"I knew Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a friend of mine..." A very large proportion of the reading public wrote in to question or complain about this sentence in a previous reader's message:
Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.
Here is a sample of the many WTF?? responses I received, this one from a Westerner who has lived and worked in both Japan and China:
The person who wrote the above [about Doolittle] gained far more space in your column than he deserved. Curtis LeMay yes (by his own admission), Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb] maybe . . . but Doolittle?
I should have flagged this to begin with. This reader is exactly right that the original sentence would have made sense with Curtis LeMay's name, but not so much with Jimmy Doolittle's.
Sez who, about Curtis LeMay? Sez LeMay himself, along with Robert McNamara. As McNamara put it to Errol Morris in the wonderful film The Fog of War:
I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. [This is McNamara speaking, but my emphasis added below.] The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?
LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
The background here is that McNamara was part of the wartime civilian planning team, and LeMay was the bomber commander, for the horrific Allied fire-bombing campaign against Tokyo and other cities in the final year of the war. More people are thought to have been burned to death during one of these raids on Tokyo in 1945 than were killed by either of the atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More details here.
Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid against Tokyo in 1942, for which he won the Medal of Honor, was of strategic and symbolic importance as the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese home islands, just four months after World War II. But it did relatively little collateral (or direct) damage and in no way marked Doolittle for opprobrium. He was an impressive and accomplished figure in many other ways, including as a pioneer in the science, technology, and practice of instrument-guided flight. Sorry not to have caught this earlier. [Update: After his famous 1942 raid on Japan, Doolittle was commander for the much more morally questionable Dresden firebombing in 1945, as here.]
Let's dig once more into the mail bag. Another reader writes in response to the original passage about Arlington and Doolittle, above:
First, U.S. Presidents must walk on eggshells around the memory of the Civil War. We all know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but Grant’s Tomb is not in Arlington. Sherman is buried in St. Louis. You won't find Forrest, or Longstreet, or Hooker, or McClellan in Arlington. Nor Robert E. Lee, whose home it was, Kit Carson isn’t there, nor his superior James Carleton who ordered the Navajo internment.
Why Jimmy Doolittle? He is remembered chiefly for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. This was, to be sure, a largely indiscriminate attack on a civilian target. It may have been ineffectual and unfortunate. But if this is a war crime, what of Curtis LeMay, or Arthur Harris, or Capt. Yossarian? (Yossarian comes to reject the war, you may recall, after Snowden spills his guts.)
The odd thing is that, for this rhetorical purpose, any arguable US War Crime — preferably WW2 and ideally against Japan — would serve. The assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943 seems far more appropriate. This was authorized in a meeting between FDR and Frank Knox, and was recognized at the time as an act whose dubious morality could only be excused as an absolute necessity of war. I am surprised that this decision has not been more widely discussed in recent years, as it is the evident precedent for our current drone policy.
But the point [this reader] misses, or deliberately ignores, is that postwar Japan is not a nation like any other. It is, or was, raised up as a city on a hill, a nation that was sovereign but that had, now and forever, abjured war. This may have been imposed by the victors, just as abolition (and, a hundred years later, integration) was imposed upon the South. It was an acceptable solution. Others had been envisioned: a few years earlier, William Halsey has looked across Pearl Harbor and predicted that, by the war’s end, "the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."
Another view of Arlington:
You can see the Japanese perspective that we are being a little selective.
Arlington holds 482 confederates and has a big monument build by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Let’s be clear: these people actively engaged in war against the United States, for the cause of slavery. The number of war criminals at Yasukuni is less than 1/10 the number of Confederates in Arlington, and Yasukuni also holds many millions of regular soldiers, far more than Arlington. Yet Presidents manage to visit Arlington to honor all the dead of all the wars without it being seen as a justifying slavery and its many horrors.
If some African Americans made a visit to Arlington about slavery, you could see that some politicians would use visits to Arlington as a way to rile up white support. Yet we all chose to make Arlington just about war dead. I think this is good: it allows the fight to be over clearer symbols like the confederate flag and schools named after Klan leaders. And, over the past few years, I think we have seen some notable successes against Southern revisionism.
Now, if we can stop making Yasukuni about war criminals, we can perhaps focus on issues that are much clearer, like the rape of Nanjing, the modern treatment of Koreans in Japan, and the like.
I cannot escape the feeling that atrocity is frankly a function of the State. The US and other liberal (in the proper sense, not the colloquial American sense) nations are no different.
Natives are still on the reservation. Blacks are still in the ghetto. Millions of families across mid Asia are mourning sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers devoured for the sin of geo proximity to "terror." Et cetera.
Finding an accurate analogy to Mr. Abe seems almost pointless. He is a smart, competent leader surrounded by smart, competent advisors and likely knew what China would think of his visit during a time of regional stress.
And yet the sins of Japan are, tragically, par for the course.
Finally, from another American living in China:
I often wonder why comparisons are even needed for events that can be read as offensive, including Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni.
Writers should reject the carelessness inherent in "as bad as Hitler in a KKK robe" sentiments. Hiding behind "not quite as bad as" probably rings hollow to some and not quite distancing enough for others.
Crimes committed during war are horrific -- without comparison. Writers should name these horrors rather than rely on false comparisons that muddy truth.
Slavery is as bad as the peculiar institution. The Holocaust is as bad as the Shoah.
My original purpose in introducing these comparisons was simply explanatory. For the majority of Western readers who might never have heard of Yasukuni, analogies were a way to suggest what the visit meant within the Japanese domestic context, and how they might be read in other parts of Asia. For the underlying crimes, tragedies, and destruction, no comparison is possible, or needed -- as this reader says.