Monday, August 09, 2010

Apologies for wartime actions are difficult to make

Every year, the difficulty of the legacy of the US atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki play out again. "Should the US apologize?" "Why apologize?" "It was bombing civilians!" "We'll apologize after they apologize for Pear Harbor, Nanking, etc." are all questions and sentiments that get shot around by people.

As the son of a Japanese and an American, born on an island that was won from Spain in 1898, lost to Japan  in 1941, and regained in a bloody series of battles in 1944 (i.e., Guam), the dates of December 7, August 6, and August 9 are always haunting, and (for some reason) always come as a surprise. In searching over the years for what I ought to feel about the painfully intertwined histories of the nations that make up my heritage, I have come the the conclusion that the events of World War 2 are not something that are my own; I do not own their tragedies, and in many ways, I am a product of the very different world that has come about in the 65 years following its end.

I don't think that an apology for the war is necessary, since I feel that the utter loss of the war by Japan and Germany -- and the subsequent forming of close diplomatic, economic, and military ties -- more than makes up for any apology that the former Axis nations might issue to the US. After all, saying that they will unconditionally surrender is about as close to an apology as can be, without actually saying the words, "I apologize." And then, even if the surrender required those words, there would always remain the question of whether they were sincere. Still, giving up one's country completely to the mercy of the victorious nation had -- in the past -- meant a total capitulation of national sovereignty (which was the case in Germany and Japan, at least until the early 1950s), and possible break-up of the country; the spoils literally going to the victor. Metaphorically turning belly-up and offering oneself to the uncertain altar of the future was the apology-in-action, if not in words. (And doesn't action count more than words in many cases?)

Then what about the specific actions taken during the course of the war? What about the Rape of Nanking, the firebombing of Dresden, and the Bataan Death March? What about the lynching of Ukranian partisans or the bombing of London? And what about the only two nuclear weapons attacks that have ever taken place?

Every year I've read about why Japan should receive an apology (and responses as to why I should not). However, a recent piece touched me the most. Robert Fisk's piece from August 7. It starts:
At last we've apologized for Hiroshima - well, sort of. We've recognized the suffering our atom bombs caused -well, kind of. President Obama was showing off his anti-nuclear credentials in the killing grounds of Hiroshima, but this was not to be confused with saying sorry.
He goes on to say that political apologies -- if they are to have any real meaning, save for a personal closure to those involved -- need to swiftly follow the event, lest they lose their power:
What it really comes down to is this. If you apologize for slaughtering civilians - or, at the minimum, causing their deaths - you have to do it quickly and for humanitarian reasons. Wait too long and do it for political reasons, and it will lose its effect. Germany was quick to start admitting responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust and now calls itself Israel's best friend in Europe. Turkey has never apologized for committing the Armenian Holocaust in 1915. But if it ever does, will anyone except the Armenians care?
 His ending really hits the nail on the head (at least for me):
Yet it's intriguing to go back to what people said about Hiroshima at the time. Today, we might share these words. "This outrage against humanity ... is not war, not even murder. It is pure nihilism." And we might be appalled by a newspaper that found it possible to legitimize the use of the atom bomb because it was impossible to judge the morality of the bombing by the size of the bomb that was used. So for the paper, the slaughter was "entirely legitimate". But the first quotation comes from the venomous Imperial Japanese radio station in occupied Singapore. The second comes from a 1945 edition of what was then called the Manchester Guardian. And we might do well to note how the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West reacted to Hiroshima. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, wrote in his diary that "Vita is thrilled by the atomic bomb. She thinks ... that it means a whole new era."

Well, yes, I suppose it did. But ever since the American journalist John Hersey revealed the terrible suffering of the people of Hiroshima - unlike Wikileaks, he didn't suck the stuff out of computers, he set off there, on his own, to find out the truth - the name of the city has become a symbol of the guilt of humanity. And rightly so.

But it raises another question. When do our war "crimes" have an expiry date. Blair gave his half-hearted apology to the Irish a century and a half after the Brits exported Ireland's food instead of using it to save Irish men and women who were found dead in ditches after trying to eat stinging nettles. The Americans and the Australians have said sorry to their native peoples. But what about Cromwell and Drogheda? Or the Thirty Years' War, or the Hundred Years' War? Or the sack of Rome - a Goth war crime (poor Mrs Merkel)? - or the Roman destruction of Carthage? Or the death of Jesus - I guess Rome's imperial history means Berlusconi has to apologize, though an awful lot of Catholics have spent centuries living in their anti-semitic world by blaming the Jews. Poor Benjamin Netanyahu!

All in all, then, the apology business is a pretty sticky wicket. And yesterday's theater was played to boost the image of an increasingly self-regarding president, not out of any real concern for suffering - by which I mean physical pain - or humanitarian sorrow. A step in the right direction, you may say. Sure. But if you want to to believe in it, alas, it all came far too late.

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