• Review: Hooper’s War Shows “Moments of Prized Grace”

    August 4, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    A new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan from the Historical Novel Society says “This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity.” Here’s the full review:

    Although set in WWII Japan, it is re-imagined as if the atomic bombs were not unleashed and an invasion of Japan proceeds. The war is still raging in 1946, and the ancient city of Kyoto is about to be firebombed. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nate Hooper is in way over his head. He depends on his war-experienced sergeant to help him lead the men in his charge. But they keep dying around him.

    With a wounded comrade, Nate seeks refuge in the house of a Japanese woman, Naoko. They take time out of the carnage to reflect and connect. They are soon joined by a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Nakagawa, a childhood friend of the woman. We also learn his story. Neither man can escape the trauma that war has unleashed. Seventy years later, Nate returns to Japan, still looking for the power to allow him to heal.

    This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity. Its trauma and dilemmas are as fresh as the anguish that today’s returning vets are experiencing.




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    Understanding Moral Injury in Hooper’s War

    July 3, 2017 // 10 Comments »



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    I’m lucky enough to have a friend with a boat. Sitting at the stern, I watch the boat create its wake, then as we speed away the wake fades just as quick. Thinking about the war doesn’t work that way. About the best I can hope for in real life is to be able to put what happened in a box. The box stays closed most of the time.

    Some guys try and keep it shut by making life meaningless—liquor for the old ones, drugs for the young ones, a little of both for the handlestache Vietnam vets in the middle. The Friday nights drinking with the boys become Wednesday mornings drinking alone in the bathroom with the door shut. Some let that run its course and just tap out.

    But absent a few orange plastic containers next to the bathroom sink, for me, I took my neighbor’s grandson out to the zoo, made dinner, went to work, all the time the curator of some secret museum. The memories don’t go away like the people do.

    If the box pops open, some people try to push such thoughts away, stopping with just their toes in the water, thinking they’ve gone swimming. But after a while I knew I had to go into the deep end, because only there could I confront the real monster: the essence of war is not men dying, the essence of war is killing. War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.


    The part of Hawaii I retired to is peaceful. Some tourists, but not too many, little of the tawdry spank of Waikiki. Sometimes I get lonely for some noise though, and find myself over there, enjoying a little ice cream and a walk.

    For me the war is like a shirt I always know is there in my closet but don’t wear often. I’ll be absently out and step onto an unfamiliar path and it’ll be just the right crunch of gravel under my feet. My eyes will involuntarily lose focus for a second, and if I’m with someone they might ask, “Nate, everything okay?” and I’ll lie and smile, “Oh you know, just a senior moment.” But memory slaps me just the same way stirring up the ashes of barbecue coals turns them red. I’ve failed many times to remember a time when I had nothing particular on my mind.

    The Honolulu end of Waikiki beach is anchored by a Department of Defense hotel, run on taxpayer money as a low-cost vacation destination just for service people. The military is comical about telling them to “keep a low profile,” supposedly so they don’t become targets of the terrorists presumed to haunt these beautiful beaches. But of course you can tell. The buff bodies stand out against the fleshy look of the regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans—all dark brown faces with pale white everywhere else—betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    I’ll sometimes nod to them, mostly out of politeness. I generally keep to myself the fact that we know a lot about each other. A few will nod back, maybe say a few words and leave you to fill in the silence, but I find the ones who talk too easily are generally part of what I call professional veterans, guys with little dirt under their nails who get a lot of free drinks and airline upgrades in a September 12 world. I’m grateful after meeting them for those portions of my stroll when there’s less time for my thoughts.

    Once in a while someone who fought some of the same kind of war I did is obvious—a missing hand on a 20-year-old, some thick pink scars. It could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, I guess, but I know that wasn’t what it was. I wonder what his friends thought the first time they saw him, or what his ex-girlfriend said, or what he thought being as scared to come home as he was scared to go to war. This is the guy who, after Wolf Blitzer moves on to the next story, cries trying to touch his daughter’s hair, and knows just because he changed from cammies to beach shorts that’s not a shortcut back into normal life. If you see these guys on TV, you always see them young and still strong, showing courage learning to use their new robo-prosthetics. You never see anything that shows what their life is like ten or forty years down the road.

    Out on the beach, some people won’t stop looking, like a 10-year-old’s focus on a a pile of Legos, and some won’t look at all, but either way this is all happening, like the wars did, simultaneously while other people are eating at Applebee’s and going shopping. It gets hard to keep it all in the same world. And you, sure, go ahead, you go on and use the term “unbearable pain” the next time you hit your thumb with a hammer.

    Of course, there are also those you don’t see, the boys and girls who bought the long zipper, the one that closes a body bag. Yes, Mrs. Mom, we took your son, but look, we gave you back a neatly folded flag. See, it’s in a triangle shape, representing the hats of American Revolutionary War soldiers, isn’t that interesting. And if you have a second child, and you call now, we’ll double your order.


    Me, we, they, you, I don’t know the right word to ever use, because it wasn’t just our side. I’d seen something on PBS saying that during the 1950s and early 1960s you could still see a few Japanese soldiers around the train stations, wearing bits of their old uniforms, some with crude prosthetics, begging, failed in the end by disregard. Young people, dressed in the latest western styles, passed by, eyes on the ground, embarrassed about men humiliating themselves in the midst of the post-war economic miracle. What if a visiting foreigner saw them, what would he think of Japan? Older people would slip the soldiers small bills, hoping if they had some money they would go away.

    A few guys ended worse off than the physically wounded, spending the weekends with their regular companions Samuel Adams, Johnnie Walker, and the cops. Get some sleep and have a drink, they were told, only don’t let it turn into too much of either one. Each bad thought seemed like a page that needed a twelve-ounce can of paperweight to hold it down. All we ever thought about was coming home; “If the army doesn’t kill me, I’ve got it made for life,” we said. We were naive; too many of us survived the war only to come back wanting to die every day.

    You learn to be alone in crowded places, deep in your own head. Imagine being on this beautiful beach and not caring to even look up and watch a father try to make his way across the hot sand balancing four dripping ice cream cones.

    They’d lost things whose importance they only recognized when they weren’t there. They’ve come to think today means nothing, tomorrow means nothing, and develop a sense that only things that already happened matter. Nothing has taste or color.


    My generation had no counselors, no clinics, no support groups. In my Ohio hometown, before the wife and I retired to Hawaii, every Memorial Day there’d be little flags first made in Iowa, then Hong Kong, then Japan, then Korea and now China and Vietnam—Vietnam, for gawds sake—on every porch. Half the people my age watching the parade then were vets in wheelchairs. I had a nice welcome home party when I came back, and plenty of good Veteran’s Days to try and use to subtract things from the parts of the fight I dragged along with me. But the underlying message was the same as in every war, whether delivered nicely or crudely: deal with the real stuff in private, we don’t want to know. You pack out your own gear, trooper.

    Drinking hurt, but for some it hurt less. Everyone learns it just sends your pain off to wait for you, but still it was something to look forward to, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling your nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. Pain can be patient, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much wine at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walked him outside where he told stories from his knees for an hour which they alone could understand.

    A lot of this festers not out of what you saw and did, but the realization that what you saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture and you had to make up some smaller picture to justify whatever. It should’ve had a reason. People say, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be my age and scared of the dark.


    I came to think of it like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t say exactly when, but at some point you couldn’t see the picture anymore. It’s the last drop of water hanging swollen on the end of a faucet. You want to know what it’s like to have a breakdown in the meat aisle at Safeway? We can tell you. Even so, we don’t want to be called victims and disabled out, and we’re not seeking some third party’s moral redemption. We just want to get this crap out of our heads.



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    Moral Injury and Hooper’s War

    June 17, 2017 // 17 Comments »



    As research for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan I encountered people suffering in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday. They told me they went away to fight with an idea “we’re the good guys, they’re not” that did not always survive the test of events. They spoke of a depth of pain that needed an end, some end, and for too many, as many as 22 a day every day, any end, even suicide.

    That’s to scratch at describing what we now know as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war — each person sent into conflict finds their sense of right and wrong tested. When they see something, do something, or fail to do something, a transgressive act, that violates their most deeply held convictions, they suffer an injury to the soul, the heart, their core. There are lines inside us which cannot be crossed except at great price — ignoring a plea for medical help, shooting a child in error, watching friends die in a war you have come to question, failing to report a sexual assault witnessed, a sense of guilt simply by presence (documented well in Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried), can cause moral injury. Moral injury is represented well in documentaries such as Almost Sunrise, and though not by name, in films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon.


    Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas; well, perhaps not skepticism, for that implies more of an open mind than calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them by saying it’s all in their heads, have a drink, take some time off. Now sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not only acknowledged as real, but new MRI technology can pinpoint their effects inside the brain.

    Moral injury differs from PTSD in that it is tied to the parts of a person that decide right and wrong, and applies guilt, regret or shame as a penalty. PTSD is fear-based, and includes stresses like hyperalertness that worked well over there in war (quite valid adaptations in the mind and body, such as hitting the ground when hearing loud noises, to the real situation of other people trying to kill you), but are dangerous, exhausting, and frightening back here. The flight-or-fight response just won’t shut off, even in the absence of threat. PTSD to many is a loss of safety, but not a loss of self. Moral injury might be thought of as a disconnect between one’s pre-war self and a second self develops in the face of death, action, or inaction. Moral injury jumbles these two selves which cannot in fact live well together inside one body.

    There is a formal definition of moral injury, “the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral and social impact of perpetuating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Moral injury occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head — as we are thinking beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, then it follows that sense can be broken. Moral injury ironically represents a strength of character — as a human being they cannot ignore what was done — but it feels like a weakness.


    The term moral injury may have originated with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who conducted groundbreaking work in PTSD, publishing two books, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming, examining the experience of combat through classical texts. Others place the origins of the term moral illness with Vietnam veteran and philosopher Camillo Mac Bica.

    The Department of Veteran’s Affairs now acknowledges moral injury and its effects. Syracuse University created the Moral Injury Project in 2014 to bring together veterans, doctors, chaplains, and mental health providers. Psychologists are developing diagnostic assessment tools.

    Because the research on moral injury is in its infancy, there are no data yet on the number of combat veterans who suffer from it. But the conditions of modern warfare, from Vietnam forward, suggest they are many.

    “There are no long front-lines,” said Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers. “The city or village is the war zone today. Women and children are armed. Men are fighting without uniforms.”


    But that sounds too clean to me. Because the results of those two words — moral injury — are exactly what you might expect: a long-war struggle for understanding, thoughts of suicide, and self-medication.

    I came to know a handful of veterans, and spoke intimately with the men and women I lived alongside in Iraq for a terrible year that was scarred by two soldier suicides. I spent time speaking with Japanese who lived through WWII as civilians. One now-elderly woman remembered her mother’s own moral injury after seven decades, a failure to comfort two dying siblings, hearing her mother’s ghost say in a park in 2016 Tokyo “Haruo-kun, that day of the firebombing was so hot for you. Akiko-chan, you wished so hard for water then. Please drink now.”

    What response can there be to something so human?

    A lot of pain festers not just out of what people saw, as with the Japanese woman, but the realization that what they saw and did really didn’t matter in any bigger picture. It should’ve had a reason, many pleaded to me. People say to sufferers, “whatever you have to tell yourself,” to help them create justification, but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be in your 30s, or 70s, and scared of the dark. Imagine you have real reasons to be scared. Imagine you want to cry years out of you. Imagine failing to understand what you feel, not being able to talk much about the things you think about every day.


    Suicide is never far from moral injury. The soul isn’t that big a place.

    It is above all the act of killing that does it: 70 percent of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat attempt suicide. One guy who told me he has never forgiven his neighbor from talking him out of going into the garage with his rifle. Another who said the question wasn’t why he might commit suicide, but why he hadn’t already done so. The Department of Veteran Affairs counts 20 veteran suicides a day. About 65 percent of all veteran suicides are by individuals fifty years and older who have had little or no exposure to the most recent conflicts.

    A lot of those suffering from moral injury self-medicate. Seeking help is still a stigma for some, the hard work of recovery too hard or too slow for others.

    Drinking (drugs for many of the younger guys) hurts. Everyone learns it just sends pain off to wait, but still it was something to look forward to, they told me, the first fizzy beer of the day tickling their nose, or the throat-burning shot of something stronger biting into an ulcer. Drinking wiped away hours when someone had too many of them, all the way back to 1945 sometimes. You drink in the dark places, a bar, an unlit living room because there is a sense that you have lost your future and that’s easier to deal with when you can’t see anything (you see too much in the dark anyway.) Pain can be patient, a drop of water swelling on the end of a faucet, waiting for that one guy who had a little too much at a wedding and started talking about blood and brains in some alcoholic dialect until a couple of other vets walk him outside where he tells stories from his knees which they understood.

    The trip back is as complex as the individual, and the most effective treatments evolving. “Soul repair” is the term some use.

    One path to healing is via helping a patient to understand (“owning it”) what happened and their own responsibility, not necessarily fault, for transgressions. Others speak of seeking self-forgiveness, including a benevolent moral authority, often because those transgressed against are dead.

    Another way back is for the sufferer to make amends, either toward those harmed, or to a third party. To amend literally mean to change something already done, and in the case of moral injury that is drawing a line between who one was then and can be now.

    The goal is to accept wrong was done but to also understand it and learn how to deal with it; the act, while impossible to reconcile or forgive, does not have to define the rest of a life. The goal is for individuals to reclaim good parts of themselves and to examine and accept — but not be defined by — what they did, what they saw, what others did,

    What doesn’t work, in the eyes of one veteran-advocate, Matthew Hoh, is lying, as we do every day in the United States, telling veterans who view themselves as villains they are really all heroes. Hoh, after leaving the Marine Corps after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became one of only four State Department officials to resign in protest over the post-9/11 wars.

    “You mean like that Vietnam helicopter thing?” a well-meaning family doctor asked me when I told him coming home from the anemic role I played in Iraq left me more interested in vodka than my family, with a few too many orange containers lined up next to the sink even before I saw him. That was my own tiny taste of this, a failure to have accomplished anything, but I was lucky to benefit from some good people who helped me to accept my choices, and give up trying to erase them or explain them away. I didn’t want pity or understanding, I just wanted to get this stuff out of my head.

    The process is hard; it doesn’t always have the happy ending I wrote into my story. Sometimes these things don’t end when the war ends. Sometimes for some men and women they don’t end until they do. That’s the end loss for everyone.

     

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    On the Ethics of Hell

    June 15, 2017 // 14 Comments »

    flyers



    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.


    Vivisection

    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.


    Firebombing

    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?




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    Top Five WWII Movies

    June 2, 2017 // 27 Comments »

    War is Over!


    My latest book, Hooper’s War, is set in WWII Japan, and portrays the horrors of war from the rotating perspectives of an American solider, a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman civilian.

    With that setting in mind, here are my top five favorite World War II movies.

    1) Saving Private Ryan

    Is there anyone’s Top Movie List, never mind one of WWII films, that doesn’t include Saving Private Ryan? I’m a big fan of war films that bring massive-scale events down to human scale, and none do that better than Ryan. The largest amphibious invasion in human history? Sure, there are a few panoramic shots, but the images we remember are of Tom Hanks and Tom Berenger struggling to get their men off that beach. WWII as a crusade to save Europe? Noted, but how about a couple of hours of a crusade to save one man?

    Ryan gives you the all-star cast, the production values and realism, the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of horror, and the split-seconds of terror surrounded by hours of boredom. I’ll just say it — no one will ever make a better war movie than this.





    2) The Best Years of Our Lives

    When I first saw The Best Years of Our Lives and learned it was made in 1946, and then learned it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, I knew I was watching a profoundly subversive film that had somehow slipped into the mainstream.

    The story follows Fred, Al, and Homer, three couldn’t-be-more-different at first glance World War II veterans coming home to find that things were not going to be as easy as they thought. The war had changed them, and changed the America they left. The slick Fred is a war hero honored for his service while ignored by employers. Wealthy bank executive Al realizes his desire to help vets with loans conflicts with the profit motives of his bank now that the war is over. Homer, who lost both hands in the Pacific, learns he will not fit in, and that his courage is no longer seen as worth much removed from combat.

    The men learn the lesson following “The Good War” that too many think was unique to the post-Vietnam years: that despite some happy talk and the occasional free drink, society could care less about its warriors once the fighting is over.





    3) Grave of the Fireflies

    Few movies focus on civilians as much more than targets or victims, often showing them as little more than ants scurrying under falling bombs, or villagers accidentally killed, a dramatic plot device to bring on the hero’s angst in Act II before redemption in Act III.

    Grave of the Fireflies is an animated feature from Japanese geniuses Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro and others.) The film is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the home front in Japan. It follows two young Japanese children in last days of World War II, with a focus on the numbing hunger that plagued Japan alongside daily firebombing raids conducted by the United States against civilian targets. There are no happy endings in this movie as it reveals the desperate acts people can be forced into to survive in wartime.





    4) Patton

    Every list of great WWII movies has got to have one real sh*tkicker. Mine could have been Bridge at Remagen, Battle of the Bulge, Kelley’s Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day… you get the idea.

    But Patton comes out on top for its sweeping battle scenes — so that’s what a massive tank battle criss-crossing Northern Africa would have looked like — as well as its sharp portrayal of the kind of men America wants to fight its wars, but then acts embarrassed around as the fighting starts to fade. Patton was the perfect man in the right place to help win the war in Europe, but as victory became more and more understood, his crude manners and obvious affection for killing turn into something America wanted shut away, at least until the next conflict. A film that begins on the grandest scale (that opening speech in front of the flag!) and ends more than bittersweet.




    5) Sophie’s Choice

    I get one controversial choice, right?

    Though only a short portion of Sophie’s Choice takes place in WWII proper, the entire film is a lovingly detailed metaphor for the horror of war, the suffering its survivors cannot end until they do, and the delicate compassion without understanding well-meaning people try to bring to war’s victims. The naive main character Stingo, thinking he can understand what has happened to Sophie and her children inside the concentration camps, seems a stand-in for a post-war America far removed from the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific. Not everyone destroyed by moral injury carried a weapon.






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    The Battle for Nishinomiya Junction

    May 26, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    After you’ve heard that thunk, you always know it. Once you know that sound, being mortared is like a sneeze coming on. It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it but wonder if the shell is marked with your name. Thunk. That’s fear.

    Men were dying all around me. Each mortar shell exploded into light so I could see who was being killed, the explosions walking across the battlefield like giants. About the only thing I could do was roll into a hole and pull my knees up to my chin and try and dig out the dirt and snow blown up my nose. The pressure on my eardrums first emptied the world of sound and then pinched out tears. My mouth dried to a whisper. There was nowhere to hide; I was inside it.

    There was another sound. Sharper, closer, our mortars replying. We had the same kinds of shells, and I knew they were creating the same hellscape among the Japanese. But I truly did not care. I wanted them to all die in as horrible and painful a way as I was watching happen to us. I was on my knees in my hole now like every other man, thanking a no doubt horrified Baby Jesus for the American mortars.

    The battle became a living thing that ate men. It had become harvest time in our field. Then we heard whistles and shouts. Whoever was still alive on our side ordered the final assault on the rail junction to begin.


    People who have not experienced this level of madness cannot understand why we left our holes and advanced. People will say “Why didn’t you surrender, or quit, or run away, or hide?” Any man who tells you he did not consider each and every one of those choices is a coward for not telling the truth.

    But if you can’t understand how guys who spent all of a few weeks together 70 years ago can greet each other like brothers today, then you can’t understand why we ran forward. The best I can do for you is say time out there is dog years, a place where we gained and lost significant things, our one minute of combat together worth seven of your suburban existence. We were 18-year-olds facing things even most 90-year-olds don’t understand. You learn what’s private and secret about a man whose first name you don’t know, because out there you don’t talk about honor or duty, you talk like goober poets about girlfriends and baseball games you screwed up in high school and dads, and sometimes about the dark.

    And so if love at first sight is possible at home, then love after a week in war is also possible, because the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them. The brotherhood you hear about isn’t friendship. It’s about knowing what happens to you depends fully on what happens to all of you. It works that way, and always has, and the people who start wars depend on it. So do the soldiers.

    I did not refuse or surrender or run away or quit or hide because I saw Sergeant Laabs move forward like dying wasn’t a possibility. There are no medals for things like that, Laabs just acting like sergeants leading men in combat have done since Julius Caesar’s time. I don’t know why he did that just then, maybe he saw someone else advance, but once I saw him move I knew I had to move. Then someone saw me and stepped out, and someone saw that man, and we advanced, all that were left in our group—Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones. It was more like the blurry photos from Antietam or Gettysburg than anything I imagined belonged in a modern war. The battle had been handed to us on the ground. Men would pay for yards with their lives.


    It was suicide to stand up, but we were certainly going to die lying down. Me, Laabs, Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones.

    Marino ran right into the station wall, bouncing off it. Laabs dropped and rolled the last few feet, moving like he was a piece of the night. I was close behind. I counted off the men as they grouped around us, Polanski, Hermann and Jones. Smitty was still trying to run as the next star shell burst overhead, spotlighting him. He’d been weighed down by the engineers who designed his SRC-300 radio, the damn thing now killing him with its thirty pounds and its two ten-pound spare batteries.

    Smitty obediently began the process of disintegrating, like cardboard in the rain.

    As the rounds stopped his forward progress, other Japanese gunners swiveled to the stationary target. What was left of Smitty’s body was held vertical for some part of a second by the force of the bullets, before he gave in and fell forward with the greatest possible violence and the least possible grace.

    Watching Smitty die, my brain squeezed down to a lump that pushed everything aside I thought only moments before. We’d gotten this far, proven ourselves; why did we have to go forward again? Couldn’t some other outfit do that, men I didn’t know? What if we stopped shooting at the Japanese, wouldn’t they figure it out and stop shooting at us? Two male pitbulls snarling at each other, who in the end back away, deciding it wasn’t worth it?

    I unbuckled my web belt and was ready to throw away my weapon. It was only Sergeant Laabs, again, who pulled me back into his landscape, deciding for all of us.

    Sergeant Laabs led us, crawling, pressed as tightly as we could against the foundation of the building, away from the Japanese, their weapons still picking at Smitty’s corpse, or aiming at other soldiers trapped like light looking to hide in the sanctuary of shadow. The wall near me had whole constellations of bullet holes violated into it.

    As we neared a door, Laabs shouted, “They’re in there, I can smell them. We’ll break through, catch them by surprise. Follow me.”

    How the man could think clearly, I can never know. He could squeeze away everything else and what was left was not what was desirable or nice, but what was necessary. That’s what makes war such a terrible thing for an otherwise decent society, because you don’t want monsters like that teaching in your schools or working in your hospitals, but you need them for a time here before you want them to go away until the next war. You’re looking for a man mad enough to commit murder, with enough conscience to come home feeling a little guilty.

    Laabs.


    The group of us burst through the door, screaming prayers and curses, and hid behind a busted slab of office wall. I heard men scuttling across the floor. The Japanese had moved to the other side of the office, our two groups separated only by that concrete slab. We heard the clink of metal against metal. They were loading a heavy machine gun.

    “You two, Marino and Jones, job opportunity for you, around that side, throw your grenades and make as much clatter as you can pulling back to distract the scum,” Laabs said. “Polanski and Hermann, you shoot any Japanese that come around after them. I’m going alone around this other side. Lieutenant, watch it, because I don’t intend to let any of ’em past me and if you shoot me by accident running back I will return from the grave and kill you myself. If this works, I’ll get most of them, and the four of you will take apart any of the others.”

    “American, you dung man.” The Japanese were calling at us in broken English from the other side of the wall. “You surrender, you no die tonight, GI.”

    “Gentlemen, I’ll see you all on the other side,” Laabs moved up to his corner. “Marino, Jones, on my count.”

    “American, you die tonight.”

    Laabs, loud: “One.”

    Jones mouthed the word alongside Laabs.

    “You no never see your mama home.”

    Laabs, louder: “Two.”

    Jones made a low sound.

    “You die here, American.”

    Laabs, a whisper: “Three.”

    Marino and Jones turned their corner. Laabs stepped forward, me leaning to watch him.

    Marino fired, and a Japanese went down, shot just below his right eye. Marino rose and fired again, into the now prone target, all eight rounds his M-1 held. As the magazine emptied with that metallic sound the spring inside made, a second Japanese soldier rounded the corner and shot Marino twice in the chest. I heard Marino’s skull connect with the concrete floor with a soft crack, a sound people who’d never a heard a rifle shot or a skull break think sounds like a rifle shot. Jones shot the man who shot Marino who earlier had grenaded the first Japanese to die.

    Me, Laabs, Polanski, Hermann, and Jones left.

    Sergeant Laabs stepped tight around his corner, between the wall and the stream of rounds coming out of the Nambu. He grabbed the red-hot barrel of the machine gun, screaming as it hissed against his bare hand, and swung it aside.

    His hand had fused to the hot metal. He tore it off, leaving a mitten of flesh on the weapon, and fell on the one Japanese left. With bloody fingers he stabbed at the man’s eyes. Laabs could not stop, the head now in both hands, the blood in the cold air.

    The war was now between Laabs and the Japanese.

    I knew hundreds of other American soldiers were fighting somewhere around us, opposed by hundreds of Japanese. I heard distant mortaring. I heard far off screams.

    I saw only Laabs.

    “Oh hey, Lieutenant, you wanna hear a story?” Laabs said.

    “Laabs, what’re you talking about?” I barely recognized his voice.

    “On Okinawa. We’re clearing caves with flamethrowers, a day before that stuff I did saving those kids. I never talked to anyone before now about this other cave I ran into, where all I found alongside the smoked up bodies were pencil boxes and schoolbooks. Two minutes later the Doc was giving first aid to one school kid that somehow was still alive. Two minutes between one thing and the other. Go figure. And you know the worst part? It didn’t even bother me until now.”

    “Laabs, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

    “Nothing more to say. That’s the whole story. Now get into position with Jones,” Laabs said. He smiled. “Got something I need to do.”

    I scrambled to join Jones and Polanski. Gunfire flashed from deep inside the station, as if the Japanese were taking photos at a wedding. I watched Hermann get shot through the head. Two minutes between one thing and the other.


    And there stood Laabs. What was left of Hermann’s body lay nearby. There is a lot of blood inside a man, and it looked as if some naughty boy had spilled two full cans of red paint on the garage floor.

    Everyone who’d been in the field long enough heard of a guy who one day under enemy fire just stood up and took off his helmet. Laabs left it up to us to figure out the difference between self-sacrifice and self-destruction.

    I actually think he was dead before he rose, the Japanese bullets unnecessary even as they tore him apart. That’s how Jones, Polanski, and I watched Sergeant Jason Laabs die inside the train station the day before his 18th birthday.

    “Lieutenant, we gonna die?” Jones said. His legs were bloody.

    Deep breath. Calm, waiting for my turn. An explosion, and a bright flash…


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    Racism and Our Enemies, Same as It Ever Was

    May 24, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    For those are persist in using the word “unprecedented” in relation to the racism and fear that pervade our society today, directed at Muslims, here’s a propaganda cartoon from WWII showing much of the same, directed at the Japanese.




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    Hooper’s War: What is Moral Injury?

    May 23, 2017 // 4 Comments »

    Here’s a “book trailer” to go along with my new book, on sale now via Amazon, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. This video helps define the central concept of my book, moral injury. Have a look.

     

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    Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!

    May 21, 2017 // Comments Off on Hooper’s War Now Available for on Amazon and Elsewhere!



    My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now 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.


    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.

    — Peter




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    Cover Art Released for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    April 30, 2017 // 2 Comments »

    Here’s the full cover for my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. It’s available now on Amazon as a pre-order, for sale on May 15.

    Click for a larger version.





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    Hooper’s War Now Available for Pre-Order on Amazon!

    April 24, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    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.

    — Peter




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    John Kerry, and the Legacy of Hiroshima

    April 13, 2016 // 11 Comments »

    JOHN KERRY

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow envoys from the G7 visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park on the margins of their summit meeting this week.

    Kerry was the highest ranking American government official to visit the Peace Park, the memorial dedicated to the victims of the world’s first nuclear attack on August 6, 1945.

    U.S. officials are considering a visit to Hiroshima by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama during his trip to Japan for the G7 in late May. Obama, in 2011, expressed some interest in being the first sitting American president to visit the city, but never purused the plans.


    Fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter did visit Hiroshima in 1984, albeit as a private citizen after leaving office. Other high-level American visits have been scattered only over recent years; then-U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima in 2010, the first U.S. ambassador to ever do so. In 2011, in another first, the United States sent a (lower ranking) official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki. Current ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended the Hiroshima memorial service to mark the attack’s 70th anniversary last year.

    Kerry, like his official predecessors to Hiroshima, expressed empathy for the dead without acknowledging culpability for the thing that killed them, almost as if it was an act of nature, or that someone else had done it.

    Regarding those predecessors, note the dates; the first American ambassador to visit Hiroshima wasn’t until 2010, 65 years after the atomic bombing. Kerry’s visit, 71 years after the attack, occurred only in the company of his G7 colleagues, and not on the highly-symbolic day of August 6.


    All countries get their own history wrong to some degree, and careful retrospection, absent that built into enforced penitence such as was applied to post-WWII Germany, is rare.

    Yet as the only nation to use nuclear weapons, and to have used them against near-wholly civilian targets, and having used them under circumstances of arguable necessity, one might expect, 71 years later and now full-allies with Japan, some modicum of introspection by the United States. Absent some academics and “peace advocates,” that has never happened.

    In the United States, sometime after with the public announcement in 1945 of the atomic bombings, the message was kneaded into public consciousness that the bombs were not dropped out of hatred, revenge or malice, but of military necessity. The attacks did not reflect American evil, but were merely an inescapable and ugly necessity of a war we didn’t start.

    The bombs, we were told, saved millions of lives that would have been lost in a land invasion. Both American and Japanese souls would have perished in that invasion, which seemed to characterize the atomic attacks as almost to the benefit of Japan, in that we killed fewer people that way. The bombs were just the lesser of two evils, it was war, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far from the first places civilians were targeted. An undercurrent is more disturbing — they deserved it, life is cheaper over there for Orientals. One way or another, there is a consensus woven into the American narrative that there was simply no choice.


    The deeper cause of a lack of introspection seems to lie in a national meme that no moral wrong was committed, and thus no internal soul-searching is necessary. The U.S. is obviously not alone in this way of thinking, and Japan itself is quite guilty of failing to look deep into itself over the atrocities committed in China, Korea and elsewhere during WWII.

    But “everybody does it” is obviously the kind of excuse five-year-olds use, and unworthy of the United States. And while other nations committed terrible actions in the Second World War, it is only the United States that has gone on to continue making war on a grand scale; over a million killed in Vietnam (no one knows for sure), an estimated million in Iraq (no one knows for sure), and somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million in Syria (still accruing.)

    Never mind Korea, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Haiti, Grenada, Central America, Afghanistan and the others, plus the new twist, global drone wars. Along the way were documented American threats to use nuclear weapons to break the Berlin Blockade, to defend South Korea, to smite the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to “win” in Vietnam and to save Israel during the Yom Kippur war, as well as other situations use was considered. The U.S. continues to maintain a deployed nuclear arsenal well-beyond any defense needs and in grand excess of that possessed by other nuclear powers.


    Perhaps some of those atomic threats are historically arguable, and some may have been more bark than intended bite, but in toto it is hard to dismiss America’s willingness to again use nuclear weapons; indeed, talk of “tactical nukes” comes up in many discussions of what to do if Iran were to develop its own atomic capability. In each threatened use of nuclear weapons, however accurate the delivery and however intended for a military target, the vast power of the bombs ensures civilians deaths and mass, indiscriminate, destruction. Those factors have not been a deterrent to nuclear threats and plans, and have certainly not deterred conventional warfare.

    Such thinking is a product of lack of introspection, a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right. John Kerry is an intelligent man, an educated man who has been to war. Perhaps, as he mumbled platitudinous talking points on his visit to Hiroshima, an additional thought or two about the real meaning of his very late presence there crept in?




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    Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Won’t Apologize

    September 1, 2015 // 10 Comments »

    abe flag

    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.

    Japanese textbooks still gloss over the war. Japan has a poor record of providing compensation to the sex slaves and care to the Korean victims of the atomic bombs.

    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.



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    On the Ethics of Hell

    April 17, 2015 // 6 Comments »

    flyers



    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.


    Vivisection

    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.


    Firebombing

    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?




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