NEW YORK – My paternal uncle, Toshihiko, was shot up when Japan invaded Hainan Island in early 1939 and died, as a result, three years later at age 27. This is one of the things that came to mind recently when I read news stories about three veterans of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Feb. 2, at a Texas shooting range, Chris Kyle, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL, and Chad Littlefield, a 35-year-old military veteran, were shot dead by Eddie Routh, a 25-year-old former marine marksman whom Kyle thought he was helping.
Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history,” as the subtitle of his autobiography “American Sniper,” put it, is said to have killed anywhere from 150 to 255 Iraqis. He had started an organization to help fellow veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the affliction that he suffered himself. Routh was among those he had extended his hand to.
Several days later, it came out that another former Navy SEAL was struggling with financial problems. Military veterans with not enough income is no news. Last year the government counted more than 62,000 veterans among homeless people.
But this SEAL was different. He killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Identified as “the Shooter” in Phil Bronstein’s account in Esquire because the veteran sticks to the secrecy accord with the military, he also suffered from PTSD.
So did another SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, who is said to have killed more than 30 people. Bissonnette was on the same mission as the Shooter to kill bin Laden, but his identify was exposed as soon as his book, “No Easy Day,” came out under a pseudonym last fall.
These PTSD references brought to mind something my teacher 60 years ago told us in class. Her brother would wake in the middle of the night, screaming with terror, sweating. A soldier in Japan’s prolonged war against China, he had either taken part in wanton killings or witnessed them.
Thinking of it now, I wonder why my teacher told her 11- or 12-year-old pupils about the terrible psychological consequences of the war that had ended eight years earlier. Was she vicariously compensating for the opprobrium of the war of which her brother was a cog?
A friend of mine who was on the Special Forces calls PTSD “the light of the truth of what a soldier must do to make sense out of what happens within a campaign.”
Not that I think that my teacher’s brother was a sniper or “a killing machine,” as some have called Chris Kyle. Nor do I think my uncle, another soldier in China, was one. He was drafted in the summer of 1938 and sent to Hainan Island.
Japan’s assault on Hainan is not described in any of the history books I have, except for the volume that gives a detailed chronology of Japanese history, but even there it merits just one sentence. The English Wikipedia entry on the island briefly mentions mass killings by the Japanese military during its six-year occupation following its seemingly easy takeover in February 1939.
Perhaps to the Japanese, what took place on the island, almost three-quarters the size of Kyushu, was overwhelmed by the Nomonhan Incident a few months later that year — the border clash far north between USSR-Mongolian forces and the Japanese. In that war, the Japanese had fewer casualties than the Soviets and Mongolians, but in the deployment of advanced mechanized weapons they found themselves decisively inferior.
Relying on Japanese accounts on the Internet for now, by 1937, the Japanese had 24 of its divisions deployed in China, nine in their puppet nation Manchukuo and the country that they had annexed in 1910, Korea, with just one division left in Japan proper. Yet, despite its large deployment, Japan’s undeclared war against China had stalled. Its military aim in China, whatever it was, had been lost or else unattainable.
Still, there was the idea of expanding Japan’s sphere of influence to the south, to Burma, Vietnam and Indonesia, and the Japanese Navy insisted on taking Hainan Island, a large blob in the Tonkin Gulf, as a stepping stone.
With only an estimated 4,000 of Chiang Kaishek’s forces on the island, the Japanese forces took only 10 days before declaring victory. But Hainan was also a stronghold of Mao Zedong’s communist guerillas. That may partly explain the large-scale killings the English Wikipedia entry on the island says the Japanese perpetrated in the ensuing occupation.
The Japanese military of course talked about the island’s “pacification,” the strategy of winning “the hearts and minds” of the conquered populace, even as it continued to kill people it arbitrarily labeled enemies.
The U.S. promoted the self-deceiving program in Vietnam. More recently, it formed the core of the counterinsurgency doctrine that Gen. David Petraeus pushed in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. Petraeus is said to be one of the brightest military officers in recent U.S. history.
The initial part, in any case, was so easy for the Japanese that the navy’s propaganda section made “Song of Hainan Island Landing,” and its army counterpart “Song of Hainan Island Attack,” both in April. The popular singer Taro Shoji sang them.
During a skirmish on May 3, my uncle lost his right arm and the ability to use his right leg. For these “honorable wounds,” he was given clumsily made artificial limbs in the name of the emperor. He died as a result of the burden of the imperial gift he felt obliged to wear, my family believed.
To go back to “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history,” one notable reaction to his death by gun came from Ron Paul. The former congressman, who has never deviated from his opposition to U.S. wars, tweeted: “Chris Kyle’s death seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.’ Treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense.”
That created a furor. In a “clarification,” Paul said, “Unconstitutional and unnecessary wars have endless unintended consequences.”
Paul’s observation is true of U.S. actions in the Middle East that led to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which, in turn, led to the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is also true of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 and its willful conduct in China that became serious about that time and have cast their shadows to this day.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” was published last fall.