August 12, 2015
The grudge and the dream
William Tecumseh Sherman said it best: "War is all hell." But criminal sociopathy aside, why should some soldiers be so eager to usher in Hell on Earth? In the case of Japan during WWII, the common answer is its "martial culture," an answer that is in small parts true and large parts wholly beside the point.
To be sure, it is no less important to ask why these questions are kept more alive in some quarters than in others (answer: as a cynical and hypocritical foreign policy strategy). By contrast, Michael Totten reports that in present-day Vietnam,
anti-Americanism scarcely exists. What we call the Vietnam War, and what they call the American War, casts no shadow--especially not in the South, which fought on the American side, but not even in Hanoi, a city heavily bombed by the United States. The war was just one in a long history of conflicts, and it isn't even the most recent. Perhaps it's not so remarkable that the Vietnamese have moved on. Most Americans don't hold grudges for long, either, after the furies of war have subsided.
Vietnam has also "moved on" from the one million Vietnamese who died during WWII. The same can be said about the Philippines, which now prefers Japan as an ally since China started stomping all over the South China Sea like, well, Imperial Japan a century ago. But these considerations do not extinguish the moral quandaries.
The undeniable brutality visited upon soldier and civilian alike in Nanking, Bataan, Manila, and Burma is all more surprising in light of the actions of men like Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas that allowed 6,000 Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied territories to occupied China via Japan.
Though his superiors reprimanded Sugihara for doing so, when pressed by Berlin, the Japanese government
rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. Towards the end, Nazi representatives pressured the Japanese army to devise a plan to exterminate Shanghai's Jewish population, and this pressure eventually became known to the Jewish community's leadership. However, the Japanese had no intention of further provoking the anger of the Allies, and thus delayed the German request for a time, eventually rejecting it entirely.
Modern Japan had waged two major wars before WWII and the historical record offers little evidence of a martial culture indifferent to the welfare of the defeated. To be sure, there were scattered cases--such as that of the White Tiger Corps--of soldiers killing themselves for no good reason, but not the enemy.
During the Boshin War (1868), casualties on both sides came to less than 10,000. The Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency, and many later joined the government. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, abdicated and lived out the rest of his life in peace. The capital, Edo (Tokyo), surrendered with casualties only in the hundreds.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is chiefly remembered for Admiral Togo's brilliant execution of the naval battles. The equally important but largely forgotten land war around Port Arthur was a sneak preview of WWI, wracking up most of Japan's 47,000 casualties.
(If European generals hadn't learned from Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Kennesaw Mountain what damage the muzzle-loading rifle could inflict, the Russo-Japanese war should have informed any rational observer what happens when infantrymen charge entrenched positions fortified with machine guns.)
In any event, Japan was celebrated in the Western press for waging and winning a "European" war in Asia. In 1906, Admiral Togo (who seriously believed himself to be the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson) was made a Member of the British Order of Merit by King Edward VII.
For perhaps the first and last time, the Japanese army and navy were "on the same page," fighting the same enemy with the same objectives.
And yet it was during the Russo-Japanese war that deep conflicts between Japan's military services began to emerge, the costly land war being overshadowed by the triumphant navy and a pliable press. By 1940, these rivalries would prove hugely detrimental to both to the war effort and the men engaged in the fighting.
The modern Japanese navy dates back to the mid 1800s, when forward-thinking leaders like Katsu Kaishu envisioned Japan's future as a naval power. Although he was a Tokugawa loyalist, among his students were many "founding fathers" of the Meij Restoration. Ever since, the navy continued to attract the "best and the brightest."
The army, by contrast, found itself the poor stepchild to the navy. "Interservice rivalry" doesn't begin to describe the bad blood between the Imperial army and navy. The army had been mauled by Soviet forces in border conflicts during the 1930s and its self-declared war in China was going nowhere, giving the navy the upper hand.
The first scenes of the biopic Admiral Yamamoto (2011) makes this abundantly clear: Yeah, we're going to end up fighting the Americans, but right now the real enemy is the army. And the press. And the government.
When the tables were turned at the Battle of Midway, the Imperial navy took its own sweet time informing the army (the public had to infer what had happened) that it had actually lost, and badly. The navy actually had good reason not to trust the army.
Saigo Takamori, the commanding general of the Boshin War, first quit the government because the politicians wouldn't invade Korea fast enough. After Meiji reforms stripped the samurai of their hereditary privileges, Saigo ended up leading a counterrevolution (the Satsuma Rebellion). He was George Washington and Robert E. Lee in one.
Like Lee, Saigo Takamori emerged a hero despite his wasteful and pointless rebellion (and all the more so since he'd died "heroically" in the process). That set a "standard" for celebrating passion over discipline and created an officer corps that fell into the habit of launching coups and starting wars whenever they felt like it.
The Imperial army sallied into the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, a conflict as brutal to the Japanese army as the Eastern Front was to the Wehrmacht. Attrition was hollowing out the professional officer corps even before Pearl Harbor. The Solomon Islands campaign in 1943 further depleted the army of officers and the navy of pilots.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the kind of cynical movies later made about Vietnam in Hollywood were made about WWII in Japan. The army was blamed for dragging the nation into the conflict in the first place, and returning soldiers--infantrymen, in particular--did not have kind things to say about their commanding officers.
In Embracing Defeat, John Dower describes the kind of letters published in Japanese newspapers by returning veterans after the war.
In May 1946, a veteran wrote a typically anguished letter to the Asahi, one of the country’s leading newspapers, recalling the "hell of starvation" he and his fellow soldiers had endured on a Pacific island and the abuse they suffered at the hands of their officers. Several months later, a report in the Asahi about an abusive officer "lynched" by his men after surrender triggered eighteen reader responses, all but two of which supported the murder and offered their own accounts of brutality and corruption among the officer corps.
What emerges here is a toxic brew of desperation and incompetence, coupled with incoherent and flatly impossible objectives, the same poison that resulted in moral black holes as dissimilar as Andersonville Prison and My Lai.
Add to that a manufactured ideology that had been, in the words of Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, "pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it."
The Meiji Restoration itself was a reinvention of Japanese political history, ostensibly "reinstating" the emperor as the acting head of government (which he hadn't been for 1000 years). But here I'm referring to a far more invidious creation: the crude politics of resentment concocted after the Russo-Japanese war.
The 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth (for which Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize) gave Japan one of the greatest negotiated bounties in history. Japan walked away with "legal" (internationally recognized) possession of the entire East Asian archipelago, from Taiwan all the way up to Kamchatka, with Korea thrown in for good measure.
And yet fervent nationalists and populist rabble-rousers in the press convinced the public that they were owed more. Increasingly violent protests led to the Hibiya riots and the collapse of the government. The conviction that "We was robbed!" became a rallying cry, a grudge nursed for the next three decades.
That grudge was ginned up by the "educated" classes. But what would compel the average infantryman to fight so ferociously against foreigners with whom he had no quarrel? In the September 16, 1942 edition of the Wall Street Journal, former Tokyo correspondent Ray Cromley I think accurately identifies the root motivation.
Cromley's military analysis is mostly wrong (granted, the British had been thoroughly outsmarted at Singapore), though viewed in light of the balance of power in September 1942, understandable. Cromley does capture the essence of the simmering discontent that goes back not only to Portsmouth but to the "Unequal Treaties" of 1858.
The average Japanese sailor and soldier is a simple fellow from the country. He has been filled with propaganda about how Westerners treat Japanese. He believes that Britons and Americans despise him as an inferior. This is his opportunity, his officers tell him, of "showing up" the Westerners. Japanese soldiers are getting "revenge" for the white man's treatment of him as an inferior. Much use is made of the American Oriental Exclusion Law, which the Japanese say insults them.
There's something darkly comedic about people getting enraged by the legislative actions of a foreign country that would never affect them in the slightest (and differed little from the laws in their own country). But such is the nature of nursed resentments and harbored grudges that drive so many conflicts today.
(This article about the introduction of Japanese cuisine to the U.S. points out that as early as the late 1800s, Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves were held in much higher esteem than the Chinese.)
For those who have no plausible recourse against the actual and immediate source of their suffering, foreign devils and the heretics frustrating the divine cause become the most accessible scapegoats, to be driven in the hills and sacrificed, for real and imagined wrongs often suffered generations before.
Once these convictions become fixed in the collective consciousness, further fueled by a sense of mission whose righteousness increases in inverse proportion to its attainability, they are almost impossible to root out. Again, it was Sherman who realized the full extent of the awful implications. After the Battle of Atlanta, he prophesied:
I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.
What Sherman foresaw was a psychic sunk-cost fallacy (an "escalation of commitment") playing out on a massive existential scale.
The Civil War cost the South over a quarter-million dead. The bitter remainders of Sherman's 300,000 kept the war going for another century. The Thirty Years' War cost Western Europe eight million lives, depleting the population of parts of Germany by half. It can be argued that the Thirty Years' War really didn't end until 1989.
By the same token, Japan's 20th century wars in China and the Pacific were the final, dying attempts to realize the expansionist dreams of the 16th century warlord, Oda Nobunaga. As David Goldman vividly describes, throughout history these hopeless wars have inevitably grown more brutal as the dream slipped away.
Either the ideology dies, or the people willing to fight to keep it alive do (by force or arms or by natural causes), in sufficient numbers to render the cause inert. That may literally take the lifetimes of everyone who subscribes to it.