Selective empathy prevents us from making connections.
What about the American bombing of Cambodia? Viet Thanh Nguyen argues that asking “What about…?” in this context does not deflect justice but asks, legitimately, about what constitutes a crime and who qualifies as a victim or a perpetrator for The Nation.
The war in Ukraine and the Western reactions to it offer a real-time example of how sympathy and hypocrisy sometimes go hand in hand. Of course Ukrainians deserve sympathy—and much more—for their suffering under Russia’s invasion. But as other populations who are undergoing or have undergone bombardment, occupation, or other forms of domination—often by nations in the West or their allies—have remarked, “What about us?” This raises the issue of when one can reasonably ask this question without being accused of “whataboutism”—the practice of deflecting a demand for justice or care with a self-serving claim about one’s own victimization or that of supposedly equally deserving others.
As someone who came to the United States as a refugee fleeing the Vietnam War, I’ve asked myself “What about…?” many times. When I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which commemorates the more than 58,000 Americans who died in the war, I wonder about the 3 million dead Vietnamese and whether a nation’s memory and moral imagination can be capacious enough to remember not only one’s own dead, but the dead of one’s enemy and allies. The problem is mirrored in Vietnam, where the government built numerous memorials to honor the 1.1 million North Vietnamese war “martyrs” but erased the more than 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers who died.
And what about Laos and Cambodia, where the suffering was also tremendous? To draw attention to Laos and Cambodia in no way diminishes what happened in Vietnam. Rather, not discussing Laos and Cambodia produces only a partial understanding of a war in which North Vietnam sent its troops into both countries while the United States carpet-bombed them—a strategy that arguably destabilized Cambodia enough to help give rise to the Khmer Rouge.
Recently, the United Nations and the Cambodian government conducted trials of former high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, focusing on a handful who were in power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. But what about all the other Khmer Rouge participants who might have had a role in atrocities? The fact that the current prime minister, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge officer might have something to do with the limited scope of the UN inquiry. Or what about the American bombing, which might be a war crime? Asking “What about…?” in this context does not deflect justice, but asks, legitimately, about what constitutes a crime and who qualifies as a victim or a perpetrator.
I was skeptical, then, when Pentagon press secretary John Kirby became emotional talking about war atrocities and Vladimir Putin. “It’s difficult to look at some of the images and imagine that any well-thinking, serious, mature leader would do that,” Kirby said. “I can’t talk to his psychology, but I think we can all speak to his depravity.” I am trying to remember the last time an American military or wartime official became emotional discussing civilian deaths that occurred because of American weaponry or American policy, such as embargoes and sanctions. What makes Putin depraved, versus an American president who orders carpet-bombing or drone strikes that inevitably result in civilian deaths?
The answer is apparently that the monstrous Putin intends to slaughter, but well-meaning Americans have good intentions, lawyers, and… innocence. Graham Greene depicted the consequences of this mix of innocence, naivete, and high explosives in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, in which the idealistic CIA agent Alden Pyle ends up killing dozens of Vietnamese civilians. “It was a pity,” Pyle says, “but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway, they died in the right cause…. You could say they died for democracy.”
Quiet Americans are still with us. After American drone strikes killed hundreds of civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, for example, the Pentagon excused itself from culpability by noting that its troops followed the rules of engagement and the laws of war. This appeal to legality avoids the obvious point: Those who make the laws rarely see themselves as criminals. It is almost impossible to imagine an American president or general being prosecuted at The Hague for war crimes, because the cliché is correct: Might makes right.
Gen. Curtis LeMay, who commanded the American bombers that laid waste to Japanese cities during World War II, put it this way: If the United States had lost the war, the Americans would have been the war criminals. What’s the difference between Putin’s strategy of leveling cities and LeMay’s brand of total war, which he continued in the Korean War? “There are no innocent civilians,” LeMay said. “It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”
LeMay’s rhetoric is impolite and would doubtless be considered politically incorrect, but his sentiment is shared not only by Putin but by quite a few Americans. Consider the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For many Americans, the killing of Japanese civilians was justified because of Japanese military aggression and because the bombings prevented, hypothetically, the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers who would have had to invade Japan. American public outrage forced a 1994 Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay to withdraw even a hint of criticism, or empathy, for Japanese civilians. Given that Ukrainian civilians have been depicted in the media as arming themselves to fight Russian soldiers, Putin may see them exactly as LeMay saw German and Japanese civilians.
For both Putin and many Americans, “our” lives are worth more than “their” lives. For the philosopher Judith Butler, writing about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some lives are “grievable,” particularly those of our troops and our allies, but other lives are not, particularly the ones taken by our military. In the unfortunately classic American example of such a contrast between “ours” and “theirs,” only one US soldier, Lt. William Calley, was convicted in the massacre of 504 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. He ordered the killing of civilians and murdered 22 himself. Yet Calley’s life sentence was reduced to 10 years, and he was pardoned after three and a half years by President Nixon. A considerable portion of the American people sympathized more with the American murderer, whose actions they saw as being induced by the “fog of war,” than with the Vietnamese dead. But if war always produces a fog, and if the American military is constantly at war—because that is what our military is designed for—then the inevitable consequence of American military might is civilian death.
Intentionality and innocence are irrelevant when American policy drives us to accept this inevitability of killing and displacing civilians, most of whom have been nonwhite in the post–World War II era until Ukraine. Even if Putin is intentional in his actions, are the American military-industrial complex and its leaders any less intentional? Is a Russian “special military operation” any less euphemistic or Orwellian than an American “Department of Defense” that somehow finds itself regularly at war? If we Americans are appalled at the Russian killing of children, why don’t we teach to our own children the words of Gen. Jacob H. Smith, who ordered his soldiers to “kill everyone over 10” in the Philippine-American War? Or the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, when US Army troops massacred about 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, two-thirds of whom were women and children?
This is not “whataboutism” intended to render a moral equivalency and abdicate judgment, dismissing Russian atrocities by foregrounding the long history of American ones. That’s what President Trump did when he acknowledged that Putin is a killer but added, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” The same moral shrug of the shoulders is evident from some on the left who defend Putin or hesitate to criticize Xi Jinping—as if condemning them for their atrocities or excesses inevitably endorses American hegemony. The forced choice between a declining American hegemony and Russian and Chinese would-be hegemonists is a false choice between competing nation-states that weaponize, among other things, selective empathy, innocence, and outrage.
After 9/11, an innocent and outraged George W. Bush attempted to enforce selective empathy by declaring, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Even I, as an occasionally satirical novelist, could not imagine the real-world postscript when Bush criticized Putin in a recent speech, describing “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” Bush paused. “I mean, of Ukraine.” He paused again. “Iraq too.” The audience laughed.
Perhaps with time’s passage they could laugh at the absurdity of the American war in Iraq, or at how both the United States and Russia have deployed narratives of rescuing innocents to support their aims. But the history of the US and Europe shows that these narratives are often excuses to enact colonialism and white supremacy, which defined white and European lives as being innocent, priceless, and worth more than the lives of Indigenous, Black, brown, or Asian people. Their lives were either worthless or only useful for their labor, land, or resources.
Even the rescue of (white) Ukrainian refugees by the West is contaminated by Western racism. Nonwhite residents and international students fleeing Ukraine were harassed or detained at the Polish border; meanwhile, Ukrainian refugees arriving at the southern border of the United States are allowed in freely, while brown immigrants—many of them refugees—continue to wait there or face deportation.
Selective empathy and grieving seek to prevent us from making connections and asking “What about…?” questions. The exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words exemplify this. Americans are eager to portray King as an anti-racist humanist committed to making America better; King the radical internationalist is forgotten. His civil rights colleagues tried to discourage him from making his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” encouraging him to stick to the liberation of Black Americans. But King argued that poor Black men were being sent from Georgia and Harlem, “in brutal solidarity” with poor white men, to kill Vietnamese people in a racist war. King could connect Black and Vietnamese experiences because he refused the politics of grievability whereby American lives were worth more than Vietnamese ones.
King also rejected the simplistic Cold War alignment of America with good and communism with evil, condemning the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” When pundits declare that “the Cold War has never ended,” we must remember that such rhetoric centers the West, which has encouraged wars in other countries to protect its own homelands. Faced with an either/or choice between the United States and Russia, us versus them, I say neither/nor. Instead I ask: What about a present and a future without sides, borders, and weapons? And if this seemingly naive question elicits cynical laughter, perhaps we need to ask ourselves on whom the joke is being played?