Memorial Day, Heroes and War-Crimes
A recent PBS documentary about the final days of WWII quoted Air Force General Curtis Lemay as being troubled by the American fire-bombing and subsequent atom-bombing of Japanese civilian targets. He ventured that if we had lost the war he might have been tried for war-crimes for his actions. The documentary then went on to intimate that the bombing probably resulted in fewer total casualties than if we had mounted a full-scale invasion of Japan – and was thus morally justified. This got me to wondering if war-crimes charges might ever be appropriate for the winners – or aggressors who later lose their taste for war and simply withdraw – like we did in Vietnam and Iraq.
I’m not advocating that we bring charges against the leaders who led the US into these wicked wars. However I don’t think we as a nation should sweep our dirty history under the carpet either.
America’s actions in Vietnam and Iraq appear to fit at least part of Wikipedia’s fundamental definition of ‘war-crimes’: “…the wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity.” In each of these wars it was only after full-scale operations were underway that we began a more careful analysis of the stated “necessity” for war and determined our actions to be unfounded. It was then of course too late for apologies or diplomatic solutions. And sadly, in each case the killing then continued for years while our leaders struggled to find a way of extricating our military without admitting to a mistake.
The WWII documentary examined Emperor Hirohito’s motives for encouraging the Japanese to continue sacrificing themselves as kamikazes in a war that had become so obviously unwinnable, right up to the brink of nuclear annihilation. His apparent reason was to avoid ‘losing face’. It sounds so incredibly senseless, so outrageously callous to impose this ultimate sacrifice, solely to avoid embarrassment and accountability. What sort of man keeps sending others to die in combat for a lost cause – or error in judgment? I found it surprising that Hirohito, the Japanese commander-in-chief, was not only never charged as a war criminal, but allowed to remain as the figurehead of a new government. How was Hirohito any less culpable than the Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg?
While few would disagree that Vietnam and Iraq were similarly gigantic military blunders that continued for far too long, blunders that led to massive destruction, painful loss of innocent lives and the piling up of huge national debts, Americans not only did not charge the instigators with war-crimes for their callous ineptitude, but their legacies were largely untarnished. Why? I surmise it has to do with national pride, a desire to glorify family sacrifice, and an aversion to painful truths: Patriotism, nationalism and political legacies trump accountability.
For many years now I have avoided Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades and patriotic celebrations. For while the pomp and circumstance may, on one hand, fill me with admiration and gratitude for the service of my father and his generation’s struggle to rid the world of true evil, as well as those who fought in Afghanistan, it also fills me anew with grief for my brother Jim and all those who died in what I consider to be the dishonorable wars in Vietnam and Iraq. To celebrate Jim’s service this way is inappropriate. While I certainly admire Jim’s allegiance to country and his selfless sacrifice, how do I forget that he was callously sent to his death in support of an unwarranted conflict?
Our Memorial and Veterans Day agendas lack something very important; in addition to annually thanking those who’ve kept us free we need also to solemnly admit and discuss the mistakes that led us into Vietnam and Iraq and resolve to be more vigilant against flippant militarism. For as it has been said; “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”. We expected the Japanese people to learn from their mistake; we surely should expect the same of ourselves.