My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can order it here.
Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):
In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.
In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.
Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.
Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.
Pre-order your copy of Hooper’s War today!
A Personal Note: If you enjoy this website and my other commentary, please consider buying a copy of Hooper’s War.
Unlike most other sites, I don’t ask for donations, run funding drives, try and trick you into handing over your email address or any of the other annoyances out there. Instead, I rely on your book purchases to keep things afloat, and for me to keep running this site I need to ask for your support.
Please also help out by tweeting about my book, and by recommending it to your local library. Ask for it at your local bookstore and see if they’ll carry it. I appreciate your help.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Would you like to review an advance copy of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan?
If so, please contact me: info (at) wemeantwell.com Be sure to include a link to where you review books or your blog. If you review on Amazon or Goodreads, please let me know the name you work under.
If you’d like an e-copy, please specify format.
Hooper’s War is also available for pre-order!
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Thanks to everyone for helping launch Hooper’s War pre-orders this weekend!
The book is ranking high on Amazon, running alongside similar books from large-scale publishers. Without their advertising budgets, books like Hooper’s War from smaller publishers willing to take the risk of putting out an anti-war book depend on word of mouth. So thank you.
RealClearBooks was nice enough to publish an excerpt.
Kirkus Reviews had some good things to say — “Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.”
So take a moment and see what Hooper’s War is all about!
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You can win an autographed, advanced reading copy of my next book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.
Here are the details:
Luminis Books will publish my next novel, Hooper’s War, in May 2017.
Here’s the back cover kind of blurb for the new book:
There’s no prosthetic for a soul that’s dying faster than its body. You have to heal it. And to do that, you’re going to have to fight Hooper’s War.
In this anti-war novel set in WWII Japan, Lieutenant Nate Hooper isn’t sure he’ll survive. And if he does make it home, he isn’t sure he can survive the peace. He’s done a terrible thing, and struggles to resolve the mistake alongside an unrepentant Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman trying to save both men.
War can be about a lot of things but it is always about what happens to people. The characters face a decision that will forever define them not by their war against each other, but by their war against themselves. A tale of moral complexity, of decisions that last longer than people do.
With allegorical connections to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reverse chronology telling of Hooper’s War turns a loss-of-innocence narrative into a tale of why that loss is inevitable.
Think Matterhorn and The Things They Carried, crossed with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Some parts funny, some deadly serious.
That’s an early mockup of the cover, above. You can read some early excerpts from Hooper’s War here.
If you are in the New York City area, Monday, December 7 at 7 pm, please join me and several other writers for a series of book readings and some good discussion.
The event, organized by Words After War, will be held at The Folly, a nice bar located at 92 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012. Get there a little early and catch the end of happy hour.
I’ll be reading from my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, as well as offering a sneak preview of my next book, Hooper’s War, a novel set in World War II Japan.
I will share the stage with three other writers.
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose creative nonfiction focuses on the intersections of history, memory, and family. Her essays have previously appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Narratively, and Saveur, among others. She is currently at work on a book project about World War II and the lasting consequences of trauma.
Adrian Bonenberger is an author, essayist, and journalist currently studying at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA program for creative writing. He is lecturing at Yale University Fall 2015, a course titled “Memoir and the War on Terror,” following an Army career that included two tours to Afghanistan. His war memoirs, Afghan Post, were released in January 2014.
Brandon Caro is the author of the debut novel, Old Silk Road (It is excellent; I’ll have a review here soon.) He was a Navy corpsman/combat medic and advisor to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan from 2006-2007. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, and elsewhere.
See you on Monday, December 7!
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing through legislation to give his country’s military the power to strike offensively for the first time since the war.
It is hard to understate the potential impact of this development.
Domestically, Abe is putting his own job on the line. Voters oppose the new legislation roughly two to one, opposition parties walked out of the vote in protest and the government’s support ratings fell to around 40 percent. The lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the legislation set off the largest demonstrations in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear accident; a crowd of 100,000 people gathered with signs reading “Abe, Quit.”
Abe took this action knowing that 55 years ago similar protests forced his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, out of the prime minister’s job after he rammed a revised U.S.-Japan security pact, seen as too militaristic, through parliament.
Abe’s move is also darkly symbolic both in and outside Japan.
Most Japanese remain proud of Article 9 in their postwar constitution, through which they became the only nation in modern times to renounce the use of offensive force. Abe’s walking his country away from this achievement represents the end of the last great ideal to emerge from World War Two, and an almost contemptuous disregard for his citizens’ view of themselves.
In addition, as China contests islands in the seas south of Japan, North Korea rattles its nuclear saber and Japan’s Southeast Asian neighbors remember their own World War Two experiences, the new legislation throws additional fuel onto the coals of East Asian tensions. China’s foreign ministry said the move called into question Japan’s postwar commitment to “the path of peaceful development” and urged Abe to learn the lessons of history.
Chief among the practical concerns in Japan is that Abe’s legislative end-run around the constitution will block case-by-case debate on the use of the nation’s military.
For example, Japan’s only post-World War Two deployment of troops abroad, a single battalion to Iraq in 2004 in support of U.S. reconstruction efforts, met intense scrutiny to the point where the government published images of the small arms the soldiers carried, which were to be used only for self-protection, to assure the public of its non-martial intent. A separate, one-time-only law, passed in the wake of 9/11 to allow Japan to refuel American ships in the Indian Ocean, restricted Japanese vessels to “areas where no combat is taking place.”
The new legislation does not immediately become law. The measure moves to the upper house, where no vote is expected to be taken. After 60 days, the measure will automatically return to the lower chamber, where Abe’s coalition holds a comfortable majority. In theory, the decision could then be challenged in the supreme court as being in violation of Article 9, though the court historically rules in favor of the government.
That addresses the “what.” The “why” remains much harder to discern.
Abe says the legislation is in response to threats facing Japan, including from China. He also cites the murder of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State, suggesting his military could have rescued them. While these views play well to the ultranationalists who help fund the prime minister’s party, Abe’s critics see them as blather; American security guarantees protect Japan without a (Japanese, at least) thumb in the eye of its neighbors. And even if Japan had the special-forces capability to pull off a hostage rescue, such an action seems well within the intent of Article 9.
Abe also says that the new legislation would allow Japan to help defend the United States, something his critics feel could lead to entanglements in U.S. aggression against China, or even in the Middle East. Abe’s own arguments about defending Japan aside, one real factor is the United States pushing the leader into a more aggressive stance under the banner of “collective defense.”
However, the real “why” likely rests deep inside Abe. He has long held a hyper-conservative view of World War Two. He stated, for example, that Japanese leaders charged with war crimes were “not war criminals under the laws of Japan.” American occupiers arrested Abe’s grandfather, Kishi, as a war criminal for his role in the war. Some say Kishi, who helped raise Abe, pressed into his grandson his own dream of remaking Japan as a military power and throwing off the postwar constitution.
Abe is a politician who found himself powerful enough to act on his own ideas, apart from what many feel are his nation’s legitimate security needs. Abe is apparently willing to pick a fight, risk his job and anger his country, all in service to his own ideology.
As part of the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the Pacific, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in a nationally-televised event about the deep remorse his nation felt over the events of the war.
While many in Japan seem satisfied that Abe appropriately helped put the past in its place, most outside Japan expressed disappointment in his well-chosen words.
Did Abe accidentally miss the mark in his speech, or did he purposefully hit his target dead on?
Abe’s speech emphasized remorse. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He acknowledged Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” when it “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”
But in the same text, Abe also said “we must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” emphasizing that 80% of Japan’s population was born after 1945. He blamed the western colonial powers for entering Asia in the 19th century, and mentioned Japan’s civilian casualties in the specific — Hiroshima, Tokyo, Okinawa — without touching on events such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, which took 300,000 Chinese lives, the importation of Koreans into Japan for forced labor and the sexual enslavement of 200,000 so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia.
Criticism of Abe’s speech from abroad was sharp. China’s Xinhua news agency said the speech was insincere, and his “adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard.” Abe, Xinhua said, sought to “close the page of history.” In South Korea, which calls August 15, the day of Japan agreed to surrender to the U.S., Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye said Abe’s statement “left much to be desired.”
The duality of Abe’s words was not by any accident, and he took great pains to ensure any explanations or condolences would not be confused for an apology. Why?
Whenever a senior Japanese leader speaks of the war, he must parse out where he will create offense, because in the pattern that has evolved in East Asia, no Japanese leader can satisfy both his domestic and international audiences. He must decide where to spend his points.
Abe’s choice fell solidly on the domestic side, not unexpected given his drive to remilitarize Japan. The word “apology” in the context of the war is seen by conservatives in Japan, which include many of the wealthy donors who support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party party, as near-profanity. The same for specific mentions of events such as Nanjing or Japan’s system of sexual slavery; many in the far right-wing in Tokyo still deny those events took place. Abe referring to Japan’s own losses as he mentioned Japan’s victims, was a sop to his supporters and, by Asian sensibilities, a slap in the face to those who died under Japan’s hand.
Some in Japan will respond by asking how many times must they apologize for events that most young people in Japan barely know about. The answer lies in comparing Japan’s post-war actions to Germany’s.
Abe appointed unapologetic revisionists to high-profile posts, and has made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted of war crimes are enshrined along with millions of fallen soldiers and sailors. The Shrine also hosts a museum of World War II artifacts, including a locomotive from occupied Manchuria seen as an endorsement of Japanese colonial ambitions. Though with no connection to Abe, many in Asia are also acutely aware that World War II Emperor Hirohito’s son sits on the throne in Japan.
Unlike in Germany, what happened was never kneaded into Japan’s national consciousness, something that underlies Abe’s recent speech, and actions as Prime Minister.
Understanding Abe’s speech, and Japan’s actions, through Chinese or Korean eyes can be difficult. But imagine a German government beholden to Holocaust deniers, one that deletes its Nazi legacy from textbooks, one that never apologized and compensated its victims, and one where the Prime Minister made a yearly pilgrimage to a site holy to the National Socialists, perhaps with an attached museum featuring rail cars from Dachau. All with Hitler’s son as the symbolic head of state.
So when a Japanese Prime Minister stands to speak of the Pacific War, he speaks in a type of code, including certain words he knows will please his domestic audience, and knowingly leaving out many others whose omissions offend and inflame much of his international listeners. Shinzo Abe choose his words with great care, and hit his target this time dead solid perfect.
I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.
There is a Japanese jail not far from the Hiroshima Peace Park, and in my guise as a diplomat working in Japan, one of my jobs was to visit Americans in jail, typically young men and women who’d smoked a little weed in drug-conscious Japan.
I’d check up on their welfare, pass messages to and from home for them, that kind of thing. There were always enough of these folks in Hiroshima for at least quarterly visits, and I always took the opportunity to visit the Peace Park, the Atomic Dome and the museum. You’ve seen them all in photos many, many times.
The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.
I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.
But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2015 and where you would have been in 1945.
In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2015, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.
Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.
While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.
Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given what many perceive as a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.
The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.
There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.
Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.
Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge.
There is a lot to say about this day, when 70 years ago, the United States became the first and only nation to use nuclear weapons.
So much is said every day about Iran and nuclear weapons, and terrorists and nuclear weapons, Putin with nuclear weapons and so forth, but that one fact remains among all the blather. For all the talk, only America has dropped the bomb.
We did it twice (the Nagasaki bomb was on August 9) and we did it on two civilian targets. There is no use arguing that the two cities had significant military value; if there had been, they would have already been firebombed to tinder the way Tokyo and other cities in Japan had been. Nagasaki was a port, but not far away was the major naval base at Sasebo, which some say was not bombed because the U.S. planned to take possession of it after the war for our own navy (we did.) Both cities had some defense industry, but pretty much any place in Japan larger than a village also did.
Civilians were not, in today’s language, collateral damage. They were the targets. The image above shows what one child victim then looked like as an adult.
Please think of him when you hear some American say the Japs deserved it.
So we’ll leave it at this. As part of my research for my next book, Hooper’s War, I found this, below, an accounting by the United States of the exact, precise number of school children it killed on that hot August morning in 1945.
(This piece is written by a good friend of the blog, Chris Appy, and is reprinted with the kind permission of Chris and TomDispatch, where it originally appeared.)
Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’m wondering if we’ve come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world’s only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings.
Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people — slowly and painfully — leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?
Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: “Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.
It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you’re sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
It turns out, however, that Bush’s version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons — the argument in their defense — that ensured we would never have to say we’re sorry.
The Hiroshima Apologia
On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.
Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a “military base,” then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon’s power and so selected the “virgin targets” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could “show its strength” to the fullest. According to Stimson’s diary, Truman “laughed and said he understood.”
The president soon dropped the “military base” justification. After all, despite Washington’s effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. “We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
By 1945, most Americans didn’t care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan’s war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” — “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America’s willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.”
In the years after World War II, the most virulent expressions of race hatred diminished, but not the widespread idea that the atomic bombs had been required to end the war, eliminating the need to invade the Japanese home islands where, it was confidently claimed, tooth-and-nail combat would cause enormous losses on both sides. The deadliest weapon in history, the one that opened the path to future Armageddon, had therefore saved lives. That was the stripped down mantra that provided the broadest and most enduring support for the introduction of nuclear warfare. By the time Truman, in retirement, published his memoir in 1955, he was ready to claim with some specificity that an invasion of Japan would have killed half-a-million Americans and at least as many Japanese.
Over the years, the ever-increasing number of lives those two A-bombs “saved” became a kind of sacred numerology. By 1991, for instance, President George H.W. Bush, praising Truman for his “tough, calculating decision,” claimed that those bombs had “spared millions of American lives.” By then, an atomic massacre had long been transformed into a mercy killing that prevented far greater suffering and slaughter.
Truman went to his grave insisting that he never had a single regret or a moment’s doubt about his decision. Certainly, in the key weeks leading up to August 6, 1945, the record offers no evidence that he gave serious consideration to any alternative.
“Revisionists” Were Present at the Creation
Twenty years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned an ambitious exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. At its center was to be an extraordinary artifact — the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But the curators and historical consultants wanted something more than yet another triumphal celebration of American military science and technology. Instead, they sought to assemble a thought-provoking portrayal of the bomb’s development, the debates about its use, and its long-term consequences. The museum sought to include some evidence challenging the persistent claim that it was dropped simply to end the war and “save lives.”
For starters, visitors would have learned that some of America’s best-known World War II military commanders opposed using atomic weaponry. In fact, six of the seven five-star generals and admirals of that time believed that there was no reason to use them, that the Japanese were already defeated, knew it, and were likely to surrender before any American invasion could be launched. Several, like Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight Eisenhower, also had moral objections to the weapon. Leahy considered the atomic bombing of Japan “barbarous” and a violation of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.”
Truman did not seriously consult with military commanders who had objections to using the bomb. He did, however, ask a panel of military experts to offer an estimate of how many Americans might be killed if the United States launched the two major invasions of the Japanese home islands scheduled for November 1, 1945 and March 1, 1946. Their figure: 40,000 — far below the half-million he would cite after the war. Even this estimate was based on the dubious assumption that Japan could continue to feed, fuel, and arm its troops with the U.S. in almost complete control of the seas and skies.
The Smithsonian also planned to inform its visitors that some key presidential advisers had urged Truman to drop his demand for “unconditional surrender” and allow Japan to keep the emperor on his throne, an alteration in peace terms that might have led to an almost immediate surrender. Truman rejected that advice, only to grant the same concession after the nuclear attacks.
Keep in mind, however, that part of Truman’s motivation for dropping those bombs involved not the defeated Japanese, but the ascending Soviet Union. With the U.S.S.R. pledged to enter the war against Japan on August 8, 1945 (which it did), Truman worried that even briefly prolonging hostilities might allow the Soviets to claim a greater stake in East Asia. He and Secretary of State James Byrnes believed that a graphic demonstration of the power of the new bomb, then only in the possession of the United States, might also make that Communist power more “manageable” in Europe. The Smithsonian exhibit would have suggested that Cold War planning and posturing began in the concluding moments of World War II and that one legacy of Hiroshima would be the massive nuclear arms race of the decades to come.
In addition to displaying American artifacts like the Enola Gay, Smithsonian curators wanted to show some heartrending objects from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, including a schoolgirl’s burnt lunchbox, a watch dial frozen at the instant of the bomb’s explosion, a fused rosary, and photographs of the dead and dying. It would have been hard to look at these items beside that plane’s giant fuselage without feeling some sympathy for the victims of the blast.
None of this happened. The exhibit was canceled after a storm of protest. When the Air Force Association leaked a copy of the initial script to the media, critics denounced the Smithsonian for its “politically correct” and “anti-American” “revision” of history. The exhibit, they claimed, would be an insult to American veterans and fundamentally unpatriotic. Though conservatives led the charge, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive” that included a tidy rehearsal of the official apologia: “The role of the Enola Gay… was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”
Merciful? Consider just this: the number of civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone was more than twice the number of American troops killed during the entire Pacific war.
In the end, the Smithsonian displayed little but the Enola Gay itself, a gleaming relic of American victory in the “Good War.”
Our Unbroken Faith in the Greatest Generation
In the two decades since, we haven’t come closer to a genuine public examination of history’s only nuclear attack or to finding any major fault with how we waged what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “the Good War.” He used that term as the title for his classic 1984 oral history of World War II and included those quotation marks quite purposely to highlight the irony of such thinking about a war in which an estimated 60 million people died. In the years since, the term has become an American cliché, but the quotation marks have disappeared along with any hint of skepticism about our motives and conduct in those years.
Admittedly, when it comes to the launching of nuclear war (if not the firebombings that destroyed 67 Japanese cities and continued for five days after “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki), there is some evidence of a more critical cast of mind in this country. Recent polls, for instance, show that “only” 56% of Americans now think we were right to use nuclear weapons against Japan, down a few points since the 1990s, while support among Americans under the age of 30 has finally fallen below 50%. You might also note that just after World War II, 85% of Americans supported the bombings.
Of course, such pro-bomb attitudes were hardly surprising in 1945, especially given the relief and joy at the war’s victorious ending and the anti-Japanese sentiment of that moment. Far more surprising: by 1946, millions of Americans were immersed in John Hersey’s best-selling book Hiroshima, a moving report from ground zero that explored the atomic bomb’s impact through the experiences of six Japanese survivors. It began with these gripping lines:
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
Hiroshima remains a remarkable document for its unflinching depictions of the bomb’s destructiveness and for treating America’s former enemy with such dignity and humanity. “The crux of the matter,” Hersey concluded, “is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?”
The ABC Radio Network thought Hersey’s book so important that it hired four actors to read it in full on the air, reaching an even wider audience. Can you imagine a large American media company today devoting any significant air time to a work that engendered empathy for the victims of our twenty-first century wars? Or can you think of a recent popular book that prods us to consider the “material and spiritual evil” that came from our own participation in World War II? I can’t.
In fact, in the first years after that war, as Paul Boyer showed in his superb book By the Bomb’s Early Light, some of America’s triumphalism faded as fears grew that the very existence of nuclear weapons might leave the country newly vulnerable. After all, someday another power, possibly the Soviet Union, might use the new form of warfare against its creators, producing an American apocalypse that could never be seen as redemptive or merciful.
In the post-Cold War decades, however, those fears have again faded (unreasonably so since even a South Asian nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India could throw the whole planet into a version of nuclear winter). Instead, the “Good War” has once again been embraced as unambiguously righteous. Consider, for example, the most recent book about World War II to hit it big, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Published in 2010, it remained on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover for almost four years and has sold millions of copies. In its reach, it may even surpass Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. A Hollywood adaptation of Unbroken appeared last Christmas.
Hillenbrand’s book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of World War II or even of the war in the Pacific. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a child delinquent turned Olympic runner turned B-24 bombardier. In 1943, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. He and the pilot survived 47 days in a life raft despite near starvation, shark attacks, and strafing by Japanese planes. Finally captured by the Japanese, he endured a series of brutal POW camps where he was the victim of relentless sadistic beatings.
The book is decidedly a page-turner, but its focus on a single American’s punishing ordeal and amazing recovery inhibits almost any impulse to move beyond the platitudes of nationalistic triumphalism and self-absorption or consider (among other things) the racism that so dramatically shaped American combat in the Pacific. That, at least, is the impression you get combing through some of the astonishing 25,000 customer reviews Unbroken has received on Amazon. “My respect for WWII veterans has soared,” a typical reviewer writes. “Thank you Laura Hillenbrand for loving our men at war,” writes another. It is “difficult to read of the inhumanity of the treatment of the courageous men serving our country.” And so on.
Unbroken devotes a page and a half to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, all of it from the vantage point of the American crew of the Enola Gay. Hillenbrand raises concerns about the crew’s safety: “No one knew for sure if… the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming.” She describes the impact of the shockwaves, not on the ground, but at 30,000 feet when they slammed into the Enola Gay, “pitching the men into the air.”
The film version of Unbroken evokes even less empathy for the Japanese experience of nuclear war, which brings to mind something a student told my graduate seminar last spring. He teaches high school social studies and when he talked with colleagues about the readings we were doing on Hiroshima, three of them responded with some version of the following: “You know, I used to think we were wrong to use nukes on Japan, but since I saw Unbroken I’ve started to think it was necessary.” We are, that is, still in the territory first plowed by Truman in that speech seven decades ago.
At the end of the film, this note appears on the screen: “Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness. He returned to Japan, where he found and made peace with his former captors.”
That is indeed moving. Many of the prison camp guards apologized, as well they should have, and — perhaps more surprisingly — Zamperini forgave them. There is, however, no hint that there might be a need for apologies on the American side, too; no suggestion that our indiscriminate destruction of Japan, capped off by the atomic obliteration of two cities, might be, as Admiral Leahy put it, a violation of “all of the known laws of war.”
So here we are, 70 years later, and we seem, if anything, farther than ever from a rejection of the idea that launching atomic warfare on Japanese civilian populations was an act of mercy. Perhaps some future American president will finally apologize for our nuclear attacks, but one thing seems certain: no Japanese survivor of the bombs will be alive to hear it.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament in January 2015 he was “stunned” at the content of an American high school history textbook. Japan’s Foreign Ministry complained to the book’sauthor. A group of 19 Japanese historians, lead by a professor from Ivy League-equivalent Nihon University is sending “corrections” to the publisher.
The topic of contention: Japan’s World War II system of sex slavery, the so-called “comfort women,” (慰安婦; ianfu in Japanese) women and girls kidnapped from conquered Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese Imperial Army. Japanese historians downplay or deny their existence. Japan’s Asian neighbors know the truth, and struggle against the revisionist history.
Germany, Japan and the Legacy of WWII
Unlike Germany, which has reconciled with its World War II past, paid reparations to its victims and worked to achieve modern relationships with its neighbors, Japan has more than passively chosen to not acknowledge its past. Japan seeks to actively deny the existence of well-documented historical events it committed, even to the detriment of current relations with important neighboring nations. Yet while Holocaust deniers in Germany are seen as little more than crackpots, comfort women deniers occupy positions at the most senior levels of government.
The majority of Japan’s victims were kidnapped from occupied Korea. Known in Japanese as ianfu, and in Korean as wianbu, the number of women enslaved varies considerably, from unrealistic lows in the tens of thousands to high-end estimates close to half a million. While the numbers themselves are a source of ongoing friction between Japan and the victimized countries, in some ways they matter little; atrocity is atrocity, and tragedy tragedy. Pain does not scale, it simply remains. Nonetheless, differences over the number of women involved are representative of the larger issue: Japan simply will not come to terms with what it did.
Japan’s official attitudes toward the issue are especially troubling given the preponderance of evidence even within their own archives. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, stationed during WWII on Borneo, organized a “comfort station.” The young officer’s success in procuring Indonesian women went so well that he was officially commended. The source of this information? Nakasone’s own 1978 autobiography. Imagine a U.S. presidential candidate making similar claims.
Limited but key testimony from Japanese responsible for the system also exists. The former president of the Sankei newspaper, a major Japanese daily, worked in the accounting division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. He was in charge of staffing and opening “comfort stations.” The now-elderly former bureaucrat described his work as “When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not. We had to calculate the allotted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, grunts, how many minutes. There was even a prospectus we learned in military accounting school. The term used for the procurement of women was choben, an old military word that referred to gathering food for the horses.”
But nothing from the Japanese side comes close to comparing to the memories of the surviving women themselves. Here is just one example; as with the Holocaust, there are too many more:
Soldiers came to my room. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me… My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in… I had a bandage on my chest. Despite that, the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. I was kicked by a soldier. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone. When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning… There was no bedding… underneath was earth. We cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts!
Approximately three quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Beatings and physical torture, beyond the daily gang rapes, were common.
Current Efforts in Japan to Deny the Issue
Current Prime Minister Abe’s administration denies Japan ran a system of human trafficking and sex slavery, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes. His latest move came at the end of October 2014 when his party appointed Nakasone’s son to chair a commission to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.”
Abe’s goal is to dilute the 1993 Kono Statement, named for Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono. Though perhaps unnecessarily vague in the original language text, the statement was understood in Asia as about the closest that was ever going to emerge from the Japanese government to an apology for the sex slave system.
The current efforts by Abe to deny sex slavery are not his first. During Abe’s first administration, in 2007, his cabinet began undermining the Kono Statement by stating there was no documentary evidence of coercion in the acquisition of women, and that the Statement was not binding government policy.
Sex Slaves and Foreign Relations
The Japanese government seems unconcerned in the extreme with how its views on WWII sex slavery affect its Asian neighbors. The issue remains a block to better relations with Korea and China especially; some of Japan’s other neighbors who do not occupy such strong economic positions have had to ameliorate their criticism for practical reasons, though the underlying anger remains.
The role of the United States remains troubling to many. Unlike in Germany, where the U.S.-led Nuremberg Trials pressed Nazi war crimes into the world’s media and served as a starting point for Germany’s own healing, war crime trials in post-war Japan were brief, focused in large part on responsibility for the decision to go to war in the first place, and purposefully excluded the Emperor. Imagine if Hitler had lived and if the U.S. chose not to bring him to trial.
More recent support in the United States is spotty. The House of Representatives, in 2007, passed a non-binding resolution asking the Japanese government to redress the situation and to teach the actual historical facts in its schools. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the use of the euphemism “comfort women” and stated the victims should be referred to as “enforced sex slaves.”
However, the United States otherwise has remained largely silent on the issue, preferring to say the disagreements over the history of the sex slaves, like those over the facts of the Rape of Nanjing and the ownership of several small islands in the region that continue to roil East Asian relations, need to be sorted out by the parties involved. Many see this as a weak way out, and, given America’s influence over Japan, almost a tacit acceptance of Japan’s history as unimportant.
How many Japanese citizens agree with their government’s version of WWII history is difficult to pin down. However, given the election successes of those politicians pandering to the extreme revisionist views of events, one can sadly surmise the percentage is not small. Willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence remains the most recent wounds committed against the “comfort women” by Japan.
Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.
The Explainer Industry
Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.
The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.
Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?
A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle
The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.
Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.
Japan Went Insane
As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.
And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.
A Post-Capitalist Society
If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.
The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.
It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.
Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.
I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.
Japan absorbed WWII. The collective memory was tidied up. Little is taught about the war in modern Japanese schools, and even less of what is taught is true. There seems no reason to bring up all those bad deeds and rotten memories. For the most part, the Japanese created their own alternate history of the war.
So it is all the more shocking that a Japanese university opened a museum acknowledging that its staff performed vivisections on a handful of downed American airmen (above) during World War II. The incident has been previously documented by both sides of the war, but the very public and ongoing acknowledgement of the atrocity at the site where it was committed is quite unusual for Japan.
The newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight U.S. POWs were taken to the center’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down in May 1945. The flyers were subjected to horrific medical experiments. Doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive. Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration.
The airmen so tortured were aboard a B-29 on a bombing raid over Fukuoka. They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.
The ethics of hell come into play when we think a bit on what those flyers were doing in the skies over Fukuoka: dropping bombs in hopes of burning, shredding or maiming as many Japanese as possible.
The U.S. at this late stage of the war was as a strategy not discriminating between “military” and “civilian” targets, and often conducted mass firebombing raids over cities. Thousands of incendiaries were dropped simultaneously in hopes of creating a firestorm, a conflagration that burned hot and long enough to literally suck the oxygen out of the air and kill everything beneath it.
I have a history of the war on my bookshelf that makes quite a point of being horrified, with no obvious irony, that when the Japanese captured another group of shot-down B-29 crewman from firebombing missions, the flyers were burned alive in an impromptu fire; some others were killed with boiling water. It says elsewhere a negotiated peace was impossible when one side was fighting for civilization and the other represented barbarism.
Same kind of thing in an actual description from another book of one of the terrible things that happened in the Pacific War: “As the bodies started to sizzle, their arms and legs twitched, and they sat up as if they were alive. Smoke came out of their eye sockets, their mouths opened, and licks of flames came out. Their lungs were full of steam, and hissing noises came out.”
Did that description come from the firebombing of a Japanese city, or from the burning alive of American prisoners? It was one of the two, though it describes both, but how does that matter?