(Im)possible Intimacy in “A Rose in June”
Taiwan’s strategic alignment with the United States paved the road to direct and indirect participation to the Vietnam War. As U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War escalated into a full scale in the mid-1960s, the KMT-led government agreed with the Rest and Recuperation Leave Program in November 25, 1965 in response to America’s increasing pressure on the investment in the entertainment and leisure business sector. From then on, a number of the Rest and Relaxation Centers (R&R) were officially built to cater for U.S. military soldiers and personnel to be stationed on the island. By virtue of the geographical location, a large influx of war-weary American GIs flooded into the island for vacation after a particularly bitter fight in the jungle of Vietnam. Sexualized leisure/entertainment industry flourished under these circumstances. With the foreign soldiers streaming into Taiwan, a wide range of entertainment facilities and services sprawled, surrounding the locales of the R&R centers and military bases throughout Taiwan.
Chen Ying-zhen’s short story,“A Rose in June,” set in this specific historical background, vividly portrays the grand old times when a racialized and sexualized encounter between American GIs and Taiwanese bar girls/sex workers. Its story unravels how the American GIs’ R&R breaks in Taiwan had became a major source of revenue for the Taiwanese government and stimulated significant economic growth while simultaneously forming an intimate U.S.-ROC alliance bond, forged by global anti-Communism. My paper would like to focus on a racialized American GI Barney E. Williams’s military labor as a particular type of necropolitics in Chen’s “A Rose in June.” By probing into Barney’s military labor as another horrendous form of necropolitical labor, I suggest that injury and death at soldering are incurred by outright violence and official benevolence, which are the inherently paradoxical qualities of the national power and technologies of power central to soldiering for the United States. I argue that the benevolent gesture of the military indexes the expedient recruitment of the formerly colonized and racially marginalized Other in the army as “free” African Americans, whereas war-related mental injury closely tied to death as an embodiment of the violent nature of the military and sovereignty, which renders military laboring body a potentially disposable commodity. Barney’s participation in the Vietnam is a resurrection of the fading and yet lingering transpacific memory that Taiwan once indirectly participated in the Vietnam War and benefited from the unexpected bonanza.
“A Rose in June” centers on a short love story between a conscripted black American soldier named Barney E. Williams and a Taiwanese bar girl Emily. After a few rounds of harmless flirtation in a bar, the sparks begin to flash, igniting their sexual attraction. With Barney promoted to a sergeant by order in the bar, the fortuitous encounter turns into a torrid (though brief) inter-ethnic affair thereafter. The moving love affair ends in tragedy when Barney determines to return to the battlefield and tragically dies on the front lines.
In contrast to previous scholarship that has strongly emphasized the crucial role industrial/manufacturing labor played in promoting South Korea’s rapid economic growth, in “Introduction: Proletarianizing Sexuality and Race” Jin-kyung Lee argues that undervalued four working-class labors have occupied a significant part in South Korea’s climb from the margin of global ranking to the international preeminence. In invoking the memory of South Korea’s military participation in the Vietnam War that appears to have receded into the background, Lee reconsiders the unprecedented wealth creation under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee in relation to U.S. neocolonial interest and military involvement in Asia. One of Lee’s analytic focuses is the historical trajectory of anti-communism in South Korea from 1945 onward. Viewing the political alliance forged between the Park regime of South Korea and the United States as a determinant of the initial state of industrialization of the country, Lee probes into several major events, including South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War in support of the American-led war against communist expansion into the Asian-Pacific region and the massive American military presence in South Korea. Lee illuminates that the extraction of maximum surplus value from four seemingly disparate types of “marginal transnational proletarian labors”—soldiering in the Vietnam War, sex work for the domestic clientele, military prostitution for the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Southeast Asian migrant work in contemporary South Korea—have contributed to the society’s financial boom and industrial development (3). Lee identifies the very process of commodifying the working-class labor power at home and overseas as “the ‘proletarianization’ of sexuality and race,” that is, a process in which the categories of social class, gender, sexuality, and race in an unprecedented intersection with other dimensions, including Korean ethnonationality and transnational hierarchy, are constituted, articulated, and transformed in order that the military-authoritarian regime can mobilize and control over laboring bodies of the proletariat, effectively appropriating their (re)productive labor for profit (2).
Lee contextualizes soldiering or military labor in the history of U.S.-South Korea alliance while simultaneously bringing an otherwise obscured connection between South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War and the contemporary economic success into view. Lee not only characterizes both parties’ engagement in the Vietnam War as an act of collusion to profiteer from the catastrophic regional conflicts and turbulence but also sees the significant political and military interest involved. For the nascent South Korea government, in addition to maintaining homeland security and deterring potential threat from its northern archenemy, the military intervention in the Vietnam War is both a quest for establishing its political influence in the Asian-Pacific region and an unexpected opportunity for exploring an economic bonanza that the Park regime enjoyed for decades in the wake. On top of that, promoting American military and political interests in the Asian region is the key means for South Korea’s future transfiguration into a sub-imperial country. In collaborating with the U.S.-led anticommunist military-backed venture in the Vietnam War, the authoritarian government of Park Chung Hee dispatched over three hundred thousand troops and around ten thousand civilian service workers. South Korea exported military labor as human resources to serve U.S. imperialist expansionism. Focusing on South Korean soldiering in the Vietnam War, Lee explores military labor as a dimension of necropolitical labor within a larger necropolitical system where the military recruited male combatants who are regarded as replaceable and expendable subjects of national prosperity and are ready to die for the country. Lee indicates a paradoxical and contradictory nature of military servicemen who are “the agents of the state’s necropolitical power” and “the state’s very potential victims” (6). That is to say, military labor wipes out the enemy in accordance with the order of the sovereign state and yet ceaselessly confronted with severe physical injury and death.
Barney’s seemingly farfetched association of Taiwan’s rural scenery with Vietnam’s farming land points to a separate and yet overlapping history when in the mid-twentieth century Taiwan and South Korea among others Asian countries secured a financial foothold by directly and indirectly supporting the U.S. imperialist interest in Vietnam as they committed to making a military and political anti-communist alignment with the United States. It is in a casual chat with Emily about the striking resemblance between Taiwan and Vietnam’s idyllic landscapes that Barney recollects his traumatic experience on the battlefield. Having had recurring nightmares every night, Barney is sent to a mental hospital immediately. When asked by a young Chinese psychiatrist about the cause of his spiritual distress, he reluctantly admits that Emily’s reference to her growing up in “those small, dark huts” (221) in the countryside of Taiwan and a little Taiwanese village where he saw “[t]he sun there, the rice paddies under the sun, [and] even the lush bamboo thickets” during a brief excursion have “reminded me [Barney] of another village” in Vietnam (222). In Barney’s rendering, the geographical similarity of Vietnam and Taiwan invokes the historical trajectory of anti-communism that South Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of Asian countries share. The displacement of the black American body is predicated upon the history of the political and the military, a trans-Pacific history: the United States presence in Vietnam and in Taiwan, South Korea, and other Asian countries. Behind the path of the displaced black soldier’s trajectory—the dislocation of black body from their homeland and the displacement in war-torn Vietnam, the crossing of national border, the sail into the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan, and a tour in the local place, a village in Taiwan—are intersecting historical forces in the reference to the Cold War, the Vietnamese War and United States military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The seemingly arbitrary overlapping of Vietnamese and Taiwanese rural scenery interpellates the entangled and complex history. It goes beyond the boundary set to distinguish the domestic and the foreign. Barney’s recollection in reference to three countries the U.S., Vietnam, and Taiwan invokes the collective trans-Pacific history many Asian countries have shared. For example, just like South Korean economic takeoff gained from the direct join in the Vietnam War, Taiwan aligned with the United States unexceptionally harvested a range of economic benefits by providing a confluence of labor to proliferate U.S. imperialist ambition. The seemingly arbitrary juxtaposition and the overlapping of the rural scenes of nature resurrects the fading and yet lingering transpacific memory that Taiwan once indirectly participated in the Vietnam War by establishing couples of operational and logistic support bases for the U.S. forces and taking responsibility for the timely provision of arms and supplies to the forces in South Vietnam. By giving a critical rendering of the geographical overlapping, Chen’s story encourages a reading based on an inter-referencing Asian language.
Expanding Paul Virilio’s concepts of industrial and military proletarianization in the modern European context to “the global colonial and (neo)colonial contexts” (3) and following Kathlee Barry’s discussion on “female sexual proletarianization” (4), Lee pays attention to the proletarianization of the four proletarian labors—soldering, sex work, military prostitution, and migrant work. The unrecognized and invisible work of soldiers, sex workers, and migrant workers, whose sexuality, race and ethnicity have been commodified as human resources and labor power, has undergirded South Korea’s economic advancement in relation to American militarism and capitalist interest in Asia. Building upon Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower, taken up by Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe, Lee advances the idea of “necropolitical labor,” which means “the extraction of labor from those ‘condemned’ to death, whereby the ‘fostering’ of life, already premised on their death or the disposability of their lives, is limited to serving the labor demands of the state or empire” (5). That is to say, the (neo)colonial United States and the South Korean regime relegate four kinds of labors—soldiering, sex work, military sex work, and migrant work—to scape heap, or specifically speaking, unevenly distributes precarious existence to the proletarian population whose differential exposure to devaluation, brutality, and death renders the sub-human species expendable commodities and abject labors. Subjected to grinding precarity, the proletarianized people’s life is closely associated to death or possibilities of death. The crucial key to the sovereign state’s extraction surplus value from material labor of the disposable populations lies in the obscured designation of “the possibility death rather than the ultimate event of death itself” (6). Put another way, the necropolitical model of labor premises on the expropriation of material value from the labor of the dispossessed populations, whose life is marked by “a ‘living death,’” or slow death, inflicted by the nation-state or global capital (6). It highlights the making of disposable lives and the transforming of the labor of certain gendered, sexualized, and racialized populations into consumable commodities. Therefore, necropolitical labor, as the most disposable labor, undergirds the state’s exploitation of labor output and extraction of surplus value from the expendable lives (5). Paradoxically, it is the most marginalized groups’ daily experience of the exacerbation of death that enables the regime to keep exploiting their labor while providing them with a minimum of subsistence.
Situated in the history of South Korean servicemen’s labor for the U.S. hostile incursion into Vietnamese territory, Lee’s conceptualization of the condemned-to-death labor of military workers as a ruthless form of necropolitical labor illuminates that Barney’s soldiering which is closely tied to death for the U.S. imperialism and neocolonialism during the Cold War era points to the necropolitical nature of labor by military workers. Barney’s military labor for the evolving U.S. militarism and imperialism as another horrendous form of necropolitical labor first points to a paradoxical nature of the military power. The inherent quality of the national power and technological forces of the United States is violence and benevolence. The benevolent gesture of the military indexes the tactful recruitment of the formerly colonized and racially marginalized Other in the army as “free” African Americans. Barney’s family history— from his enslaved ancestors who “sang, prayed, wept, drank, labored, and then buried [their] bones” in the “old, old South” (215), his great-grandfather who was once “a slave” (214) but enlisted as “a soldier” and “joined General Lee to fight the Yankees” (216) in the Civil War to Barney’s involvement in the Vietnam War which eventually helps him climb up the racial ladder and guarantee individual upward mobility—epitomize the category of free black subjects. The “free” African Americans’ military labor in the army represented by model minority Barney and his ancestors not only proves the liberal narrative of America’s overcoming of slavery but also embodies the Americanization of democracy and justice that the South Vietnamese should emulate. Specifically speaking, the military labor of the normalized model minority—as combatants, servicemen, and medical staff—functions as a necessary intermediary underpins the U.S. imperialist interest and bolster the liberal narrative of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War as a heroic and benevolent act to contain communist expansion.
On the other hand, Barney’s war-related trauma closely tied to death embodies the violent nature of the military and the sovereign power. In a counsel session with a Chinese psychiatrist, Barney eventually acknowledges the deep fear of being killed when giving a detailed account of a life-and-death battle with the enemy: “At that time, the enemy, about four times as many as we, had encircled us from all directions. …We were slaughtered. …I was the only one left alive” (222). According to Lee, from the viewpoint of Foucault and Virilio, the military is the domain where the training embodies the control of the operations of male soldier’s body. The military training is “a system of disciplinary mechanism [which] produces differentiated, specified types of activities and behaviors as various ‘docility-utilities,’ regulating and modulating each movement for efficiency” (11). In other words, the military coercive mechanism focuses on the body as the site of subjugation, regulating it through self-surveillance and self- disciplinary practices, thereby ensuring the production of passive, docile, and yet productive bodies as an instrument available for use. Being a soldier, Barney carries out the will of the United States to halt the communist aggression and terminate the onrush of the enemy in South Vietnam. In this sense, he is the agent of the state necropolitics and yet a potential victim whose military labor runs a high risk “of being slaughtered” by the enemy as well (222). Being a soldier is to be subjected to the neocolonial regime’s absolute necropoltical authority that constantly produces submissive laboring bodies for use on the battlefield. Barney’s fear of death is an indication to the ultimate expression of the sovereign state’s exertion of authority that resides in the absolute control over an individual’s life and death; thus, Barney’s military labor renders him a potentially expendable or disposable commodity.
Another way to read Barney’s mental distress caused by the irrepressible fear of bodily harm and death is to pay attention to the productive dimension of biopower, protecting and enhancing the life quality of a certain population, operated by condemning another to death. As I have discussed the military worker Barney’s commodified laboring body as another type of necropolitical labor, Lee’s characterization of soldiering as a particular kind of proletarian sheds light on military work as an extreme type of service work, since the laborer is frequently required to sacrifice the life if necessary. Lee indicates that workplace violence or emotional trauma incurred at work is central to “a disciplinary mechanism, productive force: the process of getting used to the continuing violence, and yet not getting quite used to it, is the very experience of such traumatic work” (8). To put it otherwise, physical violence and psychological harm that the subject tolerates are self-disciplinary practices undergirding the self-governance mechanism and biopower of the state. While irreversible damage imposed on the body and psychological injury diminish the individual’s well-being over time, in return the military laborer receives sustenance, salary, and honor. On the first night when Barney visited a cellar-like bar, he is promoted by order to sergeant because of “his courage in annihilating the enemy who had long been hiding in a village” in Vietnam (214). Soon Barney is sent to the hospital by the military due to his recurring nightmares every night. His mental illness indicates a paradoxical aspect of soldiering: trauma as a particular form of slow death suggests soldering is a form of labor that brings a severe harm to the body and the psyche; yet, injury as effective bargaining chip provides rewards for the service, procuring the minimum sustenance of life for Barney.
Barney’s bitter recall of his family’s slavery past, the remnants of racism prevailing in the army even after the de jure abolition of racial segregation, and his suffering from mental illness caused by the dreadful guilt over killing people in the Vietnam War manifest Chen’s critique of black slavery, the dehumanization of the racial minorities and reflection upon the nominal multiculturalism and racial pluralism in building up national unity and the American paradigm of racial liberalism, which masks the U.S. imperial ambition, undergirds militaristic expansion, and ideologically justifies the war against the communism. When proposed by Barney, the bar girl Emily refuses euphemistically by revealing her lowly identity: “‘I’m just a bar girl. I can’t be Mrs. Colonel….Even if I wasn’t a bar girl, I’m a bartered bondmaid’” (217). According to Huang, the history of bartered bondmaid, or foster daughter (yangnu), is closely linked to patriarchal custom originated in Chicness agricultural society and adopted in Taiwan during the first half of twentieth century. The custom is to give away or sell young daughters to other families as future “‘small-daughters-in-law’ (simpua) in the guise of adoption” or as “bondmaids (zabogan) or prostitutes” (125). To improve family poverty, one of the variety of strategies for survival and economic gains for impoverished female fosterlings in rural areas was to engage in sexualized leisure/entertainment industry in urban cities.
Lee’s conceptualization of sex work for the domestic clientele and military prostitution for the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as another kind of necropolitical labor, on a par with a consumable, expendable commodity, can be read with along with Emily’s sex work for U.S. clienteles. As Lee demonstrates that prostitution involves long-term exposure to physical and psychological violence and even great risks of death, Neferti Tadiar’s conceptualization of “labor time” helps illuminate sex work’s the emotional/immaterial labor, as an invisibilizing labor, how the gender, racial and sexual categories help naturalize and produce social identity and subjectivity for free exploitation in the capitalist system (8). According to Tadiar, labor time is not restricted to the conventional definition that the worker’s time spent on the production of commodities is appropriated by the capitalist and transformed into surplus value. Rather, “it is her whole bodily being, as a being-for-others, that is appropriated to maintain and enhance the lives of others” (8). Namely, sex worker’s “whole bodily being, as a being-for-others” is usurped to sustain others’ life, transformed into a disposable and expendable commodity. Emily’s gendered body and emotional labor help improve the well-beings of Barney among other American GIs, comforting severe psychological harms as a consequence of participating in the war. The reproductive work that her whole emotional labor embodies is a bright beam of light driving away the thick mass of dark clouds swirling in his mind: “ When I [Barney] was in the hospital, I told my self: for the first time in my life, there is a person who makes me fell important. That person is you, my little sparrow” (224-5). I reject to read Emily and Barney as a passive object of exploitation, since the diagnostics of feminization of labor tend to subscribe the formula of “universalization female victimization” while representing an aggressive heterosexuality and militarized manhood. Yoneyama informs us of the danger of mobilizing “the seemingly universal affective power of condemnation” to the extent that only a perfectly innocent twelve-year-old girl in Okinawa perpetrated by a American soldier can emerge and serves as a severe critique of violent against women (172). Paradoxically, attention to Barmey and Emily’s short love offers a chance to understand the life-time of the racialized military workers and the gendered, sex worker. Tadiar’s “concept of ‘life-time’” building upon the concept of labor time points to where the political agency resides in: “the productivity of social practices of life and experience which appear to lie outside of the formal sites of labor exploitation” (10). Barney and Emily’s brief romantic relationship is not merely an inevitable consequence of the consumption of devalued feminine labor; instead, the feminized labor reproduces itself and creates an unexpected romantic relation with Barney. Their outing to a small Taiwanese village and the joyful time they spend with each other are not within the working space of the cellar-like bar. The special moments of tenderness and closeness created by the short love is a waste of time, for the time spent with each other has no use value for the regime and their relationship is destined to be a devastating tragedy. However, the impossible intimacy indicates not only a critique of the U.S.-led emancipatory movement in the disguise of racialized oppression, military domination, and the Cold War hierarchy of nations based on their economic, scientific, military development, but also a disclosure of Taiwan’s indirect engagement in the Vietnam War in support of the U.S. militarism.
Ch’en, Yinf-chen (Chen, Ying-zhen). “A Rose in June." Trans. Chiu, Shu-Hua and Vivian Hsu. Born of the Same Roots: Stories of Modern Chinese Women. Ed. Hsu, Vivian Ling: Indiana University Press, 1981. 210-26. Print.
Huang, Hans Tao-Ming. Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. Print.
Lee, Jin-kyung. “Introduction: Proletarianizing Sexuality and Race." Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea. University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 1-36. Print.
Tadiar, Neferti. “If Not Mere Metaphor, Sexual Economies Reconsidered." The Scholar and Feminist Online.7.3 (2009): 1-14. Print.
Yoneyama, Lisa. “Sovereignty, Apology, Forgiveness: Revisionisms." Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016. 112-46. Print.
[*] This is the paper for the English Writing Contest in Literary Criticism, Alumni Association of English Department, National Central University
[†] Student no. 107122001, Dept. of English, National Central University.