Tuesday 18 February 2003


Burningbird wrote:

Tell me your justifications for war and display for me past examples where good triumphed over evil in a necessary war. For every act of rightous war you bring into the light, I’ll show you a ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity stretching back into the darkness behind it.

Although it is difficult to locate exactly when in prewar Japan the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to the Pacific War began, we could pick the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, given its resonances with what is happening all around us now.

Sponsored by Hiranuma Kiichirō and his followers in the Ministry of Justice, and enacted on 12 May 1925, the Peace Preservation Law was—according to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan—the “central pillar of the system of ideological control established in the prewar period and served as the framework for the creation of special techniques for handling “thought criminals.” (shisōhan).

The main thrust of the law was presented in article 1, which read: “Anyone who has formed an association with the objective of altering the kokutai or the system of private property, and anyone who has joined such an association with full knowledge of its object, shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labor for a term not exceeding ten years.” By the use of the highly enigmatic and emotional term kokutai—the political system, regarded as unique to Japan, embodied in the imperial line and the institutions supporting it—the Hiranuma clique blended politics and ethics in a traditional manner, turning dissent into a moral as well as a legal issue and undermining the liberal interpretation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.

After the Manchurian Incident of 1931 (in which the Kwantung Army fabricated a Chinese attack on a Japanese railway post as a pretext for starting their conquest and pacification of Manchuria), “dissent was tolerated less and officials demanded greater conformity and harmony.” Those judged to be “thought criminals” were subjected to a process of conversion (tenkō), consisting of various forms of physical and psychological coercion.

By 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war commenced, the Japanese were living in a police state no less repressive than that of Nazi Germany. Although one must be careful not to forget that the Japanese militarists enjoyed popular support, particularly in the months following the Navy’s successful attack on Pearl Harbor and the Army’s stunning victories in South East Asia, it is equally true that any dissent was ruthlessly suppressed.

However, the issue for me is not the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to this situation since I’ve already rejected the belief that “foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.” Rather I accept Thomas Sowell’s view that the evils of the world derive from “the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” In other words, folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity will inevitably arise wherever there are people present.

Therefore I cannot agree with William Godwin’s assertion—quoted by Sowell in The Vision of the Anointed—that “the way for a country to avoid war… is to behave with ‘inoffensiveness and neutrality’ towards other countries and to avoid the kind of ‘misunderstanding’ that leads to war.” I’m halfway through reading John Keegan’s A History of Warfare and, unfortunately, nothing I’ve encountered so far gives me cause to reject John Jay’s statement in The Federalist Papers that “nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”

Let me make it clear that I’m not in favor of war—and I agree that it is always preferable to try to minimize or eliminate the folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity that lead to armed conflict—it’s just that I’m not against war under any and all circumstances. And I’m deeply ambivalent about the proposed war against Iraq for exactly the reasons Joseph Duemer articulated yesterday:

If I had any faith that this government was the least bit interested in the long-term welfare of ordinary Americans like me, I could be persuaded that military action was necessary to remove Saddam; unfortunately, perhaps, I cannot assent to be governed by this illegitimate cabal. This might seem to be splitting ethical hairs, picking ethical nits; but in fact it has everything to do with the current political situation: The budget that Bush just sent to Congress contains no line item for rebuilding Afghanistan. Not a farthing, not a pfennig, not a red cent.That’s commitment, that’s follow through, that’s support for the wretched of the earth. These guys really don’t give a flying fuck.

My objection to the coming war has less to do with Saddam than it does with the current resident of the White House & his handlers.

That I’m not implacably opposed to this war, or to war per se, is partly explained by a story told by novelist Charles McCarry in an essay called A Strip of Exposed Film (based on a talk given at the New York Public Library and published in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel). I read McCarry’s essay many years ago, before I became interested in the firebombing of Tokyo. Since then I’ve read dozens of books in English about the B-29 campaign against Japan from every possible perspective: the bombing victims, the B-29 aircrew, the scientists who designed the incendiary bombs… now my focus is on improving my Japanese reading skills to the point where I can access the original Japanese sources. Yet, out of all my reading, McCarry’s story offers a singular and extraordinary perspective.

Charles McCarry had been climbing in the Japan Alps when he and his wife were invited to visit the head man of a village called Nodaira.

His name was Toyomi Yamagishi. The same twenty families had been living in this very remote village since the twelfth century; the first road had been built only thirty years earlier. Before that everything that went into the village and came out of the village went in or came out on the back of a human being.

The visit took place at ten in the morning, “the usual Japanese hour for such affairs. They all sat around the kotatsu, a table with a blanket draped over it and a charcoal brazier underneath, “so that your lower body was warm enough and you warmed your upper body by drinking whiskey and sake at ten in the morning.” After they had eaten and been served green tea, Yamagishi began to speak.

He spoke in a recitative style, somewhat like the narration of a Noh play or a Bunraku puppet theater performance, except that he was speaking modern Japanese so that we could understand what he was saying.

He said he had invited us to his house because he had never met an American and had wanted to ever since World War II. We chatted a little about the history of the village and about the life that he and the other villagers had led before the war. He said it had been a life of ceaseless toil. As a child he had only rarely seen the faces of his parents because they worked every day from dark to dark, leaving the hut before he woke and returning after he was asleep. He had had no children of his own because he wanted to avoid this sadness in his own life. I remarked that I had grown up on a farm and knew how hard that life could be. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you do not know. Human beings are not beasts of burden in America.”

B-29 over Osaka, 01 June 45Yamagishi then told us about his life during the war. He had been drafted in 1944, at the age of forty, and sent to Osaka to guard the emperor’s forest. Then the Americans took Saipan and the B-29s came. “The Americans burned the forest with incendiary bombs, so it was not necessary to guard it any longer,” he said. “I became a firefighter. The Americans would drop incendiary bombs to set the city on fire, and when we went to fight the fires they would wait until we were very busy and then they would come over with other B-29s and drop antipersonnel bombs and kill the firemen. I thought, ‘The Americans are very clever.’ Then, after the whole city had been destroyed, a single B-29 flew over Osaka and dropped not bombs but hundreds of little parachutes. When these parachutes landed we saw that a gift was tied to each—a mirror, a harmonica, a fountain pen. The Japanese people had lost nearly everything in the bombing and they were very glad to have these gifts from the Americans. They ran to get them, and when they touched them they exploded in their hands, blowing off fingers and blinding people. I thought, ‘The Americans are not only clever; they are ruthless. We have lost the war.’”

Bombs falling on OsakaYamagishi said, “Your ships came and shelled us. The bombers kept on also, every day. I was assigned to train people to fight the Americans when they invaded. We showed women and children how to make spears from bamboo. Every Japanese was prepared to die defending the homeland. Then the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The emperor’s voice came over loudspeakers in the streets. He told us we must surrender. No one had ever heard his voice before, and to us it was the voice of God. But our commanding officer said, ‘No! We must kill the Americans! He is no true emperor if he tells the Japanese to surrender.’ Nevertheless we obeyed the emperor, and I came back to this village. All the younger sons of every family—all twenty families—had been killed in the war. Only old men and women were left to do the work. I thought we would starve to death. But as you see, we did not.

“Now,” the old Japanese said, “I will tell you why I invited you here. It is because I have something to say to you, and to all Americans.” He was out of breath and his face was full of color from the whiskey he had drunk, and I thought, “Well, here it comes.”

Yamagishi said, “Thank you. Thank you for defeating Japan. If you Americans had not done so, this village would be as it always was. The militarists would never have let us have democracy. But the Americans built the road; my nephews and nieces have cars and television sets, and they see their children every day. And because they have eaten American things like milk and vegetables and fruit, instead of the millet and pickles we had to eat, they are tall and beautiful like Americans instead of short and homely like me and my wife.” He bowed and said, “Thank you.” I realized, to my surprise, and in spite of everything I believed about the morality of bombing civilians, that the U.S. Air Force had won Yamagishi’s heart and mind by pitilessly destroying Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In one of my novels a political idealist asks Paul Christopher what he believes in. Christopher replies, “I believe in consequences.” In the novel, as in politics and in life itself, you can’t know what the consequences of any act will be until you come to the end.

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Wow. Every now and then, just when I'm thinking weblogs are just another colossal waste of bandwidth, along comes something that takes my breath away, that I never would have encountered otherwise.


Posted by dave rogers on 19 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

awesome post Jonathon. I'm saying that not just because you've shared what I believe to me my opinion, but because you've done it a million times better then I can. Nuanced views are extremely hard to share on the web. Oliver Willis somehow manages to regularly as well.

Posted by Karl on 19 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Of course, if the militarist government of Japan had won the war and provided him the same roads and other goodies, he'd have been just as happy, right?

Posted by language hat on 20 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I doubt it, given that he would still have been subject to the control of the Tokko (the thought police).

Posted by Jonathon on 20 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave is right. This post is breathtaking! Thank you for making the effort to provide it. There's so much war/anti-war bluster on the right and left in this country, it's very refreshing to have your brilliantly nuanced voice as a counterweight.

Posted by Tom Shugart on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave is right. This post is breathtaking! Thank you for making the effort to provide it. There's so much war/anti-war bluster on the right and left in this country, it's very refreshing to have your brilliantly nuanced voice as a counterweight.

Posted by Tom Shugart on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour