There may be no more potent expression of our consciousness of historical tragedy than the three words “Lest We Forget.”
By embracing the sentiment that these words imply, and keeping it close to our hearts, we pay homage to those who lost their lives in war and also strive to prevent the circumstances that caused that loss from ever reoccurring.
But “Lest We Forget” can also be used as a formula for bringing about those very same circumstances all over again.
There is such a thing as EVS, or “exploited victim syndrome,” according to which the memory of those who were genuine victims in war is exploited in support of a new aggression against others.
Awful things can be done in the name of victims who have nothing to do with the rationale of the new aggression. The most recent and blatant example of this exploitation of victims for aggressive purposes is the invasion of Iraq, given impetus and heavy immoral support by the tragedy of 9/11.
The United States, however, has no monopoly on the exploitation of victims to justify warmongering.
In the 1930s, Japan claimed it needed to expand its sphere of influence to secure natural resources because it was being “victimized” by Western colonial imperialists. Hitler justified his actions on the grounds that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by greedy victors after World War I. The Soviet government that occupied Eastern Europe after World War II claimed that such aggression was necessary to save the Motherland from becoming the victim of aggression again.
There may be no greater self-justification for aggression than the view of oneself as a victim. It is seen as necessary to claim past victims as “one’s own” in order to identify with them, turn them into symbols and use those symbols to wreak havoc on others.
War-renouncing Article 9
Those others then become the new victims, someday, no doubt, exploited by their descendants to do injustice to someone else.
And so, “Lest We Forget” turns, cynically, into “We’ll Give You Something Now To Remember Us By!”
Let’s look at Japan in this context. Thanks essentially to the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, the country has dedicated itself to forswearing any aggression by itself overseas. Ah, I can hear you say, but weren’t the Japanese the victimizers in World War II, not the victims?
It is certainly true that Japan struck Asia and the Pacific with immense brutality, killing millions of innocent people in the interests of the aggrandizement of the Japanese state. But Japanese people suffered too, hundreds of thousands of them burnt to death by indiscriminate American bombing. Virtually every major town and city in Japan was relentlessly razed in a campaign specifically designed to inflict the greatest possible loss of life on civilians. (U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who masterminded the carpet-bombing of Japan, was just as keen on decimating the population of North Vietnam when, in 1965, he urged his government to “bomb them back into the Stone Age.”)
The Japanese, with the exception of rightwing fringe groups, have been reluctant, in the postwar period, to claim that they, too, were victims. Losing a war of aggression makes it very hard to claim that many of your own people suffered terrible fates for which they were not responsible. Nonetheless, countless innocent Japanese lost their lives and homes due to what was clearly indiscriminate bombing.
Germany is a similar case. No one in Germany, save a few fanatics, now denies that their country was the perpetrator of a gigantic evil. But does this mean that the hundreds of thousands of people who were burnt to death when 131 German cities were bombed deserved to die? The late German novelist W.G. Sebald wrote that the firebombing of Hamburg in July 1943 “drove humans before it like living torches.”
The greatest single shipping disaster in history is not the sinking of the Titanic, but the sinking on Jan. 30, 1945 — by Soviet torpedoes — of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was transporting Germans out of East Prussia ahead of the advancing Red Army. An estimated 9,000 people, 4,000 of them children, died in that tragedy. Are they not victims whose memory we can honor?
Is it fair enough to kill them and say, “Well, what do you expect . . . your country started it all”? (ZDF television in Germany will screen a two-part drama about the incident, titled “Die Gustloff,” on Mar. 2 and 3.)
Victims of U.S. bombing
Of course such people are victims; and of course they did not deserve to die. Nor did the Japanese victims of U.S. bombing “deserve their fate.” We must remember them, and by doing so, reaffirm our absolute opposition to the use of weapons against non-combatants in war.
But what about “exploited victim syndrome?” Does this exist in Japan? Is there a danger that those innocent victims in World War II will be remembered in such a way as to justify aggressive action against some other country?
This danger always lurks in any society, no less in Japan than in the United States, Russia, Israel or any country that is capable of aggressive action against others who are weaker than they. However, no people — no matter how much they have suffered in the past — should be permitted to try to justify present bellicose behavior in the name of past tragedy. Nothing so instantly turns a victim into a victimizer more than such gross exploitation of history.
This is why the controversy over the revision of the Constitution in Japan has such immense significance. The government of ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was determined to pursue revision, scrapping Article 9 in the process. This would free Japan to pursue aggressive action against other countries. Had Abe’s plans materialized, I believe there would have been a resurgence of interest in wartime victims here and a wholesale exploitation of their memory.
The good thing — and the hope for Japan — is that the Japanese people rejected Abe’s wicked dream; and the present government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda seems uninterested in reigniting the controversy.
There were Japanese victims, millions of them, many in the military as well; and they deserve to be remembered by all of us. But the best guarantee that “Lest We Forget” will not turn into “Let Us Exploit” is the retention of Article 9 of the Constitution — and the reaffirmation by the Japanese people of their peaceful intentions toward all other nations that it stands for.