which continues to be shaped and reorganized by evolving transpacific geographies of imperial violence, accumulation, and control (see also Banivanua-Mar, 2016).

In concluding pages of The Deadly Life of Logistics, Deborah Cowen (2014: 233) envisions her book as a “collection of bread crumbs” that will hopefully map “useful paths for colleagues and comrades.” I read Soldiering Through Empire as a book that has similarly opened up further avenues for research at the intersection of human geography, Asian American studies, and history. Soldiering Through Empire is being taken up and extended by junior scholars in a diversity of ways. My own research—which  tracks the evolution of logistics as a key infrastructure of US imperial rule across the decolonizing Pacific—draws on Soldiering Through Empire to emphasize just how crucial racialized logistics labour was to the outcome of the Vietnam War.

But if Soldiering Through Empire is essential reading for unpacking the simultaneously racialized and classed underpinnings of the Vietnam War, it nonetheless remains predominantly focused on the martial and largely masculine coded work of empire. Man does attend to the Filipina nurses and doctors—such as Operation Brotherhood’s Josefina Pablo—who  excelled at repurposing performances of intimate sociality into techniques of counterinsurgency warfare. But what recedes from Man’s account is the gendered labour that ensured the social and biological reproduction of racialized soldiering bodies under conditions of war and occupation. The US, as Friedman (2013: 4) reminds us, “did not just have empire, but imperialists” whose needs—food, sex, comfort, shelter—were invariably met by racialized workers recruited from amongst local populations (see also Lowe, 2006; Shah, 2011). The Vietnam War was no different. The logistical challenges inherent to occupying South Vietnam forced the US military to outsource the gendered work of cleaning, cooking, and entertaining through formal contracting arrangements. Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other racialized women performed the brunt of this care labour, fulfilling the social reproduction needs for American and local workforces alike. This was a class of worker that encompassed both the unionized maids that were hired on a formal basis to clean bachelor’s quarters, as well as the so-called “mamasans” who worked informally on military bases across the war zone (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: “2 of Phu Loi’s mama-sans” (Villaverde 1969)

The extent to which this militarized domestic work became absolutely crucial to the everyday workings of the US military occupation of South Vietnam adds, I think, a further wrinkle to the story that Man wants to tell about the transnational networks of anti-imperial and decolonial solidarity that were built over the course of the war. The contradictions of a militarized racial capitalism undoubtedly opened up particular imperial spaces to cross-cutting forms of GI and racialized base-worker organizing (see chapter 6). But elsewhere along the supply chain, the complex geographies of military subcontracting ensured that most of the racialized and gendered subjects who carried out the everyday work of US empire-building in occupied South Vietnam generally did so under conditions that made it difficult for them to recognize each other as co-workers with shared interests.

Figure 2. “Hooch maid, ‘Mai’, 4 months haipai” (Villaverde, 1969a)

This was particularly the case for military domestics, whose caring and social reproductive labour for empire was often dismissed by their ostensible co-workers as not real labour at all. Racialized diasporic soldiers – such as the Hawai’i-born Filipinx American medic, Benedicto Kayampat Villaverde, who served in Vietnam as part of the 29th Battalion—were  acutely aware of how women base workers were forced to “sweat for their pay.” As Villaverde documents in the diary he kept during his deployment to Vietnam, at least one maid named Mai—who was heavily pregnant at the time—complained to him directly about being stiffed on her wages, “plead[ing] ‘short’ payment in tears.” (see Figure 2) It is unclear how Villaverde reacted to Mai’s obvious distress. She is never mentioned in his diary again. And yet, their encounter, so thoroughly conditioned by the “violent embraces” of war, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity, seems to me highly suggestive of the difficulties that Asian women workers faced in being recognized as legitimate political subjects in their own right (Kindig, 2016). This, in turn, emphasizes the importance of attending to the ways in which infrastructures of anti-imperial and decolonial solidarity building were unevenly distributed across the highly gendered spaces of imperial supply chains.[1]

What happens, then, when we place these racialized women—and the undervalued labor that they have always performed for empire, for settler colony, and for capital—at the center of our conversations about the Vietnam War? What changes when we accord equal weight to intimacy, reproduction, care, and domestic work as forms of soldiering in their own right? Bringing Soldiering Through Empire into more explicit conversation with all of the interdisciplinary feminist writing on the toxic masculinities that have long animated transpacific militarisms (Attewell and Attewell, 2019; Choy and Wu, 2017; Gonzalez, 2015; Lee, 2007; Khayyat et al., 2018; Kim, 2019; Kindig, 2016; Yoneyama, 2016) can help further the urgent geographical project of locating the the broader struggle for decolonization across the Pacific not only in conventional spaces such as bases, battlefields, or supply chains, but also in the “hooch,” the hotel, the bar, the camptown, and the other gendered geographies of militarized domesticity.

These minor quibbles notwithstanding, what Man ultimately offers with Soldiering Through Empire is an absolutely essential text for diagnosing, understanding, and resisting the ongoing race war that lies at the very heart of the (neo)liberal capitalist project. From this perspective, radical geographers would be remiss not to read Soldiering Through Empire alongside the work of an emerging cohort of junior scholars in ethnic and American studies that are all, in their own ways, sketching out intellectual and political pathways for confronting and defeating the pernicious forces of racial liberalism. My co-contributors to this forum, Richard Nisa and Emily Mitchell-Eaton, do some of this work in their respective reviews of Monica Kim’s The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War and Jinah Kim’s Postcolonial Grief. As Nisa and Mitchell-Eaton both argue, what threads all of our chosen texts together is a shared concern to narrate the story of transpacific imperialism not as a succession of geopolitical economic arrangements and maneuvers, but rather, as an accretion of intersecting spatial “stories-so-far:” this is to say, as a frictional encounter between, in the geographer Doreen Massey’s words, “the history, change, movement, of things themselves.” Such encounters, Andrew Friedman reminds us, “don’t happen because all places are always connected.” Rather, Friedman continues, “these meetings, these stories-so-far, happen because people have a complex agency, they initiate stories, which set off social processes that further make and change the places and the people inside them.” Whether we are talking about the militarized spaces of everyday base life, the carceral spaces of interrogation and detention, or the psychic spaces of grief and mourning, it is clear that the “story-so-far” must serve as the fundamental building block of our critiques of racial liberalism, in both its historical and contemporary forms and its domestic and foreign permutations. And if the recent publication of Naomi Paik’s Rightlessness (2016), Beth Lew-Williams’ The Chinese Must Go, Marisol LeBron’s Policing Life and Death (2019), Stuart Schrader’s Badges Without Borders (2019), Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks (2019), or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit (2019) – to name only a few examples – is any indication, this is a political and intellectual project that promises to exceed the life of this review forum.

Other book reviews from this forum include:
Postcolonial Grief Review by Emily Mitchell-Eaton
The Interrogation Rooms Of The Korean War Review by Richard Nisa


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[1] I develop these arguments in greater detail with Nadine Attewell. See: Attewell and Attewell 2019, 2019a.