Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Facing up to history -- for our own safety

I read this story yesterday on Yahoo! News, how the Japanese are, once again, looking to rewrite history, this time to avoid facing up to the fact that the Japanese military ordered civilians on Okinawa to kill themselves in the face of invading American forces. Not only did they order the suicides, they prepared the populace to embrace suicide, over the course of a long propaganda campaign, promising that the Americans would subject the civilian population of Okinawa to unspeakable savagery -- basically the kind of things that the Japanese had done in China.

Which they don't admit either.

Reading this, I was reminded of a recent column by Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times:
You want to feel good about [America]? Talk about slavery.

How, you may ask, can this shameful peak of human cruelty, whose lingering bad effects are felt to this day, be a source of pride to the nation that tolerated its existence for nearly a century?

Because at least we recognize it. We are aware of it; we teach about slavery in schools. We can talk about it. And if we don't face facts as much as we should, then at least debating them isn't against the law.
Steinberg was writing about the Turkish attitude toward -- and legislation concerning -- discussion of the deaths of hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, of Armenians in 1915 -- but I believe it applies in this context as well.

The horrors of the Battle of Okinawa helped persuade American authorities that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb: Tens of thousands would be killed by the bomb. But millions on both sides would have died in an invasion of the Home Islands -- if the Japanese military insisted on fighting to the death as it had throughout the island campaign and at Okinawa. And if their own military ordered, forced or frightened Japanese civilians into mass suicide -- as at Okinawa. Whitewash what the Japanese military did to their own people at Okinawa and future generations will not understand the desperation that led America to use the ultimate weapon.

That might make the world less safe from nuclear war, not more safe: Take away the agonizing balancing that American planners had to perform in deciding to use the Bomb and you make it merely an exercise in power. As in 'we have it, let's use it.'

Is that the false precedent that we want to transmit to military strategists in North Korean or Iran or Who-Knows-Where?

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Most readers will recognize that slavery lasted on this continent for more than a century... but Steinberg went on to explain in his column that he used "less than a century" deliberately, since the United States of America did not come into existence until 1776.

8 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

There are always people who are prepared to rewrite history to say something did or didn't happen.

Jeni said...

I agree fully with the theory that at least we do admit to having allowed, excused too, slavery for many, many years here. Unfortunately, the biases, prejudice, bigotry that accompanies slavery still has not been eradicated from our society. Re-writing history just because a group doesn't like something that happened only increases, rather than decreasing the problems.

Dave said...

Well written. On a less horrific level, should we have engaged in more soul searching before our latest adventure in Iraq? Will our arguable "we have it, let's use it" involvement also encourage Iran, North Korea and who knows who else, to use what they may, or soon may, have?

Shelby said...

. . . and then there's the Native Americans. I think we as a nation are more apt to talk about 'our part' in slavery much more than the the travesty of what 'we' did and are still doing to the American Indian. Troublesome times indeed.

msb said...

Bet the history rewrite is happening even before it happens. As in propaganda? The truth seems to be a slippery concept.

SQT said...

I went to school in Japan and visited Hiroshima while I was there. They have what they call the "peace park" memorial there and it is really a sight to see. What struck me though is that there is no mention of Pearl Harbor, or any other inciting incidents, in all the records. There is actual footage of the Enola Gay on its flight to drop the bomb (which we no doubt supplied) but no mention of action taken by the Japanese during the war.

I went back to school and asked the Japanese students if they knew about Pearl Harbor and not one knew what I was talking about. Amazing.

katherine. said...

This is an excellent post.

I remember when my Mama who was raised in the midwest...college educated...learned about the Japanese and Italian internment during WW2 for the first time. I was in sixth grade and had learned of it in school...and she had never been taught. Our neighbor, one of my Mama's closest friends, had been in a camp and was talking about it.

Watching and listening to my Mama hear about those experiences for the first time was a real eye opener for me as a child.

Horatio Pepperwell said...

your writing style is excellent a very natural flow of words. is it really right or even productive to focus on what some countries don't own up to the atrocities commited by their past governments? its easy for us white americans to say "oh look, we acknowledge slavery, we're over it" etc. but like someone else said, native americans? american- funded regime change in congo in the 50's, leading to mass murders of forest people? we're all guilty- the japanese and the germans and the russians, and the americans. we've all turned a blind eye in the past, and we still do it. also, there is quite a bit of evidence that the emperor was looking for a way out, just some little concession from truman to retain a little honor- eisenhower thought so. but truman elected to stick with total unconditional surrender, which of course the japanese generals would not allow. we could have avoided the bomb and the home invasion by letting japan keep some tiny form of ceremonial military institution- but we were too pissed for that. sorry about the lengthiness.
hp