World

America’s Vanishing Kingdom

My dad’s American dream was made of aluminum. Not that he would have put it that way. He did not talk much, and never about his dreams, but most days for nearly 25 years he headed off to a factory and turned aluminum and other metals into parts and a paycheck. He started at the Torrington Company, once one of the largest producers of metal bearings in North America and the biggest employer in Torrington, Conn., where we somehow found ourselves in 1980. Half a decade had passed since the fall of Saigon. My dad had been in and out of a re-education camp; we had been in and out of refugee camps. After we did stints in Thailand and Hong Kong, someone, somewheresent us to Torrington. My father died there three decades later, having spent the rest of his life making industrial and military supplies in America’s gun belt.

Aluminum is a “magic metal.” It’s so light and strong that without it, “no fighting is possible, and no war can be carried to a successful conclusion,” proclaimed a 1951 pamphlet. Practically made for war, aluminum lets jets soar, makes tanks lighter, keeps canteens from rusting. During the First and Second World Wars, about 90 percent of U.S. aluminum production went into military uses.

My father spent years working this famously malleable metal. He knew it well — its remarkable versatility, its shine, its feel. I wonder if he also knew that it was a main ingredient in “daisy cutter” bombs — once described as the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon — which were dropped near my mother’s home in central Vietnam to clear out the trees surrounding her commune. The blast of these bombs would leave circles of razed land all over the country, like ghostly flowers from the air. First used in Vietnam, daisy cutters would reappear years later, eviscerating bodies and landscapes in Afghanistan.

America spent the second half of the 20th century more or less continuously ramping up its production of war technologies, expanding its military-industrial ecosystem. The Korean War was a major leap forward, bringing along with it advances in nuclear weapons, but it was the Vietnam War that changed everything. As the economic historian Adam Tooze tells it, we inherited from that conflict not just new weapons, but also more sophisticated doctrines of warfare, and better coordination of air and land forces. We also got a professionalized army and an abiding faith in the necessity of military spending. Since the defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has become nearly impossible to reduce military budgets without stoking outrage over factory closures and international threats.

The United States’ recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted many to ask about our responsibilities to Afghans now that fighting has ceased. Before we’ve even had a chance to answer, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced millions more. As yet another war-induced refugee crisis mounts, military spending continues to grow. Last month, the White House announced that since President Biden took office, $2 billion in military assistance has been committed to Ukraine alone, with some calling for more.

Inside factories across the United States, war never really ends. Will the newly dislocated also be invited in — to build more weapons, abet more wars? To accept this work as an opportunity, even a kind of refuge? To continue the cycle of destroy and rebuild?

When the historian Andrew Friedman characterized the suburbs as a cover for the workings of U.S. imperial power, he was referring to the ways national security institutions like the C.I.A. hid their offices in places like leafy Langley, Va. He could have easily been talking about towns like Torrington, as quiet as they come and no less important in maintaining U.S. power.

An industrial town, Torrington prides itself on being a place that made stuff: bikes, guitars, needles, bearings. Despite its reputation as the home of sleepy suburbs and commuter towns, Connecticut makes lots of stuff, including guns. George Washington established a federal armory in nearby Springfield, Mass. The first official American musket was made there starting in the late 1700s. In the following decades, gun manufacturers like Colt and Smith & Wesson all set up factories nearby, turning this picturesque region into “gun valley.”

By the time it closed in 1968, at the turning point of the Vietnam War, the Springfield armory had produced semiautomatic weapons for use in every war from World War II until its closure. And the Connecticut River Valley had branched out from guns to cars to aircraft engines.

It’s hard to imagine the Stepford Wives state as a ground zero of military-industrial capitalism. But for decades Connecticut has received billions of dollars in Department of Defense contracts annually — in 1990, the state received the eighth-highest amount in the country, and the third in per capita spending, despite its modest size and small population (28th in the country). In towns like Torrington, the twin motors of manufacturing and defense kept the place running. The Torrington Company made the bearings necessary for trucks, tractors, cars and helicopters. A few miles away, Howmet, where my father worked next, made airfoils, rings, disks, forgings and other parts for airplanes, including the infamous F-35 fighter jet. These companies made the parts, in other words, that turned men and machines into fighters. Or as an advertisement from Torrington’s manufacturers during World War II put it: “We are ‘Behind the Men Behind the Guns.’”

My father became one of those men. Not that he would have put it that way. Connecticut’s industries gave my dad a rare opportunity for steady, unionized work, open to him thanks to decades of organizing by activists to integrate factories. Elsewhere, he might have landed where many other Vietnamese refugees found themselves: in low-wage service work — in nail salons, restaurants and the like; or in low-end manufacturing work — in sweatshops and their ilk; or, drawing on their own histories of combat, as police and corrections officers. Instead, he vanished into those factories for 10 hours a day and helped shore up the same military that had set our family adrift.

Connecticut in January is cold. When we first arrived, my lips bled constantly — the frigid temperatures outside and blasting heat inside causing them to split wide open. At the beginning of the 1980s, thousands of Southeast Asian families like ours, fleeing decades of war and occupation, were dropped into small towns like Torrington, where we were purposely isolated from one another in the hope that we would quickly assimilate. With no social network and few resources, our lives split open too. We moved into a small, squat, brick rowhouse, a part of a public housing complex on a street optimistically called Terrace Drive. Our neighbors were poor white and Black Americans, with a few recently arrived Cambodian families thrown in. We did not know much about them, except that some worked at the Torrington Company.

Recently, while looking through the archives at the Torrington Historical Society, I came across copies of The Precisionist, a magazine the Torrington Company put out for its workers. On the cover of one, from March/April 1971, was an image of a helicopter, with the caption, “The CH-47 Chinook — And We’re In It.”

I’m sure my father would have recognized this iconic helicopter. He was a U.S. ally, working with the South Vietnamese Army. He would have known the sound of their twin blades chopping through the air. I wonder what it felt like to stand below as the copter floated above, leaving him behind. I wonder what it meant for him to join some of his neighbors and work for a company that helped make more and more Chinooks, for more and more wars. I wondered what happened to him in those hours when he vanished.

On impulse, I recently drove into the parking lot of Howmet, where my dad held his last and longest job. It was noon and some employees were having lunch outside on a picnic table. I told them my father once worked there, and to my surprise, they all remembered him. They remembered he loved Kung Fu movies, that he always took extra shifts if they became available, that he ate sandwiches every day. They even remembered me, though I had never set eyes on them. Most had worked alongside my dad for over 15 years — “stood right next to him on the line,” a man named Mike said. This might be Mike’s last year at the factory, but he has said that before and he’s still there. “The work is not so bad,” he said. “You get used to it.”

I remember picking up my dad in this lot once, when his car was in the shop. He stood by himself as the other workers streamed out, his shoulders hunched and chest caving inward, making his five-foot frame appear even smaller and more alone. He never spoke about these men. They never came to our house, did not attend his funeral. They disappeared into that world together, but he always came out alone.

The end of the Vietnam War brought families like ours to the United States at the same time that it sent many jobs like the ones Mike and his family took up overseas. Before long, factories shuttered everywhere, even in the traditionally hardy steel belt. Whether making steel or cotton, mill towns across the country have taken on similar shapes, their streets littered with factories holding little more than the broken promise of return.

Though hardly thriving, Torrington was for a time spared this fate. Geographic luck, technical know-how and America’s appetite for militarism kept many of its factories open. For Mike, this meant a lifetime of employment; for my father, a life rebuilt. But the open secret of industrial work is that it’s a good job only by comparison. Relative to the casual and precarious labor that followed its decline, industrial wages are decent, its hours steady, offering families the possibilities of making a living and making a life. It’s also repetitive, exhausting and debilitating. “You know how it is, you work, you’re tired,” Tung, another of the men in the parking lot that day, said, when I asked him if we had ever met at the popular Vietnamese temple nearby. Tung had no time for temple.

Did they ever think about doing anything else? I asked Tung, and later Mike. They said some version of maybe, if things were different. But if you’re born in Torrington, like Mike, it’s probably hard to tell which came first — the factory or the town — so you “just go with the flow, sign up like everyone else,” he told me. If you find yourself in Torrington after having been displaced from central Vietnam to camps in Malaysia and the Philippines, like Tung, it’s maybe hard to see how you can avoid being swept into military-industrial labor, having had so much of your life shaped by U.S. militarism.

So they learned to press metal. My dad went through two wars with these men. The conflicts no doubt helped to keep their machines running, and after years of repeating tasks and passing time, they began to impress themselves upon one another.

It is unlikely my father thought much about what happened when the parts he made became whole. It was so noisy inside the factory; how could anyone think? By the time he retired, my father had lost much of his hearing. He yelled when speaking, because he couldn’t perceive the force of his own voice. When he was not working, he soothed himself with television. He loved Dan Rather. I think he loved us too, but we did not soothe him. We were mouths to feed, bodies to house, minds to educate, and every week he turned his paycheck over to my mother and let her do just that. He would quietly watch the evening news.

Several Torrington Company factory buildings were recently slated to be demolished — in large part a result of a decades-long withdrawal from the town, as the company moved its operations to the Sun Belt and overseas, with its cheaper labor and weaker (or nonexistent) unions. I took a pilgrimage last summer to see these buildings one last time before they disappeared. I used to walk by them every day on my way to middle school. After decades of activity, they felt eerily still, smaller than I remembered. With their crumbling facades, broken windows and rubble-strewn lot, they were the platonic ideal of postindustrial ruin. Around the back of the buildings, beside a pile of bricks and discarded metal, someone had spray-painted the word “Freedom,” with an arrow pointing straight ahead.

That is always the way to freedom, isn’t it? Somewhere ahead. In another place, at a future time. As I watched the coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan on the news, I couldn’t help thinking of my father. Some scenes would have struck him as very familiar: There is the helicopter, here is the rescue, those are the ones left behind. Many have said that Kabul is a replay of Saigon. For years, while Vietnam was under a U.S. embargo, people hungered in the way that many Afghans now hunger. Left with a decimated landscape and devastated economy, families like mine set off on a raft of hope, following our own arrow forward. I imagine some in Afghanistan are contemplating the same.

But Kabul is not really a replay of Saigon — it’s a continuation. And now the United States has become a shrinking kingdom, with far less generous immigration policies, fewer opportunities and little sense of responsibility for the damage it has caused. Freedom, for the more recently displaced, is all that much farther ahead.

Shortly after retiring, my father died of leukemia, a condition affecting many U.S. veterans, some of whom believe it’s caused by their exposure to the chemical mixture Agent Orange, millions of gallons of which rained down on Vietnam. Who knows what caused it in my dad — the war, the work or the recursive loop that feeds one into the other and from which no one emerges unscathed?

Mike worries the protracted pandemic might lead to layoffs at Howmet. He’s unsure about the future of Torrington, where he has lived his whole life. No one wants to lose a haven, even a heartless one, but the warfare state always has its winners and losers. Sometimes, it’s hard to know which one you are.

Thuy Linh Tu is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and the author of two books, most recently “Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam.”

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