War epics on screen skip mass slaughter of civilians


SAN FRANCISCO — Does the history diet fed to Americans by Hollywood promote an unhealthy national memory? The latest screen epic about American heroism in World War II — the HBO miniseries “The Pacific” — is clouded by an unintended irony.

Creators Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who teamed up also on “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan,” have sought to strengthen the authenticity of Hollywood renderings of World War II. But while such portrayals may give us a keener appreciation of the courage and suffering of U.S. troops on the battlefield, they also add further weight to a lopsided World War II history that leaves the dishonorable part of America’s wartime behavior buried deeper in national amnesia.

In what may be added irony, the widely reported premier of “The Pacific” came but four days after the little noticed anniversary of one of the darkest events in American war history — the March 10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo. The two-volume World War II history “Total War,” by Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard, describes the massive napalm attack on Japan’s capital as not only “the greatest air offensive in history” but also “deliberate, indiscriminate mass murder.”

The raid by B-29 bombers probably ranks as history’s largest mass killing of civilians in a short time span. The estimated death toll of 100,000 exceeded the immediate deaths in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or the Dresden firebombing.

“The street was filled with blackened corpses,” air raid survivor Haruko Nihei recently told a U.C. Berkeley audience on her first trip to tell her story in America. “There were so many of them that it was hard to walk on the streets.”

Then an 8-year-old girl, Nihei survived after falling in the panicked tumult and being covered by other people. When she came to, she found the bodies on top of her were “black as charcoal.”

The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said at the time that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire in Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” The inferno was so intense that fleeing victims burst spontaneously into flame and were boiled alive in canals into which they had plunged to escape. Their agonies were no less severe than those suffered at Hiroshima.

Confronting U.S. mass killing of civilians in WWII — particularly the Tokyo firebombing — is important now, not just because Americans should remember both the good and bad about their history. The U.S. has trouble winning hearts and minds in today’s war against terrorists in part because the terrorism blood on America’s own hands leaves it vulnerable to effective enemy propaganda and charges of hypocrisy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Osama bin Laden cited Hiroshima, as if to say the World Trade Center deaths represented only a small taste of the type of warfare that the U.S. had long ago sanctioned.

America was far from the first to bomb cities. The tactic began as early as the 19th century with bombs dropped from balloons over Venice. Indiscriminate killing of noncombatants from the air began, according to many historians, in the 1930s. The Japanese bombing of civilians in the Chapei section of Shanghai in January 1932 “horrified much of the world and anticipated the mass bombings of populations a decade later,” wrote Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber. The most infamous early example, immortalized in a painting by Picasso, came five years later in 1937 when more than a thousand people died in the German bombing of Guernica.

The Japanese military embraced the tactic during the Second Sino-Japanese War, bombing several Chinese cities. The most destruction came from repeated air raids on Chongqing, China’s wartime capital after the 1937 fall of Nanjing. Aerial attacks on Chongqing in May 1939 alone claimed an estimated 5,400 lives, according to Mark Selden, a Japan specialist at Cornell.

In WWII in Europe, bombing tolls mounted, beginning with German air raids on Warsaw in 1939 and Rotterdam in 1940. German bombing of British cities in the eight months following September 1940 claimed about 30,000 lives. British bombing of German cities began in 1942 and was later joined by the Americans. About 45,000 were killed in raids on Hamburg alone in July and August of 1943. Nearly as many were killed at Dresden in February 1945.

The concentration of carnage saw a significant escalation when America sent waves of bombers over Japan, especially in 1945. In attacks on 66 Japanese cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of civilians killed by American bombs was “probably close to four hundred thousand,” estimated MIT historian John Dower.

In the 2003 documentary “Fog of War” Robert McNamara, who served in World War II under the architect of the bombing campaign, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, quoted LeMay’s postwar assessment: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

McNamara, who later became U.S. Secretary of Defense, added, “I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

But if the U.S. was guilty of war crimes, then weren’t Japan, Germany and Great Britain also guilty? All of them rained bombs indiscriminately on civilians. America may have done so with the largest kill ratio, but virtually all laws against killing of innocents are not conditional on the number killed.

International law on bombing cities at that time was not clearly established. A Hague Convention that was drafted in 1923 explicitly banned aerial bombardment of civilians but was never ratified. The League of Nations unanimously passed a resolution in 1938 outlawing aerial bombing of civilian populations, but Japan and Germany by then had withdrawn from the league and the U.S. had never joined.

The most relevant agreement was the earlier Hague Convention Respecting Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907, which had been ratified by the major combatants of WWII. It forbade bombardment of “undefended” towns, bombardment without prior warning and destruction of enemy property not demanded by military necessity. But those who ordered the later bombings in Asia and Europe, though they were accused by their adversaries of violating international law, typically said they had met the required conditions.

At the Tokyo war crimes trial, bombing of cities was not one of the charges brought against the Japanese defendants. Nor was it charged against German leaders at Nuremberg. “Aerial bombardment had been used so extensively and ruthlessly on the Allied as well as Axis side that neither at Nuremberg nor Tokyo was the issue made a part of the trials,” recalled Telford Taylor, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg.

So, should anyone be blamed? One Japanese scholar said the 20th century’s ghastly record of civilian slaughter from the air had its origin in Japan’s attacks on Chinese cities.

In the book “Bombing Civilians,” Tetsuo Maeda, who retired in 2007 as a professor of international studies at Tokyo International University, wrote, “The sudden horror from the skies that took place in wars of the 20th century had its roots in tactics used by the Japanese forces during the Asia Pacific War. This horror boomeranged back to Japan in extreme form with the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The argument that “Japan started it” is often expressed, especially by American patriots, in the many debates over “victors’ justice” at the Tokyo war crimes trial and American misdeeds in the Pacific war. Can earlier Japanese bombing in China — along with German and British bombing in Europe and the uncertainty of international law at the time — exculpate the later American bombing of Japanese cities?

International laws of war, though not precisely defined, are generally viewed as including more than just signed treaties and agreements. Many scholars and jurists, including the judges at Nuremberg, have held that nations are bound also by “customary laws of war,” regardless of what particular treaty was signed by what country.

The indiscriminate slaughter of noncombatants violates customary laws of war as well as universal moral values. It sickens the human soul. Saying “Somebody else did it too” is no excuse.

All nations that bomb civilians are guilty and should account for their actions, and I believe the U.S. owes a special accounting. The scale and intensity of American bombing crossed a new threshold and, in the view of some critics, turned the bombing of cities into America’s chief weapon in concluding its war against Japan.

“If others, notably Germany, England and Japan led the way in area bombing, the targeting for destruction of entire cities with conventional weapons emerged in 1944-45 as the centerpiece of U.S. warfare,” Selden wrote.

It was the Tokyo attack that “initiated the U.S. government’s embrace of urban terror bombing as a legitimate form of warfare,” wrote Cary Karacas, an assistant professor at the College of Long Island who studies bombing of civilian populations.

In 1945, U.S. Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers described the U.S. air raids over Japanese cities as “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all history.”

The U.S. — and especially Hollywood’s shapers of national memory — have a special responsibility also to make amends for past omissions and tell the full truth about the past. A more forthright confrontation by Americans with their own war crimes would not only provide a model for other nations with dark pasts but also undermine the ability of America’s present enemies to win recruits for committing similar crimes against the U.S. and its allies.

Charles Burress is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance journalist who researched war memory as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tokyo and Keio University.