My local newspaper’s front page headline read Barbaric, a word uttered by the director of the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s operations room. It is a breakthrough that the quoted word was from an Arab Muslimnot because he was Arab or Muslim, but because he was a rare human to admit that barbarities could be committed by someone like himself.
During that week, history collided with the present moment as I read James Bradley’s Flyboys: A True Story of Courage. Presented as a hitherto unknown account of the last days of a handful of airmen shot down, captured, killed and even cannibalized at the end of the war in the Pacific, Flyboys canvasses not only the bloody end of World War II, but also the history of the Air Force, the emergence of Japan as a world power and a panorama of American barbarity.
It is a painful read, especially if the reader is not already fully aware of the American acts of ethnic cleansing, land-grabbing and racism on this continent and in the Pacific. Teddy Roosevelt, growing up in a culture in which the famous Preacher John could enthrall cheering theaters with his accounts of massacre and mutilation at Sand Creek, where 150 Native American children, women and old men were annihilated, would later pronounce that while the affair had most objectionable details, it was as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontiers.
Next, armed with Manifest Destiny, preachers like the Unitarian Theodore Parker and poets like Walt Whitman would characterize Mexicans as a wretched people destined to melt away a miserable, inefficient burlesque upon freedom. After a short war, the expanding United States consumed California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming.
Finally, as president, Roosevelt himself turned our attention to the Philippines, populated by what he called Chinese half-breeds. They were savages no better than our Indians, an American military officer noted. A quarter-million Filipinos, mostly women and children, would die in three years.
The incidents in Bradley’s book are too shameful to recount, but it is clear that the killing of prisoners of war and civilians was nationally accepted policy for what Roosevelt called the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.
Bradley, whose father died at Iwo Jima, does not demonize the United States in Flyboys. The problem of the war in the Pacific was that it was fought, as one of his chapter titles indicates, by Yellow Devils, White Devils. Prior to the infamous Rape of Nanking Japan had intentionally not declared war on China so that it could Kill All, Loot All, Burn All. With beheading contests and brutal indoctrination, Japan trained soldiers to kill without conscience and to die without shame. President Franklin Roosevelt condemned Japan’s ruthless bombing from the air of [Chinese] civilians. U.S. senators inveighed against the barbarous crimes against humanity. This would be the enemy the United States would meet. But in a matter of a few years, we ourselves were committing the same barbarities.
We all know about the attack on Pearl Harbor, even if we do not know why it happened. Most of us know, as well, that wartime propaganda unleashed a blood lust among the Allies, Germany and Japan. But do we know that the United States and Britain bombed and burned to death 650,000 German civilians, 130,000 of them children?
Things were more savage in Japan. General Curtis E. LeMay bragged, with only a little exaggeration, that in the fire bombing of the civilians of Tokyo before the atomic bomb, We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Tokyo was not alone. U.S. bombs incinerated another 20 Japanese cities. Three years before, Roosevelt judged such actions to be barbarous crimes against humanity. We now were the barbarians.
Japan and Germany were horrific enemies in the Second World War. I shudder to think what might have been. But we are now in another war, deemed by our president as important as the last great war. Is not vigilance required of us?
This war in Iraq has been engaged in by the choice of one man and his assistants. We must acknowledge this. You may think the evidence justified our entry. You may think this war will avert greater evil in the future. But let us be honest about what war can do to the conscience.
If I were thrust into an irrational conflict and saw a friend and fellow soldier blown to bits, I wonder what might hold me back from attacking the nearest house and its inhabitants. I trust that my will and judgment would resist the barbarism, but I do not know for sure. I do know that we ought be careful in condemning combatants for having committed premeditated murder. What was premeditated was the war itself.
Pray that it all ends. Pray that it ends in justice and mercy. Pray most of all that we not descend into barbarity.