Merced's Hmong are watching the war in Iraq in a mirror.
The Southeast Asian refugee community draws sharp parallels between themselves and the Iraqis, who would fall victim to even more sectarian violence -- and perhaps a partitioning civil war -- if the U.S. prematurely withdraws its troops from their country.
While some Americans may count the war's toll in ballooning budgets, passing years and dead troops, Hmong residents lock onto the humanitarian disaster unfolding there. They share a kinship with displaced Iraqis. Uncertainty, fear and death -- they're all reminders of war's unintended consequences for the citizens caught in the crossfire.
Though they are half a world and a generation apart, Hmong and Iraqis together know the terror unleashed when America's foreign policy changes, shifted by the whims of politics. For the Hmong, above all, the war is a haunting reminder that the Iraqis' plight -- dying or wounded with nowhere else to go -- reflects their own tortured history.
The Hmong story is worth remembering because, in many ways, history is repeating itself -- as neither tragedy nor farce this time around, but as blowback.
Thirty-two years ago, the Hmong were the refugees forced to forge a new life in a foreign country following America's role in an unpopular war. After communists took control of Laos in 1975, the Hmong fled their homeland because they were marked as enemies by the Laotian government for aiding the CIA.
More than 200,000 Hmong left Laos in the late 1970s and early '80s, just as today millions of Iraqis have abandoned their country to seek refuge from the violence.
Yet differences remain. After intense lobbying, waves of Hmong were allowed to enter America. So far, however, the U.S. government has only let in a few thousand Iraqis this year, prompting sharp criticism from international refugee organizations, which blame the country's post-Sept. 11 fear of Muslims for overriding gratitude and loyalty.
Today, an estimated 9,000 Hmong live in Merced County, according to the Merced Lao Family Community. About a dozen are serving in the Middle East.
Many Hmong residents firmly believe the United States must finish what it started in Iraq, and some have re-registered with the Republican Party to ensure there's not a military U-turn after the election. They are just as divided as anyone else about the justification for America's 2003 invasion, but they believe it's not too late to avoid the mistakes made in Southeast Asia during the 1970s.
History, they solemnly intone, shouldn't be repeated.
"We should learn from the Vietnam War in the southeast," Merced Lao Family Community President Paul Ge Yang asserted through an interpreter. "If the goal is not complete, then we should not withdraw."
It's a 30-year-old civics lesson American leaders seemingly forgot and Hmong recite as their heritage: Government officials start a war to defend or promote an ideology, underestimate the will of warriors defending their homeland and withdraw when the fight drags on. Iraq must be different, Hmong residents say. Peace restored. Democracy rooted. Lives saved.
For now, the global war on terror's conclusion is still pages, maybe even chapters and volumes, away from being recorded. The next plot twist, hanging in the balance of the upcoming presidential election, remains to be written. The book could be a page-for-page replication of the Hmong story or, as they hope, it could be revised.
The Immigrants' Song
While U.S. soldiers tried to keep communism from spreading in Vietnam, Yang shouldered an M-16 rifle for the CIA-backed Royal Lao Army to fight the Marxist ideology in what's been called the Secret War.