Writing in the New York Times on July 17, the newspaper’s well-known columnist David Brooks reported on a White House press conference he attended on July 13. “[Pres.] Bush was assertive and good-humored,” Brooks noted.
“It’s more of a theological perspective,” claimed the president for the basis of his belief in victory in Iraq. “I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”
These sentiments have been expressed before by the president. However, I was taken aback by Brooks’ admiration in the article for Bush’s dogged confidence. It all reminded me poignantly of another place and another time . . .
Consider, if you will, the following:
“(He) believed that he could win a complicated modern war simply by intensifying the people’s spirit or by enhancing morale.”
This statement was made by Lt. Gen. Masaharu Honma. Though remembered for overseeing the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942 (for which he was tried in Manila and executed in 1946), Honma had gone to Oxford and served with the British forces in France in 1918. A realist himself, he was referring in the above statement to Japan’s wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
Tojo was certain of Japanese victory in World War II. He had virtually the entire Japanese nation, press and intellectuals included, behind him. This is a luxury that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would kill to possess.
Take the battle to defend the island of Saipan. Tojo stated, in May 1944, that the island was impregnable. He made this assertion to officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy. (Similarly, Bush often issues his most blustery proclamations to audiences of military personnel.)
A string of awful defeats
Tojo’s response to a string of awful defeats had been to “ask” his generals to resign when they expressed opinions he considered overly pessimistic. (Sound familiar again?) He went so far, in February 1944, as to oust Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hajime Sugiyama, taking on his responsibilities himself. But one defeat was following another, and it was Saipan that led directly to Tojo’s own ouster.
He was replaced as chief of staff directly after the defeat on July 9; and on July 18, he and his cabinet resigned. By mid-1944, the war was effectively unwinnable by the Japanese, and many military leaders knew it. But faith in the almighty Japanese spirit prevailed over reality, both on the ground, at sea and in the air. Such faith notwithstanding, Saipan was to become the staging point for U.S.-led Allied attacks on the Philippines, Okinawa — and ultimately the homeland, too.
The Japanese instigated hostilities in Asia and the Pacific chiefly to secure resources they considered necessary for their nation and its growing empire. Most military planners at the time did not envisage a lengthy conflict, and believed Japan would have great trouble ensuring supplies for one. Hence, Tokyo’s optimistic scenario was for a series of quick, decisive victories and a proclamation of victory.
This is essentially what happened in the early months of the war, and the mood both at home and in Japan’s colonies and conquered territories was euphoric. The empire would be secure, they believed, and could then deal on an equal footing with those great European imperial powers on which it had modeled its national policy. Mission accomplished.
I have gone into some historical detail here because now, even 62 years after the end of World War II, the lessons to be learned remain clearly apparent.
Bravado and blinkered ideological dogmatism convinced the Japanese that they were not overextending their empire. Even when the war was not going well for them, Tojo and his amenable cohorts could not conceive of defeat. They believed in their bones that if Japan lost the war, the country would suffer such humiliation that it would never recover its pride or be able to rebuild. But, of course, this was not the case. Japan was rebuilt and restored within a decade of its abject capitualation on Aug. 15, 1945.
The great crime of Tojo and his crew stemmed from them equating their own sense of pride, their own self-righteous greed and their own blind faith in their mission with their nation’s survival. This is precisely what Bush is doing in his pseudo-holy campaign to subdue belligerency in Iraq and impose a Pax Americana in the region.
Tolstoy’s celebrated view of history
In his New York Times article, David Brooks hedges his bets on Bush with a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated view of history. According to this, the role of individuals in shaping a country’s destiny is significantly downplayed. But clearly, wartime events in Asia and the Pacific were shaped by a myriad of factors, both chaotic and designed, in which the seemingly powerless masses and the apparently all-powerful leaders each played decisive roles.
The war in Iraq, instigated primarily by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, was doomed by that very combination of forces from the moment it began — just as the fate of the Japanese empire was sealed with the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
No amount of faith, either in the Almighty God of America or the then-Almighty God of Japan, the Emperor, can oppose a vast number of world leaders and experts who see such faith as futile, and millions of people in a country who ardently wish for the invader to leave.
Prolonging the war did, more than 60 years ago, lead to the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people — just as it is doing today, once again . . . all in the name of a few deluded individuals’ beliefs and “principles.”
If Pres. Richard Nixon had negotiated an end to the war in Vietnam several years before his country’s defeat in 1975, the lives of tens of thousands of people would have been spared. But the personal sense of “honor” that Nixon frequently referred to prevented him from recognizing the writing on the Pentagon wall.
Brooks writes: “President Bush is not blind to the realities in Iraq.”
Yes he is, Mr. Brooks!
It is his faith in himself and his mission that has blinded him. And it has all happened before, in your country and in others.
On Aug. 15, we in Japan will be observing the anniversary of a defeat many years ago, but one whose consequences all Japan is still painfully living with today.
Far into the future, Americans will surely and solemnly observe the anniversary of their defeat in Iraq. The longer it takes to recognize that outcome today, the more horrible those consequences will be.