Saturday, August 8, 2009

War Crimes, Japanese and Apache

Max Hastings has sought to be “objective” in his book Retribution, The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. There is ample evidence of this seeking in his book, and yet at the end, when he is assessing Japanese “War Crimes” he fails. He judges the Japanese by Western Standards and cannot accept their own understanding of these matters.

It is characteristically Western to treat our own war crimes as we did in regard to Mai Lai and Abu Ghraib. We have investigations and then trials and end up holding those responsible to account. Enemies of the US will say that isn’t good enough, but it is – at least comparatively so. We in the West are among other things asserting that we don’t condone this sort of behavior. Our principles regarding war crimes are otherwise, and those who violate them are held to account.

In order for the Germans to set the war-crimes bar so high, they had to first of all reject the applicable standards of Western Civilization. They substituted a racial hierarchy and placed themselves at the top, and for purposes of this note, beyond good and evil. But while those at the top could function in this way, the majority of Germans were “Western” in orientation and would have been appalled if they knew all the activities the Nazis engaged in. And when they learned about them later on, they were appalled. Thus, we find that subsequent generations have repudiated the Nazi experiment, have returned to their Western roots, and have even paid reparations to the descendants of those that were killed during the Nazi era.

In Russia also, there has been a repudiation of the war crimes perpetrated during the Stalinist era. Glasnost began with a repudiation of Stalinist excesses. Not every Russian is comfortable with that repudiation. There are rationalizations for all that happened. We can certainly understand if not appreciate or agree with the idea that in order for “Communism” to succeed in Russia, if it was going to, those who opposed it were going to have to be prevented from doing it effectively. Thus some were killed and others sent off to Gulags. What occurred as a result of this Stalinism doesn’t comprise “War Crimes” in a literal sense of the term. What occurred during the Stalinist period in pursuit of the Communist ideal should be repudiated and deplored as a great error in judgment – a sort of idealistic-madness the various actions of which should be punished certainly, but not precisely as a series of “War Crimes.” Stalinists were not engaged in “War” when they tried to develop Communism in Russia.

There were Red Army war crimes. Hastings mentioned some of these in his book but implies that they were not engaged in institutionally. It was not part of the Soviet system to engage in war crimes. When they did occur it was the result of misbehavior on the part of individuals, individual units or commanders. Rapes and casual killing of civilians seems to have occurred more often in the Red Army than in the Allied Armies, but surely that has more to do with the education and moral upbringing of the individual soldier than any policy emanating from Russia.

Communists, like Nazis, could argue that they have an alternate reality which cannot hold them accountable in the same way that western armies could be held accountable. And yet Communism, as formulated by Marx, is in a real sense an outgrowth of Western Christianity. As such, it attempts to do a better job of fulfilling Christianity’s social objectives. Therefore, it can be held accountable to standards similar to traditional Western standards – with more logical validity than can the Nazi system.

When we look at the Japanese system, we find beliefs alien to Western ideals. They did brutalize captives, for example. They had a belief that it was shameful for a soldier to surrender. They could thus treat surrendered soldiers as though they had not surrendered at all, saving them shame, and giving them an acceptable death by cutting off their heads. Or they could treat them as shameful and brutalize them. As to the emaciated condition of allied prisoners that survived Japanese prison camps, it could be argued that they ate as well as the Japanese. And indeed the Japanese were used to getting by on far less food than Allied soldiers.

Hastings assumes the rightness of Western standards and isn’t willing to attempt to immerse himself very far in the Japanese tradition, and perhaps most of us would have no better success in such an endeavor; so instead, let’s create a “counter-factual.” Let’s suppose the Apache Indian civilization adapted as the Japanese did. They saw that their technology could not compete with that of the Americans; so they gave up their outward social structure, educated themselves by sending their children to American schools, and carved out for themselves a nation consisting of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, West Texas and Northern Mexico. By the 1930s, Apacheria had a population of 60 million as opposed to the American population of 180 million. The Apaches formed a pact with the Germans and Japanese and it is they, rather than the Japanese who attacked the Americans in 1941 -- not by sea but by land.

A very bloody war ensued and by 1946 the Nazis, Japanese and Apaches are defeated. A War Crimes tribunal is set up. Apache leaders are brought to trial and accused of staking out prisoners on desert to be killed slowly by red ants. Other prisoners were allowed to be killed by women and children who poked them repeatedly with sharp sticks. Torture was systematically advocated and engaged in by Apache soldiers and civilians, and in the war-crimes trials the Apache leaders would have to explain themselves.

Instead of confessing these crimes, they haughtily deny that they have committed crimes. Instead they accuse the Americans of being disgracefully like women rather than warriors. A few Apache generals and commanders are hanged, but Western sensibilities balk at punishing more than these few. By 2009 the Apache descendants had still not acknowledged their “war crimes.”


To be truly objective, one needs to move one’s perspective beyond the Western. We like and approve of our Western Standards. Indeed, we think they would be suitable standards for the entire world, but that is just our opinion. Those of other civilizations hold, if not absolutely contrary views then at least divergent ones. The Apaches, in my “counter-factual” would not agree that their standards were “war crimes.” For them such treatment of prisoners would be normal.

If we accept the idea that “bad treatment” of prisoners would not be considered bad by traditional Apaches or Japanese; then the question becomes, what shall be done about it. We need not ask that question in earnest, because history tells us the answer. We have militarily defeated both nations, or more properly, “civilizations,” and have imposed Western standards upon them. I quite approve of our victories. I would not like the look of our world if we had lost to either civilization, but when it comes time to view “war crimes,” perhaps our historians could strive for a more philosophical objectivity.

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