Saturday, May 16, 2009

Context matters

From an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:
On Sept. 12, 2001, it is highly doubtful that any member of Congress was worried that our government would be too harsh in its treatment of terrorists. When countries are threatened, basic survival trumps civil liberties not just for enemy combatants but for citizens as well. Our priorities change.

We saw that with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Days before Japanese warplanes destroyed the U.S. Pacific fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, 80% of Americans did not want to go to war against either Germany or Japan. The day after the attacks, those numbers reversed themselves. Over the next four years, the United States did things it would never do in normal times -- Japanese-Americans were placed in prison camps, press reports and the mail of American soldiers were censored by the military, and the FBI tapped phones without court orders.

In peacetime, a country can deliberate the balance of its security and civil liberties. It can even apologize for actions that were clearly wrong. When a nation is in peril, however, a forceful defense takes priority.

Following Pearl Harbor, this country asked its military leaders to commit acts that, when taken out of context, can be viewed as war crimes today. Between March and August of 1945, 38-year-old Gen. Curtis LeMay ordered the deaths of more civilians than any other man in U.S. history. No one else comes close, not William Tecumseh Sherman, not George S. Patton -- no one.

On the night of March 9, 1945, LeMay sent 346 huge B-29 bombers loaded with napalm from the Mariana Islands (Guam, Saipan and Tinian) to Tokyo. The first planes dropped their incendiaries on the front and back of the target area -- like lighting up both ends of a football field at night. The rest of the planes filled in the middle. More than 16 square miles of Japan's capital city were gutted, two million people were left homeless, and 100,000 were dead.

It didn't end there. Washington gave LeMay the green light as his bombers burned 64 more cities. He used the World Almanac and just went down the list by population. Altogether, an estimated 350,000 people lost their lives. Anyone hearing this for the first time in 2009 would be hard pressed to defend such an action.

Yet at the time, newspapers across America heralded the event as a tremendous achievement -- not unlike the moon landing 24 years later. The New York Times ran the story of the bombings on its front page for 10 straight days. Its lead editorial on March 12, 1945, warned the Japanese that if they didn't give up more was on the way. The New Yorker magazine ran a glowing three part series on LeMay. Time magazine put him on its cover.

Today Japan, which has been one of the most successful and responsible nations on earth for the past 64 years, doesn't seem like it should ever have received such punishment. Without understanding the context, some people would argue that the U.S. was just a wild, racist nation bent on payback after Pearl Harbor.

What many Americans today do not know was that for almost 10 years prior to LeMay's bombing, Japan was on a genocidal tear throughout Asia. There was a second Holocaust in World War II that most Americans are unaware of -- one that killed upwards of 17 million Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and other Asians. ...

Read the rest here.

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