The bravest person I’ve ever known went by the nickname Suge Knight. He was as physically imposing as the infamous music producer, but he was calm and bighearted, with a smile as wide as a canyon. A Sudanese Muslim, Suge served as my scout platoon’s interpreter during our deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and he went on every patrol and mission with us, no matter the circumstances. He’d survived multiple roadside bomb attacks, had lost three young children to the bombings of the first Gulf war, and yet still believed in America and what America represented to him and his family.
Though he doubted he’d ever get to our country, he aspired for his children to do so. “Perhaps my grandchildren will go to school with your kids,” he once told me with typical paternal charm. “I’d like that very much.” I felt the same. We all did. He was one of us.
President Trump’s recent executive order on Muslim refugees and immigrants works to ensure that such a dream never comes true. Muslim allies, including interpreters like Suge in Iraq and Afghanistan, have done more for the United States during the past 16 years of war than most Americans will even think of doing their entire lives. Yet we’re abandoning them in their hour of need, wrapping ourselves up in a big, billowing flag of fear and pretending it’s for safety. We’re also abandoning Middle Eastern refugees fleeing the very terrorists we’ve professed to combat, who have seen their homes and lives destroyed and now seek shelter on our shores the same way immigrants have for generations.
This is a national disgrace. The president’s executive order betrays American values and weakens our national security all at once. Our country was founded as a haven. Trump and his administration seem intent on turning it into a medieval fortress.
In November, shortly after the election, I joined a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., to advocate for Muslim refugees and immigrants — Veterans For American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First. There was a gray pall over the city, and a deep sense of uncertainty for what awaited, even in Republican offices. No one knew then what we all know now: Trump really did mean to do what he’d said on the campaign trail.
Time and time again, Democrats and Republicans alike told us told the United States already has in place the best and most thorough refugee and immigrant screening process on the planet. A prominent Republican adviser assured us that Trump’s “extreme vetting” idea was just a ploy to rustle up votes. A national security official suggested that we should be more thankful Congress had saved the Special Immigrant Visa program for interpreters and translators who served with the US military, and maintained that the amount of issued visas was sufficient, despite the overflowing backlog of requests.
A shouting match ensued. Enraged veterans can have our own sort of diplomatic style.
I look back at that week with both pride and despondency. On one hand, to see so many young American veterans standing up for the principles of our nation — often the very same principles that led them to enlist in the military to begin with — was stirring. We tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to convey to politicians the importance of remaining true to our Muslim brothers- and sisters-in-arms. We also tried to remind them of the secondary and tertiary effects of not honoring the bonds forged in combat. On the other hand, bearing witness to how easily dismissed entire lives and formative experiences can be by fellow citizens (let alone elected representatives) was rather dismaying.
Even in our era of yellow-ribbon patriotism and star-spangled grandiosity, veterans’ stories of heroic Muslim translators and brave, dedicated local Iraqis and Afghans were, sometimes, met with hollow stares and empty platitudes in Washington. What we were telling these officials defied their preconceived notions about vets, and Muslims, and how vets of the terror wars were supposed to feel about Muslims. What we were telling them was that American security was dependent on opening our doors to as many vetted refugees and immigrants as possible, not barricading ourselves and saying, “We’re not that America anymore.” What we were telling them was that we knew, more than any other group of Americans, what the hearts and souls of the Middle Eastern people were, and that those hearts and souls were so very much like our own.
Often, too often, that just led to more hollow stares and empty platitudes.
Trump’s executive order, which seeks to “keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” will only embolden those very same people, who already had a near-zero chance of gaining entry to our country to begin with. This order proves too many ISIS and al-Qaeda talking points true about what the United States really is, and will serve as an excellent recruiting tool for those organizations and others.
This executive order isn’t about national security. It’s about fear-mongering for ends we can only guess at.
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. As my friend Phil Klay, winner of the National Book Award and a Marine veteran, pointed out last year, Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill” speech outlined an America “For all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home.”
“I get that people are scared,” Klay continued. “But it’s only during frightening times when you get to find out if your country really deserves to call itself the ‘home of the brave.’”
Donald Trump’s zero-sum worldview and flimsy understanding of the intricacies of modern war and terrorism threaten to undermine our republic. His policy on Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants must be checked and resisted by citizens of all political stripes, legislators of both major parties and the judicial courts.
After 16 years of war, much of my generation of military veterans stands with the Middle Eastern people we sweated, labored and bled with, and sometimes died for. It’s going to be a fight, but it’s one we’re not going to lose. The legacy of America’s past is at stake, as well as the soul of its future.
Matt Gallagher is the author of the novel “Youngblood” and the memoir “Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.” He is an Iraq war veteran and a former US Army captain.