It is now nearly a month since the July 22 attacks on innocent Norwegians by the rightwing anti-Muslim terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, and aftershocks from those mass murders are still reverberating around the world. Yet massacres of innocents are everyday occurrences in wartime.
Nowadays, however, it often seems that those leaders who are ever-ready to inflict shock-and-awe “hits” on perceived enemies — thereby glorifying to themselves and their gung-ho followers the righteousness of their own causes — have forgotten that “collateral damage” is a euphemism for gratuitous slaughter.
Collateral damage underlies Breivik’s perverse logic, too, since he claims his killings were “necessary” to further his cause. Is that so different from the logic of the belligerent leader of a country?
Aug. 22 marks another anniversary of a tragedy of collateral damage in which the majority of victims were, as in Norway, the young.
On Aug. 21, 1944, 1,788 people, nearly half of them school pupils and their teachers, boarded an old passenger-cargo ship named the Tsushima Maru in Naha, Okinawa. They were being evacuated to mainland Japan. Saipan had fallen to the Allies the month before, and Japan’s military authorities were well aware that Okinawa would be the enemy’s next major target.
But the decision to evacuate children and other dependents from Okinawa was not taken for humanitarian reasons. After all, the Japanese had been indoctrinated well. Victory was “certain.” So why would there be a need for anyone to leave?
The evacuation was a military decision. It was taken because some 100,000 troops had been sent to Okinawa in anticipation of a decisive battle, and to ensure a secure supply of food for them it was deemed necessary to reduce civilian numbers as much as possible. So the evacuees were ordered to leave.
The 6,754-ton Tsushima Maru had been built in 1914 by Russell & Co. in Greenock, a shipbuilding center on the River Clyde near Glasgow, Scotland, since the 17th century. With its aging engines, by 1944 the 136-meter-long ship had become slow — which was to be a critical factor in its fate.
Despite a typhoon approaching from the southeast, the Tsushima Maru left Naha as one of a convoy of five ships bound for Nagasaki in Kyushu. At 10:12 on the night of Aug. 22, it was struck by two torpedoes and sank a mere 11 minutes later. The other ships in the convoy were so far ahead that they could not see it going down.
The chaos that ensued onboard after the torpedoes hit is described in the testimonies of some some survivors on the website of Naha’s Tsushima Maru Memorial Museum (www.tsushimamaru.or.jp/eng/memories/memories1.html) However, no accounts of the disaster were known to relatives until after the war, due to the fact that the military imposed on the incident a kankōrei (muzzle order) that forbade anyone from speaking about it on the grounds it was considered “demoralizing.”
I recommend two books to anyone interested in finding out more about the sinking of the Tsushima Maru: “Umi ni Shizunda Tsushima Maru” by Ai Saotome (published by Iwanami Shoten) and “Tsushima Maru” by Tatsuhiro Ohshiro (Rironsha).
Both books are in Japanese and are great reads that go into meticulous details of the horrendous personal plight of the victims, though Saotome’s book provides more insightful historical background.
The typhoon whipped up the waves where the ship went down, some 10 km off Akuseki Island, and many survivors left in the water clinging to planks of wood or the sides of overcrowded bamboo rafts eventually disappeared into the ocean. The lucky ones were picked up by fishing boats or drifted safely to the nearby island. In all, 1,418 people perished.
Though they weren’t to know for a year what had become of their loved ones, many in Okinawa were bitter that their families and friendships had been broken up by evacuation orders issued for the sake of reinforcements sent to the island. However, that was just a precursor of the kind of sacrifices they would be compelled to make in order to protect a nation that glorified its soldiers over all others.
While the Tsushima Maru stands as a stark symbol of collateral damage, the fact is that from July 1944 until March 1945, upward of 70,000 evacuees were killed in 178 ships sent out of Okinawa and other places.
Then came perhaps the most brutal of all such attacks, when, west of Hokkaido on Aug. 22, 1945 — a year to the day after the sinking of the Tsushima Maru, and a full week after World War II was over — a Soviet submarine torpedoed three Japanese transport ships — the Taito Maru, Ogasawara Maru and Daini-Shinko Maru.
Approximately 1,700 people who were fleeing Sakhalin Island, including many women and children, died in those sinkings by a warship afterward dubbed (by the Soviets) “the best Soviet submarine of the Pacific Fleet.”
The submarine that sank the Tsushima Maru was the USS Bowfin, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. John H. Corbus. It was finally decommissioned in 1971 and is now on display at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu.
Yet that memorial in Hawaii raises the question of whether it is beneficial to recall with valorous celebration the inconsolable tragedy of others. Can it truly be educational for your children to walk through a ship without allowing them to hear the screams of desperation and know the agony that its weapons caused?
I began by bringing up the senseless crimes perpetrated last month by a single armed individual in Norway. The link between this and wartime acts of collateral damage represents no stretch of the imagination. Breivik sees himself as a hero with a just cause. The trappings of his behavior, his uniform and weapon fetishes are militaristic. His actions were not those of an insane mass murderer. They were calculated to further his cause since, in his warped mind, they were the epitome of preemptive violence.
Yet Breivik’s actions are not far removed from those of leaders of nations who rush to belligerency. Their rhetoric of motivation may be more elaborate and more skillfully presented than that Norwegian’s, but it amounts to the same twisted rationale of violence “necessary to safeguard the future.”
Acts of terror — whether carried out by individuals and groups in peacetime or by armed forces in wartime — lead to only one thing: the wholesale murder of innocent people.
Ask Breivik and our nations’ leaders if it’s worth it and they will reply, with the feigned bravado of remorse, that it is. But it is the stories of the victims that we should be repeating over and over again, the story of the Tsushima Maru being just one of many.
Let the victors have their spoils. But glorifying our heroism to our children only sows the killing fields for people like Breivik to come along and claim them in the future.
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