George W. Bush may indeed be the worst president ever, and Dick Cheney the worst vice-president imaginable but that does not exonerate the American people because Americans have the constitutional right and responsibility to remove miscreants from office.
The Bush-Cheney administration has not just given freedom a hollow ring, they have not just made a mockery of American democracy and human rights in the present, and they have not just put future generations at risk with reckless deficit spending, environmental degradation and the burden of war without end, but they have effectively caused the past to be rewritten as well. America is beginning to understand what it’s like to be on the wrong side of history.
This point was driven home to me when I read that respected American historian Herbert Bix, author of “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” recently pointed out some striking similarities between Tojo’s Japan and Bush-Cheney’s America, particularly the willful disregard of international law, the pursuit of diplomacy by force and failure to account for war criminality.
Let’s consider for the moment that current US policy bears some eerie parallels to that of Tojo’s Japan. Is that a result of having judged militarist Japan unfairly, or has America gotten worse? Is that to say Japan’s criminal past was not as bad as we used to say it was, or is it still every bit as bad, only now, we, the American interlocutors, are debased in such a way that the moral distance is less distant?
Scholars have long been familiar with US lapses in civilized behavior, even in the great and just war carried out by the “greatest generation.” The enemy was understandably viewed with contempt for his actions, but improperly viewed with racist contempt. Indiscriminate killing took untold innocent life, nowhere more vividly than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but with equal cold-blooded consequences in the fire-bombing of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.
For decades now, scholars have been effectively challenging the Truman era myth that the atomic bombing was necessary and saved millions of lives. While reasonable interpretations differ, the twin atomic bombings remain a uniquely uncomfortable and awkward topic for Americans who subscribe to the otherwise generally positive national narrative that starts with the day of infamy, the day on which the peace-loving US was sneakily attacked at Pearl Harbor, and continues with a series of heroic battles for sea, sky and land control across the Pacific, followed by a generally enlightened occupation of Japan’s home islands.
Given the incessant mutual violence that the war extracted from both sides, epitomized by the brutal battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it took decades for ordinary soldiers on both sides to be viewed with sympathetic respect –basically unfree men following orders as required by the tragedy of the time. Last year Clint Eastwood did a remarkably even-handed job of conveying the equivalency of the rank and file on both sides of the Pacific with the twin films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
The US occupation of Japan saw many a samurai’s sword turned into treasured souvenir, if not plowshare. It was none other than US war hero Douglas MacArthur who set the tone for sanitizing and containing Japan’s war criminality at the elite level by letting the Emperor off the hook and selectively exonerating war criminals who were of utility to the US. But if it wasn’t the people, and it wasn’t the penultimate leader, then who takes the blame?
To blame everything on a few bad apples is bad history, incongruent with the complex, interactive way things usually happen, but it allows nagging, difficult-to-resolve issues to be buried or put on the back burner as happened at the Tokyo trials. The entirety of Japan’s war guilt was deftly shifted onto the shoulders of Tojo and a handful of “Class A War Criminals.
Scapegoating, even of the obviously odious, is not fair, but it is expedient because it staves off more damaging and nuanced reckonings. That’s not to say scapegoated Class A war criminals are innocent in the same way their hapless victims were; the criminality of the Class A men is clearly documented. But they were unfairly singled out and unfairly apportioned more of the blame than even their cruel shoulders could bear. They were made caricatures of evil in contrast to the aloof, doddering emperor and the witless soldier in the field.
George W. Bush publicity handlers take note; better to spin your client as a dodderer playing with something less than a full deck than have him be held accountable. In today’s America, as in wartime Japan, there is plenty of blame to be passed around, but no takers. It’s too hurtful to the American ego to even contemplate war criminality. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says impeachment is not an option. The State Department has granted immunity to the criminally negligible including the thugs of Blackwater. Is this apparent benevolence not just another type of denial, that Americans don’t torture, Americans don’t commit crimes of war?
Eventually, narratives that blame no one have to round up a few suspects, and that’s where the bad apples come in. But this sort of selective justice unduly burdens middling war criminals with more historical agency than they ever possessed.
Does making Tojo an example of evil incarnate exonerate Japanese war veterans, among them mean-spirited soldiers who violated the conventions of war by gratuitously killing, raping and torturing non-combatant Chinese? And what about Japanese civilians on the home front, making weapons, churning out propaganda, feeding the beast? Blame it on Tojo?
What about people like Akira Kurosawa who worked uninterrupted with ample state support during a war that wreaked murder and mayhem on Japan’s neighbors under the guise of racial superiority? To hear Kurosawa tell it in his biography, his main beef with the Tojo authorities was over artistic control, not the insane politics of the time.
The bad apple school of thought thrives in national narratives because it aids and abets denial for proud individuals and powerful constituencies.
The problem with Japanese rightists, and America’s problem understanding them, is not so much the seemingly futile attempt polish up the bad apples, the futile attempt to make the class A Criminals shine. It’s not even the rightists’ dubious campaign to re-configure war criminals as honorable Shinto spirits at Yasukuni Shrine. The problem with the rightists is they are bound to honor the penultimate leader at all costs, which short-circuits all other arguments and prevents blame from being fairly apportioned.
The result of this implacable cognitive dissonance is denial. Denial is the worst thing about the Japan’s rightists, not their contrarian desire to challenge the America-centric narrative as articulated in the admittedly clumsy and compromised Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
Americans are starting to learn more about war crimes and denial they they ever dreamed of. The divisive words and belligerent actions of George W. Bush, the contempt for diplomacy, the lack of accountability, the tortured rhetoric and the rhetoric defending torture have caused America’s global prestige to drop to an unprecedented low. America is increasingly seen as the crux of the problem rather than a flawed but otherwise normal country, let alone a beacon of hope.
The horror of an unjust and unnecessary war is forcing Americans to confront the opacity of their own self-image, and in doing so, to seek lessons and parallels than now, in a way not possible even four years ago, make it possible to see Tojo and Japan’s war criminality in slightly more sympathetic way. This is not to exonerate but rather to heave a heavy sigh of understanding, to acknowledge that even the most refined and civilized of nations can be disfigured and disabled by the politics of fear and denial.
America has been diminished to such an extent under the Bush-Cheney “unitary presidency” that a crime like torture — once comfortably seen as beyond the pale because it was only associated with the most despicable of enemies– suddenly resonates in an uncomfortably familiar way.
Just as it should be acknowledged that the people of Japan share a certain culpability in Tokyo’s terrible war, a war that ravaged Asia and eventually Japan itself, Americans have to own up to Iraq. But it can also be said in defense of the average Japanese in the days after Pearl Harbor that there was much they didn’t know and couldn’t talk about; –the media was completely censored and the Kempeitai dealt brutally with domestic opposition.
When the day of reckoning comes for ordinary Americans to assess their culpability in the debacle of Iraq, a hideous and heinous war fought in view of a free media and in the context of relatively unfettered freedom to protest, what will the excuse be?
If Bush is unjust, if he is, as they say, the worst ever, then the free people who support, tolerate and enable him cannot be said to be good.
PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM TEACHES AT DOSHISHA UNIVERSITY IN JAPAN
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