Soon the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will come around; so will that of the Oct. 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan prompted by those attacks. But, unlike the former attacks, few in the United States are likely to commemorate the latter with events, let alone with anything like a catchy 10/7, even though the U.S. named it, with smug arrogance, Operation Enduring Freedom.

The 15-year duration makes the Afghanistan War the longest “U.S. foreign war,” according to The Washington Post. This makes me think of the controversy over another “15-year war” that Saburo Ienaga made famous with his book, “The Pacific War: 1931-1945.” Although the real question was what to call the war that ended with Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Ienaga’s title suggests the indefinability of a war.

Today few outside Japan may recognize his name, but in the last decades of the last century Ienaga was “Japan’s single most famous historian,” as scholar Richard Minear noted in 2001 in translating Ienaga’s short autobiography, “Japan’s Past, Japan’s Future: One Historian’s Odyssey.” Where did his fame come from?

Foremost, Ienaga had taken on the education ministry over the revisions that the government demanded of some terms he used in his history textbook, “A New History of Japan” — not just once but three times. From the time he filed his first complaint with the Tokyo District Court in 1965 to the final decision on his third lawsuit in 1997, his legal perseverance lasted 32 years. That was one reason Ienaga won admiration both in and outside Japan.

Reading the decision summaries at various stages, however, I feel that the appellate courts were eminently reasonable. In particular, their decisions on whether the government’s right to certify textbooks is equal to censorship strike me as persuasive, just as they did back in April 2001 when I wrote about Ienaga in my column, “One man’s fight for the unvarnished truth.”

“The Pacific War: 1931-1945” — originally published in 1968 and translated into English in 1978 — brought to the fore Ienaga’s contention with the Education Ministry by focusing on a particular portion of the modern segment of Japan’s 1,500-year history. But, in doing so, it also magnified one weakness of his historical analysis.

Kirkus Review’s complete agreement with Ienaga’s view made that clear. The book is, its brief assessment judged, “a damning indictment — extensively documented — of Japanese imperialism, discrimination and barbarity overseas, of official complacency and unconcern, of repression, distortion.”

Richard Minear, though an admirer of Ienaga, explained the book’s problem tersely: “A history of World War II without economics, diplomatic negotiations, the war policies of other countries? Unlikely.”

Is it correct to call the Pacific War a 15-year war? On the face of it, no. The war started when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. But it may also be correct, if the aim is to find its cause.

Ienaga placed the war’s beginnings 10 years earlier. “The Pacific War began with the invasion of China in 1931,” he started his book. In September that year, Japan’s Kwantung Army staged a railway explosion in Manchuria, creating the puppet state Manchukuo six months later.

Did that lead to the Pacific War? Perhaps. But, in that case, shouldn’t Ienaga have titled his book differently? The largest part of the 15-year war was Japan’s conflict with China.

Interestingly, the American Occupation did something similar. In telling the Japanese to apply “the Pacific War” to the conflict that had just ended, it is said to have pushed the start of the war further back, to the the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928.

But if you do that, you may also seek the origins of “the Pacific War” in the creation of the Kwantung Army in 1906, or in Comdr. Matthew Perry’s Kanagawa Treaty that forced Japan to open in 1854, or even in John O’Sullivan’s advocacy of “manifest destiny” in 1845.

This will be true with the Afghanistan War. Today the assumption is that it started when George W. Bush invaded the country in October 2001. But if you follow the reasoning of Ienaga or the Allied Occupation regarding the Pacific War, the Afghanistan War didn’t start with Bush.

For example, many will agree with former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin that “the responsibility of the United States in the current mess in the Middle East (is) huge,” as he points out on a Harper’s Magazine panel, “Tearing Up the Map” (September 2016).

So, when did the U.S. start messing up the region? Villepin might say the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, which France opposed. But Hamid Dabashi, on the same panel, suggests earlier. The professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University suggests it started with the U.S. misconstruing the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

It was “a cosmopolitan revolution,” but “what did the Reagan administration do?,” Dabashi asks, and answers. “They created the Taliban in Afghanistan. To fight the Soviets, but also to undermine the appeal of the Iranian Revolution. It was not a Shiite revolution until the creation of the Taliban created a Sunni opposition.”

Then, when al-Qaida carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush refused to treat al-Qaida and the Taliban as different entities and attacked Afghanistan.

Speaking of the Iranian Revolution, you can also say the U.S. meddling in the Middle East started in 1953. That was when the CIA toppled the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah.

Actually, the Afghanistan War as a 15-year war itself is a temporary construction. The Washington Post cited that length of time in “These are America’s 9 longest foreign wars” (May 29, 2014) when Barack Obama extended the troop withdrawal to the end of 2016.

Since then Obama has further extended it to the end of 2017. The next president may do likewise. Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be that president, is, by general consensus, “a hawk.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist.


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