The forever war
I received a good lesson in a quiet suburb of Tokyo. My teacher was my great-uncle. The subject was the war, a war going on now. Not the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was The War, the one that ended almost 70 years ago.
The lesson resulted from an article I wrote about an American submarine sunk off the coast of Japan. The brother of a sailor on board that submarine contacted the Japanese and met with the men who had killed his brother and with the relatives of those the submarine had killed.
The article was meant to be uplifting; about how men who had been enemies could put the past behind them and find friendship.
My uncle didn’t see that. He saw the words “mistakenly sunk,” which described an American submarine torpedoing a Japanese ship with civilians on board.
“I got very upset when you wrote that. It had red crosses on it, and they sunk it anyway. The Americans killed so many innocent people during the war,” he said.
I mentioned the Japanese also had much innocent blood on their hands.
“You are like all Americans, biased!” he snorted. “You think you always are right, the winners who can change history, then think they can be friends but never need to apologize for things like the atomic bomb. Japan has apologized to everyone, while Americans think they don’t have to apologize for anything,” he screamed.
He had a point about one thing. Americans reveled in their victory and still do today. The image of the “Greatest Generation,” freeing the world and spreading freedom and democracy, is embraced in books, movies and video games.
Japan still feels the results of their defeat. They follow a constitution drafted by an occupying army and live with, and depend upon, the military of another country. Japanese learn English, the language of the victors.
To my uncle, The War is a dark and disturbing memory. His brother was a soldier, his sister built warplanes in hidden caves while, as a child, he starved. When The War ended, my uncle learned English, did business in America and made American friends. But beneath the surface, he still is that starved little boy. In his view, Americans cannot justify chastising Japanese politicians for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead (including recognized war criminals), while those who planned the firebombing raids on Tokyo that killed a hundred thousand civilians are lauded as heroes.
Americans think of themselves as the ”good guys.” They don’t like it when a foreign country’s media cast them in another light. Similarly, Japanese are not as eager to hear about their vanquishing as we are in reminding them. They, like the Germans, cannot escape the guilt of their actions or find sympathy for their loved ones incinerated in Dresden or Tokyo. History may have put the fires out, but the embers still glow.
The victors might say: “Well, who started the war?”
My uncle didn’t. He lived in squalor because the Americans destroyed his country. It’s easy for the victor to accept collateral damage when their family is not the collateral. It is something that has to be accepted by a defeated nation.
For those, like my uncle, and people they influence, bitterness lies beneath the skin, until a small scratch brings it to the surface. They may move on but they don’t forget and we don’t let them. The War is still fought in the hearts and minds of those who lived it, and those living in its aftermath, with no end in sight.