Every year during the second week of August, the Japanese media bombards the country with stories and commentaries on certain aspects of World War Two. In spite of this, the public generally seems to have only two clear images of their 14-year military adventures – their heroric sinking of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and their dubious honor of becoming the only victims of atomic warfare in the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Recently one other event, the notorious Rape of Nanking, has been thrust on the Japanese conscience by the foreign media.
Of course every nation distorts or forgets its role in the great 20th Century tragedy, but the Japanese seem to have a special talent for keeping the facts out of context. That is why I have taken it upon myself to help them reorient their perspective on the war with a special lesson every August. This is my offering for this year.
War is Hell
During the American war between the north and south (1861-1865), the
northern general, William T. Sherman, was asked why he burned every city he passed on his march from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. He had a simple answer, “War is hell.”
Seventy years later, in another civil war, this time in Spain, General Franco asked the German Air Force to destroy the town of Guernica in the Pyrenees mountains, in what would become erroneously known as the first total air bombing. For Franco, it was an exercise in genocide against his fellow countrymen. For Hitler, it was a practice run for Germany’s upcoming blitzkrieg. Two years later, in 1939, German airplanes began bombing cities all across Europe.
While the world focused horrified attention on the slaughter of Guernica, the Japanese Imperial Air Force was well underway in the real pioneering of mass aerial bombardment. As early as 1931, Japanese airplanes were leveling cities and towns in Manchuria. In 1932, the international city of Shanghai became their target, and after taking the war into China proper, no populated area of the country was spared from the Japanese rain of fire.
The Americans, British, and other nations protested and demanded the Japanese stop the needless killing of innocent people. They backed up their demands with a series of economic sanctions, escalating to a total blockade in February 1941 that provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor later that year.
After Hitler’s air blitz hit London in 1940, the British changed their minds about air warfare and started imitating the Japanese and German mass bombing methods. By 1942, the Royal Air Force had begun a campaign of nightly bombing raids that would culminate in the total destruction of many heavily populated cities including Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.
When the American 8th Air Force started flying out of English bases, they chose the far more dangerous policy of making only daytime raids. The Brits said the Yanks were crazy, but the Americans said it was inhuman and wasteful to bomb at night when they couldn’t see what they were bombing. Only 30% of the American flight crews made it back to England during 1943.
The German Luftwaffe continued to support the blitzkrieg with constant bombing but they soon lost the kill-count record to the RAF and the US Army Air Corps.
In Asia, the Japanese continued to kill Chinese people in numbers now over a million. Some of the killing was done by air, and some, like in the city of Nanking, was done on the ground with rifles and Samurai swords.
The Americans finally gave up trying to save lives and started flying mass bombing raids on major Japanese cities. In November, 1944, the fire bombing of Tokyo by 88 American airplanes destroyed much of the city and killed up to 100,000 civilians.
While all this mass killing was going on, scientists in several countries on both sides of the war were busy working on the ultimate high-tech killer – the atomic bomb. The Americans were the first to succeed. They made two bombs with the unlikely names “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”.
As soon as the war in Europe ended, the Americans demanded that the Japanese also give up. They would not. President Roosevelt, who had ordered the making of the atomic bombs, died on April 12th, 1945. His replacement, Harry S. Truman, first learned of the atomic bomb project the same day. After talking to many scientists and military experts, he decided to use them.
One reason he gave was to save lives. After seeing how the Japanese fought to
the very last man, woman and child on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, he thought an attack on Kyushu would take too long and kill too many. Another reason was that the Russian Army was advancing towards Hokkaido and would reach Tokyo within a few months.
On the morning of August 7th, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets flew a B-29 bomber named the “Enola Gay” toward the southwest coast of the Japanese mainland. At 8:15 AM, “Little Boy” left the airplane and fell into the heart of the city of Hiroshima. 70,000 died almost immediately. Many more died in the following days, months and years. To make the Japanese believe the same was possible for the whole country, a second bomb, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Another 80,000 people died.
No atomic bomb has fallen since that day, but the air war against civilian populations has continued. General Curtis LeMay, frustrated with trying to track down Kim Jong Il’s guerilla army in the rugged mountains of North Korea, ordered the systematic saturation bombing of every population center in the northern half of the Hermit Kingdom. B52 bombers found lush targets for carpet bombing in the jungles of Vietnam. Afghanistan has been “bombed back to the stone age” twice, first by the Soviets in the 1970s and then by the Americans starting in 2001. Most recently, Iraq has been the subject of aerial “shock and awe” bombings that have taken a heavy civilian toll in spite of the deployment of so-called “smart bombs”.
Even more threatening is the growing danger that some day much bigger nuclear weapons could bring total hell back to the world. Today, six nations besides the US have nuclear weapons: Russia, Britain, France, China, India and most recently, Pakistan. Israel, Iran and North Korea are now trying hard to join the “Nuclear Club”.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were certainly an experience of hell on earth, but seen in the context of the many horrors of WWII and since, they are only one part of a greater hell that plagues all mankind. Whether atomic or not, modern warfare continues to kill thousands around the world every year. The horror is no less whatever reasons or uniforms the agents of terror choose.
Anywhere there is armed conflict, General Sherman’s ominous observation rings brutally true – war is hell.