Khizr Khan and the ‘Politics of Mourning’ at Arlington

Khan gravesite

Like many of you, I was moved by Khizr Khan’s passionate response during the final night of the DNC’s national convention to Donald Trump’s early campaign promise to ban all Muslims from this country. His defense of his son, Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 reflects the serves as an important reminder that claims to citizenship and loyalty to this country transcends racial, ethnic, and religious identification.

I was particularly taken by Mr. Khan’s reference to Arlington National Cemetery as I am just about finished reading Micki McElya’s new book, The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery. I highly recommend it. The overall focus of the book provides some much needed context to Mr. Khan’s remarks about his son, his service as a Muslim American, and his burial at Arlington, which I hope comes through in my latest essay at The Daily Beast.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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20 comments… add one
  • bob carey Aug 2, 2016 @ 6:27

    I always found it asinine that cemeteries were segregated based on race. Are hatred and bigotry that strong where they affect a person beyond death?
    The evolution of Arlington, in regards to segregation, is ahead of society in general. The Cemetery was de-segregated well before schools, thanks to Truman. Here was a President who put country before party.
    I too am troubled that both parties used victims of violence as props for their conventions, but unlike Trump, Clinton didn’t respond to her critics in a personnel manner. I suppose he couldn’t help himself.
    His response to the Khans answers another question. How did he manage to go from 1A to 4F in the draft without any physical injury? Was it because he was deemed mentally unstable?

    • TF Smith Aug 2, 2016 @ 17:47

      Having a wealthy Republican father and living in the wealthiest part of Queens in 1968 probably didn’t hurt, either…

      “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate son” is not fiction.


  • David Kent Aug 2, 2016 @ 5:26

    First of all, thank you for your services. The fact of the matter is, whether you saw combat or not isn’t the issue. When you take the oath, and put on that uniform, you’re serving your country. The “drinking beer” comment is out of line Patrick. Those 242 marines who died in Lebanon in 1983 wouldn’t agree with you. They saw no combat, but they’re still dead. The problem is, that much of today’s electorate are just plain stupid. I’m sure that it was news to many that there were any Muslims in the military at all. If you think I’m wrong, look back at how many Americans didn’t know that Hawaii was a state at the beginning of the birth certificate issue of president Obama. That blew my mind at the time, and still does. Kevin’s correct when he says that it wouldn’t be an issue if nothing else had been said post conventions. But trump made it an issue by that gift that keeps on giving……..Twitter. Kevin, I would of totally agreed with your statement that Mr Kahn should stop giving interviews, had trump kept his mouth shut. But in my opinion, when he sunk so low as to attack his wife, all bets were off. He has the right to defend her, and should. I sure as hell would.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 1, 2016 @ 15:15

    The Khan’s narrative is an old one. Its the idea that military service, and heroic sacrifice is the antidote to racism. The 54th Mass, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters, the Tuskegee Airmen all make the same point as Howell Cobb did: if “they”(however defined) make good soldiers, they can’t be slaves. Frederick Douglass famous quote, if a black man puts on the uniform, than no one can deny that he is a man and a citizens.
    The Khans say the same to those who think that people like “them” are automatically the enemy to be fear and or despised.

    If American history has demonstrated anything, is that white Americans in fact usually don’t accept that argument. The USCT were thanked with Jim Crow, the black and immigrant soldiers of WWI got Immigration Restriction and the second Klan.
    Will attacking an American army officer killed in battle, and his grieving parents turn out to be good politics for the Trump campaign? I was about to write that time will tell. But in fact, the American people will do the telling.

    • TF Smith Aug 1, 2016 @ 21:48

      Well said, Matt.

    • Kristoffer Aug 2, 2016 @ 8:15

      Good point, though I would also point out that the black soldiers of WWII got the Armed Forces desegregated. They also got the beginnings of societal change.

    • Msb Aug 3, 2016 @ 14:21

      Well said, Matt.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 1, 2016 @ 14:49

    There is no doubt to either of your points. Trump is equally guilty of using veterans or their families as props. It is an tactic used by both parties that I find disgusting at many levels and I admit that I am torn over the families that must be so hurt as to need a national stage to vent their grief in such a way.

    As for Arlington’s remarkable history, that is indeed a topic worthy of the many books done and more in the future. Indeed, Arlington might well serve as a microcosm of race relations in the US, an emotional national stage that displays the hard progress made over the years.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2016 @ 15:17

      My hope is that the Khans will refrain from further interviews. It is hard not to think that the media is also manipulating them for their own purposes.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 1, 2016 @ 11:12

    As a combat veteran of the very war fellow soldier Humayun Khan was killed in, I must say I hate this debate. I sad for his parents feeling that they needed to use a soldier and a son who fought and died for nothing less than the men and women in his unit as a talking point, I am angry at Trump for his pig-headed reply, and I am angry at Clinton for using the good captain as a political prop while her staff continues to beat his memory like a drum to score hollow points.

    Captain Khan did not die for Islam or to prove Muslims are “good people.” He died doing his duty. And therein rests the heart of this debate. It is not about racism, bigotry or exclusion. It is only about doing one’s duty. For every lollypop story about a fine and peaceful Muslim I can cite a story about a murderous, craven fanatic of radical Islam. But, the real magic here is that anyone can pull the words Islam and Muslim and add in any race, creed, and/or color and get the exact same thing. For every good white guy there is an evil one. For every peaceful American Indian there is a child-killing savage, for every successful black person there is a welfare recipient. And on and on and on it goes.

    Those who do their duty to country, community, and even family deserve our praise. The soldier was brave. There is no more story than that. There is no more race, or religion, or sex, or anything to that story…unless we want it to be there, unless we go out looking for it and there I promise, you will find all the doom and dismay you desire.

    Captain Humayun Khan was an Ordnance Officer. He was killed, in 2004, during the early stages of what we now call the IED campaign. I did not know the captain, but I do know that his efforts and experience, like so many others, probably saved my life when an IED eventually caught me. In short, he did his duty and that is his story. None better can be told.

    And yes, Kevin, I agree that Trump should go to Arlington. He should stand there quietly and calmly and note that the grave stones are all the same and beneath them rests the mingled clay that makes this country great.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2016 @ 11:19

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for adding your voice to this subject. I find this debate to be troubling as well.

      I am angry at Trump for his pig-headed reply, and I am angry at Clinton for using the good captain as a political prop while her staff continues to beat his memory like a drum to score hollow points.

      As you know the Republicans also included families of those who have been killed in combat and as a result of other forms of violence. I suspect that if Trump had kept his mouth shut you wouldn’t be hearing anything from the Clinton campaign. They would be busy responding to the other nutty things that have come out of his mouth over the past few days.

      He should stand there quietly and calmly and note that the grave stones are all the same and beneath them rests the mingled clay that makes this country great.

      I agree with the thrust of this comment, but the point of my post was to suggest that the history of Arlington National Cemetery does betray a more complicated story of racial and ethnic division in this country.

    • TF Smith Aug 1, 2016 @ 21:47

      Jennings, you are a piece of work.

      I spent eight years in uniform, serving alongside Americans of every faith and no faith, native-born and foreign national, and in a time and place when war would have literally meant the end of the world. Yet we stood up and shouldered the burden and didn’t turn into children scared of the dark, like your chosen one.

      Your chosen candidate, in fact, bizarrely enough of the party of Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, McKinley, TR, and Eisenhower, and yet a five-time draft dodger and the son and grandson of men who managed to avoid service in both world wars despite their generational cohort, is a lying sociopath who would impose a religious test on emigrants because of his cynical desire to turn crackers into his constituency.

      When two American citizens – Gold Star parents – stand up to challenge him on this bigoted insanity, either you stand with them or you don’t.

      You don’t, which speaks volumes about you.

      • Patrick Jennings Aug 2, 2016 @ 3:17

        On the civilian side – Until you grasp some of the fundamentals of reading comprehension I recommend you keep your fingers away from the keyboard. Nothing in my message is supporting of either candidate and I find them both wrong for mining the captain’s death for political points. Moreover, I don’t care one way or the other for your rabid opinion of Mr. Trump nor do I concern myself with his lack of military service. I will dare say that roughly 75% of Congress is composed of draft dodgers as are about 15 million other American’s who contribute daily to our way of life. I will, of course, welcome your discourse on Mrs. Clinton’s military service, or that of her husband. Finally, I have voted in every election since I was old enough to do so and I don’t once recall seeing you in the voting booth with me, so your vision as to whom my chosen candidate might be is as limited as your reading ability.

        On the military side – You spent eight years in uniform (maybe some of it in Germany drinking beer with your buddies and taking weekend passes) during the Cold War. Must have been rough. I spent four years in combat split between Iraq and Afghanistan, and probably another one or two in harsh places doing peace-keeping that would have made your “Be All You Can Be” types weep. I didn’t serve with a single white person, black person, Asian person, or any other type of person except fellow Soldiers. I guess we could call them “green.” So, don’t presume to lecture me on Gold Star families. I have buried many a friend and spent more time telling their loved ones about their final days than you would care to imagine.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2016 @ 3:37

          Well said, Patrick.

        • TFSmith Aug 2, 2016 @ 11:33

          Germany? Nope, try again. Other side of the planet, kid, including Bush the Elder’s trip to the Sandbox. Nice try, though.

          When your entire post comes down to whataboutism (as in, “the DNC should not have given Mr. Khan a chance to speak his mind,” which is what your original defense of Trump comes down to) then it’s real simple – whose side are you on?

          A demagogue who screams about religious tests for immigrants – not something this country has ever embraced – in order to attract the cracker vote, or an American family that has made the ultimate sacrifice asking why the man you’re defending with such vehemence is such a piece of work?

          And I realize those of us who never experienced the joys of Selective Service are too young to remember, but there was no draft for women in 1965-73, or even today. Little different situation for Miss Rodham back in the day than for Mr. Trump, but given your expressed “they’re both just as bad” whine, not hard to see you’d try and dance around that minor reality. Nice try at conflating the wife with the husband, as well; typical.

          Brooks Simpson has a very much on-point post about Johnson trying the same “you’ll never be good enough, know your place” kind of crap with the USCTs in 1865; perhaps you should read it and come back to argue why the Khans should know theirs … Seems to be a default argument with the candidate you’ve chosen to defend, after all…

          Women should know their place, the disabled should know their place, journalists should know their place, veterans should know their place, the vendors he stiffed over the years should know theirs, the renters he denied because of their race should know theirs, etc.

          Nice team captain you’ve picked there, son. Really impressive, in fact.

          Semper Fi

          • Shoshana Bee Aug 2, 2016 @ 19:26

            The heated words exchanged between two veterans sadden me. Fractures within fractures. As someone assigned miles from combat, I knew my place. I care to not have my assignment be depicted as no more nor less important than it was. It was my duty. I understand where Mr. Jennings is coming from: The Khans have become a pundit’s hockey puck and the loss of their son quickly being reduced to cliché. I truly do not believe that this was neither their intention, nor their fault. I also do not feel that to object to this appropriation of a highly personal experience of loss immediately casts a ballot for the opposing candidate. Apart from those whose duty took them into combat, those of us who guzzled too much Turkish coffee, occasionally had our moments, too, such as when I tried to hide my double pneumonia, because I did not want to let my mates down. Almost died. We were all part of the same team, and we needed each other to make the machine work efficiently. We should not be tearing at each other, as we know how precious and short life is (12 years at the mortuary convinced me of that)

          • Patrick Jennings Aug 3, 2016 @ 3:27

            TF, I have nothing to say about the terrible hate that fills your heart, I hope it gets better with age but I fear the issue is maturity.

            I do, however, have more to say about your stunningly failed reading comprehension. In short, I challenge you to find where I expressly support either candidate. You won’t.

            And once again, you have assumed a place with me in the voting booth that you never once occupied. I hope that in the angry, vengeful America you envision we are still allowed the privacy of the vote.

            Semper Fi back at you.
            USMC 1980 – 1985
            USN 1986 – 1991
            USARNG 1995 -2010

            • TFSmith Aug 3, 2016 @ 23:32

              The “terrible hate that fills my heart”? 8)

              Christ, project much?

              You posted the following:

              “…. I sad for his parents feeling that they needed to use a soldier and a son who fought and died for nothing less than the men and women in his unit as a talking point, I am angry at Trump for his pig-headed reply, and I am angry at Clinton for using the good captain as a political prop while her staff continues to beat his memory like a drum to score hollow points.”

              Who the hell are you to tell the Khans what they can speak out about? Or that the Democrats are “using” Capt. Khan as a “political prop” when the reality is plain the Khan family’s story is an American story, with antecedents going back centuries (as Mr. McKeon points out) that deserves to be told.

              Given how long it took the Corps to even get to Montford Point (1942), much less follow Executive Order 9981 (1951), pardon me if I expect a little more than bilge along the lines of “they’re all bad.”

    • Shoshana Bee Aug 2, 2016 @ 10:46

      I admit that I avoided this thread, because I just did not want to encounter the possibility of noble and romantic notions of serving in the military (relieved to see none.). Part of the media does a fine job on this, while the other half vilifies. Neither is correct. I am always afraid that I will outed for having entirely ignoble reasons for enlisting, and my selfish motivations will surely bust a lot of myths. In the end, my military existence relied entirely on those I immediately served with – the folks who faithfully delivered preciously horrible coffee when I became too sick to properly function in my duties. Whilst I am thoroughly convinced that the Khan family is perfectly sincere in every word they speak, I cannot say that I am convinced the same is true for those who have placed this family in the spotlight (crosshairs).
      Others have already stated that there is nothing new to this political use of the emotional powerhouse of military life and loss, but it still does not make it right.

      I appreciate that the post is really about the dark, sad, legacy of racial division in this country, which again, serves as a reminder that none of this is new territory. As a further aside, I appreciate the encapsulated history presented in this post, as much of it I was unaware of.

      • James Simcoe Aug 2, 2016 @ 12:40

        I respect your honesty, Shoshana. You know, my dad was a WW II vet. (N.Africa and Italy, and was invalided out due to combat fatigue) He LOVED the old Jackie Gleason comedy bit about too strong coffee, “…WWWOOOWWW!”
        It seems to me that 1865 to 2015 was one big ‘Moment’; the writers and political persons of the post Civil War period understood this. Our nation seems poised to finally integrate the Truths and Myths and go beyond. Interesting that some are Millennials, some Iraq and Afghan vets, some Black, some recent immigrants, some Latinos with deep roots to the hemisphere; yet we all seem to be feeling an opportunity to become something bigger, qualitatively. I too am grateful for Mr. Levin’s forum with its equal emphasis on past and present. I have been digging in various sources for material for my local public talk and opened again my old copy of poetry by Robinson Jeffers, a favorite of my wife’s too. He wrote of the outbreak of WWII and so much more. I recommend him highly.

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