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Posts Tagged ‘Okinawa’

Okinawa: Why They Chose Death

Jonathan Mirsky

The New York Review of Books    October 23, 2014

A Japanese naval lieutenant surrounded by American soldiers in Okinawa, July 14, 1945. Keystone/Getty Images

Would the Japanese have surrendered without Hiroshima? For decades the question has lingered, as historians have challenged one of the most important American rationales for dropping the bomb. While we can never know what the Japanese would have done in other circumstances, the question comes freshly into view in Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa, a remarkable new book based on Japanese eyewitness testimony from one of the bloodiest land battles of the war.

Two things jump out about this big book. One is that it is unusual to read extensive personal accounts of civilians on the enemy side who suffered in large numbers during World War II. The second is that, at least to judge by the inhabitants of Okinawa, many Japanese civilians, together with their emperor, were unwilling to surrender.

The huge US offensive in Okinawa—the only part of Japan where US forces fought on the ground—lasted eighty-two days in the spring of 1945 and cost about as many lives altogether as the atom bombs themselves. The US invading force of 1,050 ships carrying 548,000 men vastly outnumbered the 110,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island. But the Japanese held out with remarkable tenacity, and 77,000 Japanese soldiers and over 140,000 civilians would be killed before the US could declare victory. On the US side, more than 14,000 troops lost their lives, including 4,900 sailors felled by Japanese kamikaze—“divine wind”—suicide pilots, of which there were 3,050. As Hanson W. Baldwin, the New York Times war correspondent, described it, “Never before had there been, probably never again will there be, such a vicious sprawling struggle.”

I was thirteen at the time and recall my feelings of pride that American soldiers were yet again beating the fiendish, barely human Japanese. This was bolstered by the press and by super-patriotic films like Wake Island, in which Americans lost but only temporarily. Later, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new belief took hold among liberal and leftist Americans: that the reasons given for dropping the bombs—among them, above all, that the Japanese would never surrender unless pulverized—were self-serving and false. Because of this new book I am thinking again.

The survivors’ accounts contained in Descent into Hell were originally gathered in the early 1980s by the Okinawan newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo, in which reporters discovered that these civilian wartime memories had been repressed in postwar Japan. Nearly thirty years later, the translator and Okinawan specialist Mark Ealey, together with Alastair McLauchlan, secured permission from the newspaper to use these testimonies as the basis of a new, English-language account of the battle from the eyes of Japanese civilians. In assembling this nearly five-hundred-page book, the translators have incorporated the testimony into a chapter-by-chapter account of the battle that includes their own extensive commentary and analysis, as well as notes on specific themes, maps, and a timeline of the battle itself. In an introductory essay, the former governor of Okinawa, Ota Masahide, writes that, “The Battle of Okinawa was distinct from all other battles in the Pacific War in that it was fought…with the majority of the resident civilian population still present.” According to Ota, “The horrific death toll and the fanatical resistance by the Japanese soldiers affected the thinking of the American leaders and was a significant factor leading to the decision to drop atomic bombs on mainland Japan.”

Out of a population on the island of 450,000, one third were killed and many more wounded. Many of those killed were young teenagers, totally untrained but keen to scout, carry ammunition, and to nurse. Others died in caves where they had sought refuge. Entire families were wiped out—whether by American shelling and bombing, by committing suicide, or by Japanese soldiers who feared they might surrender or were spies. The testimonies of those young people and their parents are detailed, unrancorous, and poignant.

“We wanted to be of use to the country as quickly as we could,” the sole survivor of a signal corps unit made up of teenage boys recalls. “We were consumed by a burning desire to offer our lives in defense of the nation. We had no fear of death whatsoever.” Another who was a boy at the time similarly describes the so-called “infiltration raids” in which he and his friends were sent to disrupt enemy lines: “Classmates dropped in front of my eyes, one after the other, launching those raids where death was the only possible outcome. They went on those raids simply to get killed. That’s how war is.” Some felt regret about their own survival. “I was envious of my school friends who died,” one Okinawan recalls. “I thought that it was just a matter of time before my number was up too….I really thought that it would be easier to die sooner than later.”

Another student remembers how those already sent to fight would write letters to friends saying they would “meet at the Yasukuni Shrine” on the mainland where people who died for the emperor were commemorated. “We always felt that, however grim things seemed, there was no way that our divine nation would lose the war….That’s because we were all more than happy to die for our country.”

Civilians returning from hiding places in the hills following the American invasion of Okinawa, April 17, 1945. Fox Photos/Getty Images

 

In some ways, the experience of the war seems to have been even more traumatic for young girls, who were enlisted as nurses to care for the wounded or even to deal with dead bodies in the most horrific circumstances. Many were given hand grenades by the military or phials of potassium cyanide by medical staff so they could take their own lives rather than risk capture. One, who dealt with the dead, says, “There were so many bodies out there that we weren’t able to carry out a proper burial. There were blowflies all over the swollen, bluish-black corpses. They no longer looked like human beings. But the thing that frightened me most was myself. It was as though I’d become some sort of hard-hearted person who couldn’t cry even when I saw a dead body. I felt that I’d turned into a cold human being.”

All we hoped for, one schoolgirl nurse says, was to “die in an appropriate manner.” Another recalls how ten of her classmates who were about to be captured by the Americans decided to commit group suicide with their teacher. “When I went over to look, I could see Mr. Taira lying on the ground surrounded by the girls, all lying limp and inert around him. Pieces of flesh were all around. The face of one of the third year students was just covered in blood. I remember that I was so shocked that it didn’t seem to register.”

So pervasive was the cult of self-sacrifice that several women say they had to be reminded that survival was important too: “Death is not the only way to serve your country,” one unit commander told the schoolgirl nurses under his watch. “I’ve got children your age and think of all of you as my children, so I can’t lead you to your deaths. You have been through an experience that children from other prefectures could not even begin to imagine.”

Throughout the terrific shelling and bombing of the island and gassing of the caves where civilians had taken refuge, the Americans called loudly on the Japanese to surrender. It was apparent from the outset that the US forces were overwhelmingly superior; survivors recall that enemy pilots’ faces could be seen. Paradoxically, for those that did get captured, the dreaded Americans seem to have taken care of their prisoners—military and civilian—relatively well. “I hated and feared those Americans,” one survivor recalls, “but they treated me with great care and kindness, while my classmates, my teachers, left me behind.”

Bolstered by Ealey and McLauchlan’s extensive research, Descent into Hell records that from the late nineteenth century, Japanese education became highly nationalistic and militarized. On Okinawa, students were commanded to show total devotion to the emperor and therefore to the nation, and during the war most Okinawans obeyed military orders as though they had been given by the emperor himself. Any form of coercive message from the Imperial Japanese Army, the translators write, was manifested in a determination to die rather than surrender—a determination heightened by what the soldiers told Okinawans, especially children: that the Americans would commit terrible depredations on anyone who fell into their hands. (The book suggests that Japanese soldiers were re-telling actual atrocities they had committed in China.) This explains why many civilians killed themselves after killing helpless but acquiescent members of their families. Such tale-telling by the military to encourage suicide was embarrassing enough years later for it to be edited substantially from history textbooks.

The result for Okinawa—and Japan—was cataclysmic. In early 1945, the Japanese prime minister had recommended that the war be brought to an end, but as Ealey and McLauchlin write, Hirohito believed that one last military success “would force the United States and its allies to offer peace terms that would allow Japan to maintain its national polity, which of course hinged on the status and institution of the emperor.“ Had the prime minister’s advice been followed, they observe, “there may never have been a Battle of Okinawa, or atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.” Indeed. General Douglas MacArthur urged that the emperor’s status be preserved, and there is a memorable photograph of the two recent adversaries standing side by side in Tokyo not long after the war ended. Hirohito’s descendants have remained on the throne to this day. What we learn from this profoundly disturbing and enlightening book is that tens of thousands of misled Okinawans died for nothing.

Jonathan Mirsky is a historian of China and was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London.
 (July 2014)


Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa, translated by Mark Ealey and Alastair McLauchlan, has just been published by Merwin Asia and is distributed by University of Hawaii Press.

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Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson

En un ensayo titulado “There Good Reasons to Liquidate Our Empire and Ten Steps to Take to Do So” (TomDispatch.com, 30 de julio de 2009), el historiador norteamericano Chalmers Johnson enfoca uno de los elementos más característicos del imperialismo norteamericano: la extensión de sus bases militares alrededor del mundo.  Johnson es profesor emérito de la Universidad de California (San Diego) y uno de los críticos más filosos de la política exterior norteamericana. Este antiguo asesor de CIA es  autor de un trilogía clave  en el desarrollo de la historiografía reciente del imperialismo norteamericano: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004) y Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

A Johnson le preocupa el efecto que pueda tener el imperio de bases militares sobre el programa reformista del Presidente Barack Obama. Para el autor, las bases militares ­–y el militarismo del que son una expresión– podrían tener tres consecuencias devastadoras para los Estados Unidos: sobre extender (“over-stretch”) militarmente a los Estados Unidos, provocar un estado perpetuo de guerra y/o llevar a la nación norteamericana a la ruina económica. Todo ello podría provocar un colapso similar al que sufrió la Unión Soviética. Palabras fuertes de un historiador sin pelos en la lengua.  Veamos a que se refiere Johnson.

Citando un inventario realizado por el Pentágono en 2008, Johnson alega que los Estados Unidos poseen 865 bases militares en 46 países y territorios estadounidenses. Según ese mismo inventario, los Estados Unidos tenían desplegados 196,000 soldados en sus bases. Por ejemplo, en Japón hay 46,364 miembros de las fuerzas armadas estadounidenses, acompañados por 45,753 familiares y apoyados por 4,178 empleados civiles norteamericanos.  Sólo en la pequeña isla de Okinawa hay 13,975 soldados norteamericanos.

CG-map-3

Para Johnson, tal despliegue de poder militar no sólo es innecesario para garantizar la seguridad nacional de los Estados Unidos, sino que también excesivamente costoso. Citando un artículo de Anita Dancs, analista del “think tank” Foreign Policy in Focus, Johnson arguye que los Estados Unidos gastan $250 mil millones anuales en el mantenimiento de sus bases militares con un solo objetivo: garantizar su control de un imperio que nunca necesitaron y que “no pueden sostener”.

El autor identifica tres razones que, según él, hacen necesaria la eliminación de ese imperio de bases como un paso inevitable para el bienestar de los Estados Unidos:

  1. Los Estados Unidos ya no son capaces de mantener su hegemonía global  sin convocar a un desastre nacional. Según Johnson, los Estados Unidos no pueden mantener su rol hegemónico por razones económicas, pues son un país al borde de la bancarrota y en franca decadencia económica. Obviar esas realidades insistiendo en retener sus bases mundiales podría llevar al gobierno norteamericano a la insolvencia. Para justificar sus argumentos el autor recurre a cifras muy impresionantes, pues según él, para el 2010 el déficit presupuestario norteamericano será de $1.75 trillones, cifra que no incluye el presupuesto militar para el 2009 ascendente a $640 mil millones,  ni el costo de las guerras en Irak y Afganistán.  Johnson concluye que el pago de tal deuda tomara generaciones.
  2. Los Estados Unidos están destinados a ser derrotados en Afganistán. Según Johnson, las autoridades norteamericanos no han sido capaces de reconocer que tanto ingleses como soviéticos fracasaron en sus empresas militares en Afganistán empleando las mismas estrategias usadas por los Estados Unidos hoy en día. Esto constituye “uno de nuestros  más grandes errores estratégicos”.  Johnson critica que las acciones estadounidenses en Afganistán no estén basadas en el reconocimiento de la historia de una región que históricamente ha resistido con éxito la presencia de fuerzas foráneas. Éste crítica las tácticas estadounidenses, en especial, el uso de aviones a control remotos o “drones”, porque éstos provocan la muerte de civiles afganos inocentes,  enajenando el apoyo de quienes supuestamente los estadounidenses están “salvando para la democracia”. Además, las operaciones militares estadounidenses en Afganistán y Pakistán carecen de una inteligencia precisa sobre ambos países  y reflejan, por ende, una visión miope de la realidad política de la región.  Johnson cree que los Estados Unidos deben reconocer que la guerra en Afganistán está ya perdida y no desperdiciar más tiempo, vidas humanas y dinero en un conflicto que no pueden ganar.
  3. Es necesario que los Estados Unidos pongan fin a la vergüenza que acompaña su imperio de bases. El autor visualiza las bases militares como una especie de campo de juego sexual (“sexual playground”) donde los soldados norteamericanos comprometen con su conducta la imagen de los Estados Unidos. Según Johnson, miles de soldados norteamericanos son destinados a países cuya cultura no entienden y que, además, han sido enseñados a ver a sus habitantes como entes inferiores, lo que provoca serios problemas en su comportamiento, sobre todo, sexual. Para probar este punto el autor nos brinda cifras muy interesantes y reveladoras sobre la violencia sexual de que son objetos los residentes de las zonas aledañas a las bases militares norteamericanas ­–además de las mujeres que forman parte de las fuerzas armadas estadounidenses– y de cómo las autoridades militares norteamericanas no hacen, prácticamente, nada para frenar y castigar los delitos sexuales que comenten sus soldados. Para Johnson la solución está en reducir el tamaño de las fuerzas armadas trayendo de vuelta a los Estados Unidos a miles de soldados estadounidenses, desmantelando las bases donde éstos están desplegados.

Johnson no sólo identifica las razones que hacen necesario que los Estados Unidos desmantelen su imperio de bases, sino que también nos brinda diez medidas que él considera necesarias para ello. Entre ellas destacan: poner fin al mito creado por el complejo militar-industrial de que el establecimiento militar norteamericano es valioso en términos económicos, pues produce empleos e investigación científica. Johnson recomienda poner fin al uso de la fuerza como “el principal medio para alcanzar los objetivos de la política exterior” estadounidense.  El autor también sugiere reducir el tamaño del ejército, darle más ayuda médica a los veteranos afectados física o mentalmente, eliminar el ROTC, dejar de ser el principal exportador mundial de armas y restaurar la disciplina y la responsabilidad por sus acciones entre las tropas estadounidenses. NS_Rota

Johnson cierra su ensayo reconociendo que a lo largo de la historia pocos imperios han renunciado a “sus dominios” para salvar sus instituciones políticas. Es necesario, según el autor, que los Estados Unidos aprendan de dos ejemplos recientes (Gran Bretaña y la Unión Soviética) y tomen las medidas necesarias para frenar los efectos del imperialismo. El autor concluye su trabajo pronosticando que si los estadounidenses no aprenden de los errores  de los imperios que le antecedieron, será imposible evitar la “caída y decadencia” de los Estados Unidos de América.

Este corto ensayo nos brinda información valiosa sobre la extensión del militarismo norteamericano a nivel mundial y de sus consecuencias. Es claro que Johnson ve el mantenimiento de las  cientos  de bases militares norteamericanas como una rémora que compromete valiosos recursos económicos que podrían ser usados para enfrentar algunos de los serios problemas que enfrenta la nación estadounidense. Su enfoque es claramente aislacionista y moralista. Para él, los Estados Unidos deben reconocer que ya no son lo ricos y poderosos que solían ser, y concentrarse en sí mismos. Su tono refleja una visión muy pesimista del futuro de los Estados Unidos. Para Johnson, la nación norteamericana es un país en franca decadencia gracias a su obsesión belicista.  Es curioso que a principios del siglo XX analistas y críticos de la política exterior norteamericana, especialmente de la retención de las Filipinas como colonia y de la expansión de la marina de guerra, pronosticaron exactamente lo que hoy Johnson denuncia de forma tan severa.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, Ph. D.

Lima, Perú, 10 de septiembre de 2009

Nota: todas las traducciones del inglés son mías.

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