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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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TomDispatch

Naming Our Nameless War 

How Many Years Will It Be?
By Andrew J. Bacevich

For well over a decade now the United States has been “a nation at war.” Does that war have a name?

It did at the outset.  After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration wasted no time in announcing that the U.S. was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT.  With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11 would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV.

Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush’s formulation (as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week).  Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued.

Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so.

Names bestow meaning.  When it comes to war, a name attached to a date can shape our understanding of what the conflict was all about.  To specify when a war began and when it ended is to privilege certain explanations of its significance while discrediting others. Let me provide a few illustrations.

With rare exceptions, Americans today characterize the horrendous fraternal bloodletting of 1861-1865 as the Civil War.  Yet not many decades ago, diehard supporters of the Lost Cause insisted on referring to that conflict as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence (or even the War of Northern Aggression).  The South may have gone down in defeat, but the purposes for which Southerners had fought — preserving a distinctive way of life and the principle of states’ rights — had been worthy, even noble.  So at least they professed to believe, with their preferred names for the war reflecting that belief.

Schoolbooks tell us that the Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and ended in August of that same year.  The name and dates fit nicely with a widespread inclination from President William McKinley’s day to our own to frame U.S. intervention in Cuba as an altruistic effort to liberate that island from Spanish oppression.

Yet the Cubans were not exactly bystanders in that drama.  By 1898, they had been fighting for years to oust their colonial overlords.  And although hostilities in Cuba itself ended on August 12th, they dragged on in the Philippines, another Spanish colony that the United States had seized for reasons only remotely related to liberating Cubans.  Notably, U.S. troops occupying the Philippines waged a brutal war not against Spaniards but against Filipino nationalists no more inclined to accept colonial rule by Washington than by Madrid.  So widen the aperture to include this Cuban prelude and the Filipino postlude and you end up with something like this:  The Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippines War of 1895-1902.  Too clunky?  How about the War for the American Empire?  This much is for sure: rather than illuminating, the commonplace textbook descriptor serves chiefly to conceal.

Strange as it may seem, Europeans once referred to the calamitous events of 1914-1918 as the Great War.  When Woodrow Wilson decided in 1917 to send an army of doughboys to fight alongside the Allies, he went beyond Great.  According to the president, the Great War was going to be the War To End All Wars.  Alas, things did not pan out as he expected.  Perhaps anticipating the demise of his vision of permanent peace, War Department General Order 115, issued on October 7, 1919, formally declared that, at least as far as the United States was concerned, the recently concluded hostilities would be known simply as the World War.

In September 1939 — presto chango! — the World Warsuddenly became the First World War, the Nazi invasion of Poland having inaugurated a Second World War, also known asWorld War II or more cryptically WWII.  To be sure, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin preferred the Great Patriotic War. Although this found instant — almost unanimous — favor among Soviet citizens, it did not catch on elsewhere.

Does World War II accurately capture the events it purports to encompass?  With the crusade against the Axis now ranking alongside the crusade against slavery as a myth-enshrouded chapter in U.S. history to which all must pay homage, Americans are no more inclined to consider that question than to consider why a playoff to determine the professional baseball championship of North America constitutes a “World Series.”

In fact, however convenient and familiar, World War II is misleading and not especially useful.  The period in question saw at least two wars, each only tenuously connected to the other, each having distinctive origins, each yielding a different outcome.  To separate them is to transform the historical landscape.

On the one hand, there was the Pacific War, pitting the United States against Japan.  Formally initiated by the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, it had in fact begun a decade earlier when Japan embarked upon a policy of armed conquest in Manchuria.  At stake was the question of who would dominate East Asia.  Japan’s crushing defeat at the hands of the United States, sealed by two atomic bombs in 1945, answered that question (at least for a time).

Then there was the European War, pitting Nazi Germany first against Great Britain and France, but ultimately against a grand alliance led by the United States, the Soviet Union, and a fast fading British Empire.  At stake was the question of who would dominate Europe.  Germany’s defeat resolved that issue (at least for a time): no one would.  To prevent any single power from controlling Europe, two outside powers divided it.

This division served as the basis for the ensuing Cold War,which wasn’t actually cold, but also (thankfully) wasn’t World War III, the retrospective insistence of bellicose neoconservatives notwithstanding.  But when did the Cold Warbegin?  Was it in early 1947, when President Harry Truman decided that Stalin’s Russia posed a looming threat and committed the United States to a strategy of containment?  Or was it in 1919, when Vladimir Lenin decided that Winston Churchill’s vow to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle” posed a looming threat to the Russian Revolution, with an ongoing Anglo-American military intervention evincing a determination to make good on that vow?

Separating the war against Nazi Germany from the war against Imperial Japan opens up another interpretive possibility.  If you incorporate the European conflict of 1914-1918 and the European conflict of 1939-1945 into a single narrative, you get a Second Thirty Years War (the first having occurred from 1618-1648) — not so much a contest of good against evil, as a mindless exercise in self-destruction that represented the ultimate expression of European folly.

So, yes, it matters what we choose to call the military enterprise we’ve been waging not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in any number of other countries scattered hither and yon across the Islamic world.  Although the Obama administration appears no more interested than the Bush administration in saying when that enterprise will actually end, the date we choose as its starting point also matters.

Although Washington seems in no hurry to name its nameless war — and will no doubt settle on something self-serving or anodyne if it ever finally addresses the issue — perhaps we should jump-start the process.  Let’s consider some possible options, names that might actually explain what’s going on.

The Long War: Coined not long after 9/11 by senior officers in the Pentagon, this formulation never gained traction with either civilian officials or the general public.  Yet the Long War deserves consideration, even though — or perhaps because — it has lost its luster with the passage of time.

At the outset, it connoted grand ambitions buoyed by extreme confidence in the efficacy of American military might.  This was going to be one for the ages, a multi-generational conflict yielding sweeping results.

The Long War did begin on a hopeful note.  The initial entry into Afghanistan and then into Iraq seemed to herald “home by Christmas” triumphal parades.  Yet this soon proved an illusion as victory slipped from Washington’s grasp.  By 2005 at the latest, events in the field had dashed the neo-Wilsonian expectations nurtured back home.

With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on, “long” lost its original connotation.  Instead of “really important,” it became a synonym for “interminable.”  Today, the Long Wardoes succinctly capture the experience of American soldiers who have endured multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Long War combatants, the object of the exercise has become to persist.  As for winning, it’s not in the cards. TheLong War just might conclude by the end of 2014 if President Obama keeps his pledge to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and if he avoids getting sucked into Syria’s civil war.  So the troops may hope.

The War Against Al-Qaeda: It began in August 1996 when Osama bin Laden issued a “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” i.e., Saudi Arabia.  In February 1998, a second bin Laden manifesto announced that killing Americans, military and civilian alike, had become “an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

Although President Bill Clinton took notice, the U.S. response to bin Laden’s provocations was limited and ineffectual.  Only after 9/11 did Washington take this threat seriously.  Since then, apart from a pointless excursion into Iraq (where, in Saddam Hussein’s day, al-Qaeda did not exist), U.S. attention has been focused on Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have waged the longest war in American history, and on Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, where a CIA drone campaign is ongoing.  By the end of President Obama’s first term, U.S. intelligence agencies were reporting that a combined CIA/military campaign had largely destroyed bin Laden’s organization.  Bin Laden himself, of course, was dead.

Could the United States have declared victory in its unnamed war at this point?  Perhaps, but it gave little thought to doing so.  Instead, the national security apparatus had already trained its sights on various al-Qaeda “franchises” and wannabes, militant groups claiming the bin Laden brand and waging their own version of jihad.  These offshoots emerged in the Maghreb, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and — wouldn’t you know it — post-Saddam Iraq, among other places.  The question as to whether they actually posed a danger to the United States got, at best, passing attention — the label “al-Qaeda” eliciting the same sort of Pavlovian response that the word “communist” once did.

Americans should not expect this war to end anytime soon.  Indeed, the Pentagon’s impresario of special operations recently speculated — by no means unhappily — that it would continue globally for “at least 10 to 20 years.”   Freely translated, his statement undoubtedly means: “No one really knows, but we’re planning to keep at it for one helluva long time.”

The War For/Against/About Israel: It began in 1948.  For many Jews, the founding of the state of Israel signified an ancient hope fulfilled.  For many Christians, conscious of the sin of anti-Semitism that had culminated in the Holocaust, it offered a way to ease guilty consciences, albeit mostly at others’ expense.  For many Muslims, especially Arabs, and most acutely Arabs who had been living in Palestine, the founding of the Jewish state represented a grave injustice.  It was yet another unwelcome intrusion engineered by the West — colonialism by another name.

Recounting the ensuing struggle without appearing to take sides is almost impossible.  Yet one thing seems clear: in terms of military involvement, the United States attempted in the late 1940s and 1950s to keep its distance.  Over the course of the 1960s, this changed.  The U.S. became Israel’s principal patron, committed to maintaining (and indeed increasing) its military superiority over its neighbors.

In the decades that followed, the two countries forged a multifaceted “strategic relationship.”  A compliant Congress provided Israel with weapons and other assistance worth many billions of dollars, testifying to what has become an unambiguous and irrevocable U.S. commitment to the safety and well-being of the Jewish state.  The two countries share technology and intelligence.  Meanwhile, just as Israel had disregarded U.S. concerns when it came to developing nuclear weapons, it ignored persistent U.S. requests that it refrain from colonizing territory that it has conquered.

When it comes to identifying the minimal essential requirements of Israeli security and the terms that will define any Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, the United States defers to Israel.  That may qualify as an overstatement, but only slightly.  Given the Israeli perspective on those requirements and those terms — permanent military supremacy and a permanently demilitarized Palestine allowed limited sovereignty — the War For/Against/About Israel is unlikely to end anytime soon either.  Whether the United States benefits from the perpetuation of this war is difficult to say, but we are in it for the long haul.

The War for the Greater Middle East: I confess that this is the name I would choose for Washington’s unnamed war and is, in fact, the title of a course I teach.  (A tempting alternative is the Second Hundred Years War, the “first” having begun in 1337 and ended in 1453.)

This war is about to hit the century mark, its opening chapter coinciding with the onset of World War I.  Not long after the fighting on the Western Front in Europe had settled into a stalemate, the British government, looking for ways to gain the upper hand, set out to dismantle the Ottoman Empire whose rulers had foolishly thrown in their lot with the German Reich against the Allies.

By the time the war ended with Germany and the Turks on the losing side, Great Britain had already begun to draw up new boundaries, invent states, and install rulers to suit its predilections, while also issuing mutually contradictory promises to groups inhabiting these new precincts of its empire.  Toward what end?  Simply put, the British were intent on calling the shots from Egypt to India, whether by governing through intermediaries or ruling directly.  The result was a new Middle East and a total mess.

London presided over this mess, albeit with considerable difficulty, until the end of World War II.  At this point, by abandoning efforts to keep Arabs and Zionists from one another’s throats in Palestine and by accepting the partition of India, they signaled their intention to throw in the towel. Alas, Washington proved more than willing to assume Britain’s role.  The lure of oil was strong.  So too were the fears, however overwrought, of the Soviets extending their influence into the region.

Unfortunately, the Americans enjoyed no more success in promoting long-term, pro-Western stability than had the British.  In some respects, they only made things worse, with the joint CIA-MI6 overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 offering a prime example of a “success” that, to this day, has never stopped breeding disaster.

Only after 1980 did things get really interesting, however.  The Carter Doctrine promulgated that year designated the Persian Gulf a vital national security interest and opened the door to greatly increased U.S. military activity not just in the Gulf, but also throughout the Greater Middle East (GME).  Between 1945 and 1980, considerable numbers of American soldiers lost their lives fighting in Asia and elsewhere.  During that period, virtually none were killed fighting in the GME.  Since 1990, in contrast, virtually none have been killed fighting anywhere except in the GME.

What does the United States hope to achieve in its inherited and unending War for the Greater Middle East?  To pacify the region?  To remake it in our image?  To drain its stocks of petroleum?  Or just keeping the lid on?  However you define the war’s aims, things have not gone well, which once again suggests that, in some form, it will continue for some time to come.  If there’s any good news here, it’s the prospect of having ever more material for my seminar, which may soon expand into a two-semester course.

The War Against Islam: This war began nearly 1,000 years ago and continued for centuries, a storied collision between Christendom and the Muslim ummah.  For a couple of hundred years, periodic eruptions of large-scale violence occurred until the conflict finally petered out with the last crusade sometime in the fourteenth century.

In those days, many people had deemed religion something worth fighting for, a proposition to which the more sophisticated present-day inhabitants of Christendom no longer subscribe.  Yet could that religious war have resumed in our own day?  Professor Samuel Huntington thought so, although he styled the conflict a “clash of civilizations.”  Some militant radical Islamists agree with Professor Huntington, citing as evidence the unwelcome meddling of “infidels,” mostly wearing American uniforms, in various parts of the Muslim world.  Some militant evangelical Christians endorse this proposition, even if they take a more favorable view of U.S. troops occupying and drones targeting Muslim countries.

In explaining the position of the United States government, religious scholars like George W. Bush and Barack (Hussein!) Obama have consistently expressed a contrary view.  Islam is a religion of peace, they declare, part of the great Abrahamic triad.  That the other elements of that triad are likewise committed to peace is a proposition that Bush, Obama, and most Americans take for granted, evidence not required.  There should be no reason why Christians, Jews, and Muslims can’t live together in harmony.

Still, remember back in 2001 when, in an unscripted moment, President Bush described the war barely begun as a “crusade”?  That was just a slip of the tongue, right?  If not, we just might end up calling this one the Eternal War.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular. His next book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Countrywill appear in September.

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