Notes From Ground Zero:

President George W. Bush has repeatedly presented the American occupation of Japan as the model for Iraq‘s democratization. Does the Japanese occupation really illuminate contemporary reconstructions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other contemporary war-torn societies? Certain similarities do stand out: as in Japan half a century earlier, the U.S. has proclaimed its intention to return "sovereignty" to a democratic Iraq and assure a democratic transition in Afghanistan while preserving a dominant American military presence in both the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet beyond this obvious similarity lie profound differences in American strategy, goals and commitments, as well as in the nations and peoples it seeks to "reconstruct" and the problems encountered in the two regions and two eras.


By June 16, 2004, U.S. and coalition deaths in Iraq were rapidly approaching 1,000: 952 deaths included 836 Americans, 59 Britons, and nationals of 12 other nations. 694 of these deaths occurred after Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq on May 1, 2003, with the largest numbers occurring in April and May, 2004 when 138 Americans died. Since May 1, 2003, 5,134 U.S. troops have been wounded in combat, but including non-combat injuries, the total was 16,000. Yet these figures do not begin to convey the scale of U.S. and coalition casualties or the range and depth of military conflicts that continue in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and that provide one important reason for an American preoccupation with military affairs to the detriment of reform, reconstruction and development.


Since 2001, the Landestuhl Regional Military Center in Germany has treated 11,754 soldiers from the "War on Terror" (including Iraq and Afghanistan) including more than 1,000 for mental problems.These figures exclude numerous "non-combat" injuries. The number of Iraqis killed by U.S. forces since the beginning of the Iraq War is far greater, but fearing a Vietnam-type backlash, the U.S. occupation authorities provide no figures. A November 2003 report by MEDACT, the British affiliate of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated the number of Iraqis killed since the March 2003 invasion at between 20,000 and 55,000. Iraq Body Count placed the numbers of Iraqis killed by June 16, 2004 at between 9,436 and 11,317. All informed observers agree that many of the dead are children. Neither of these estimates includes much larger numbers of Iraqis who have died from such mundane causes as the collapse of nutritional and medical systems prior to and subsequent to the war. The numbers of combat-related deaths soared in spring 2004 with American attacks in Fallujah, Mosul and other Iraqi cities.


In Afghanistan, the U.S.-appointed government of Hamid Karzai exercises little influence beyond the capital of Kabul. Warlords control most of the country while fierce fighting pits U.S. and Pakistani forces against a resurgent Taliban and domestic armed groups. In contrast to Iraq, U.S. authority in Afghanistan is largely limited to the military sphere while the United Nations, World Bank and various non-governmental organizations attempt rebuilding with slender resources and a narrow vision of reconstruction.


The Japanese case offers a stark comparison. In six years of occupation (1945-51), not a single member of the occupying forces was killed and issues of security were quickly turned over to Japanese police, allowing the occupation authorities to concentrate on political and social reform, economic restructuring, reconstruction, and development. Nor were Japanese the victims of American attacks.


We can translate the language of security into another set of critical issues. The Bush administration views Afghanistan and Iraq as the front lines in its "war on terror," the central slogan that masks the U.S. conflict with the Islamic world. That conflict coincides with efforts to assure U.S. military control over the world’s richest oil fields and to shore up the Israeli state, factors that exacerbate anti-American feelings in both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as throughout the entire zone of conflict in Central Asia and the Middle East. The occupation and reconstruction of Japan also provoked regional conflicts, but those were enacted externally in Korea and Vietnam and, far from undermining the reconstruction and reform agenda, may have contributed to both.


World War II, Postcolonialism, and the Cold War: The historical origins of postwar reconstruction


Ground Zero is a powerful metaphor for a world in ruins in the wake of the atomic bombings that brought down the curtain on the most devastating war in human history. Hiroshima and Nagasaki invite reflection on the nature of that wider carnage that was the product, in Michael Sherry’s phrase, of a "technological fanaticism" shared by major powers. That fanaticism reached new heights in World War II in the run up to Hiroshima with the triumph of strategic bombing that targeted urban populations for destruction. In the final year of World War II, following the lead of Germany and Britain, the U.S. systematically destroyed scores of German and Japanese cities from the air, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. The strategy was perfected under the command of Curtis LeMay in the course of incinerating sixty-four Japanese cities prior to the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scale of the carnage, and the strategic lessons that U.S. military planners would subsequently apply in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, allow us to extend the metaphor of Ground Zero to entire nations.


World War II enshrined and normalized what is best described as terror bombing because of its deliberate targeting of civilians, a doctrine that would be extended and adapted by the U.S. to other terrains and applied with new weapons such as the destruction of dams and dikes in North Korea, the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant in Vietnam, and depleted uranium weapons and cluster bombs in the Gulf War.


Yet World War II also positioned the U.S. to frame and legitimate three humanitarian principles that have been at the heart of postwar efforts to refashion the international legal and human rights order. These were the Nuremberg principles, the legitimation of anti-colonial struggles, and postwar reconstruction.


A key Nuremberg principle holds individuals, notably important political and military leaders, personally accountable for crimes of war and crimes against humanity, and declares that perpetrators of these crimes should be formally tried rather than summarily executed or excused. These constitute the foundations for a new international human rights regime enshrined and subsequently extended through the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights. However, as the dominant power behind the Nuremberg, Tokyo, and subsequent tribunals, and as the protagonist in many of the major wars conducted since 1945, the U.S. has consistently excluded its own acts and those of its allies from examination or punishment while invoking the right to prosecute and execute its enemies. Moreover, as Edward Herman and others have documented, in Vietnam and subsequent wars, the U.S. systematically tortured and abused prisoners and civilians in wartime, and over many decades it trained military and intelligence personnel among its allies to do likewise in violation of international human rights norms. With the George W. Bush administration it went even further: Defense Department lawyers, with an eye to Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse atrocities and other war crimes, elaborated a strategy that explicitly claimed presidential immunity from such treaties as the Geneva Convention on torture.


Finally, the U.S. articulated practices of postwar reconstruction in which the victor contributed to the rehabilitation of the vanquished as well as of its own allies. The result was to reverse the dominant logic of war reparations in which the defeated were customarily further bled by the victors. Nevertheless, postwar reconstruction of defeated industrialized nations became one pillar of a hegemonic strategy designed to accelerate restoration of international trade and investment while subordinating others militarily. The creation of a network of permanent U.S. military bases and the stationing abroad of U.S. forces provided the sinews for this vision. In short, U.S. global power and legitimacy rested in part on the framing of international human rights principles and new approaches to postwar reconstruction and in part on military primacy.


Postwar reconstruction after 1945 was attuned to American strategic priorities. The U.S. aided in the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction of defeated enemies, notably Germany and Japan, while providing assistance to selected European allies whose recovery was central to rebuilding the world economy in line with American interests. By contrast, former colonies, including many in ruins at war’s end, were largely excluded from reconstruction agendas and left to their own devices. Reconstruction of a U.S.-centered world order pivoting on core nations contributed to the prosperity of the nations restored even as it served U.S. interests in global trade.


The U.S. entered the Japanese occupation with almost as little familiarity with Japanese culture and society as it does in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with far more careful preplanning and a staff that included educated and dedicated professionals in a wide variety of fields. The immediate issues confronting the occupying forces then as now included guaranteeing security, insuring peace, and providing relief for a nation in ruins. But in Japan the victors were able to immediately turn their attention to structural issues.


Three factors were critical in eliminating internal resistance to the occupation, thereby making possible immediate focus on relief, rehabilitation, reform and reconstruction. First was Japanese war-weariness after protracted mobilization, the experience of aerial pounding of the homeland, and the loss of two to three million soldiers in the course of the fifteen-year war. Second, the U.S. decision to rule indirectly through a Japanese government that retained the emperor as a symbolic ruler left in place the primary institutions of governance and structures of authority, however circumscribed by U.S. power. Third, key occupation programs were widely embraced by the Japanese people.


Historical factors facilitated the swift implementation, popular response, and positive results of many key reconstruction measures. These included the advantages of rebuilding a technologically advanced nation whose physical infrastructure had been destroyed, but which retained largely intact institutional, cultural, educational and technological foundations; the discrediting of a political and military leadership that had led the country to ruin and defeat; and shared Japanese and U.S. interest in Japan’s economic resurgence, an interest that was soon strengthened by the Cold War. Japan‘s postwar reconstruction and democratization could also build on a tradition of active state initiatives in charting major economic directions, while experiments with democracy from the Meiji era forward similarly paved the way for postwar democracy.


A consensus between Japan and the U.S. emerged in the early occupation years on a reform agenda that included the Peace Constitution, demilitarization, land reform, labor reform, democratization, and women’s rights. Democratization was premised on New Deal-inspired social reforms. Land reform broke the power of the rural elite and gave large numbers of formerly landless and land- poor farmers a material stake in the new order. The percentage of owner-cultivated land increased from 54 percent to more than 90 percent as former tenants gained access to land at low occupation-imposed prices, stimulating the rural economy and providing social foundations for a democratic order in the countryside. Independent cultivators then farmed 90 percent of all land and the number of landless tenants fell to just 7 percent of farmers. Organized labor, crushed by the previous military regime, emerged in force, empowered by new labor laws. Women, too, won important rights, including the vote and economic and social rights.


In Iraq and Afghanistan, by contrast, social reform of all kinds, including land, labor and gender, are strikingly absent from the agenda, and in fact are anathema to the supply-siders running the occupation, leaving a rhetorical emphasis on democracy and a real emphasis on military control, privatization, and war profiteering. In the absence of a reform agenda that addresses the social crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy and reconstruction remain hollow promises.


Yet for all its achievements in relief, rehabilitation, reform and reconstruction, the Japanese occupation embodied contradictory elements whose legacy, both positive and negative, continues to this day


Studies of postwar Japan have paid insufficient attention to the intimate relationship between military power and the reconstruction and reform processes that were the hallmark of the occupation. The U.S. monopolized military power, including nuclear weapons, as well as the military colonization of Okinawa and the permanent basing of U.S. forces in a Japan that was constitutionally barred from resuming a militaristic course. The bonanza of Korean War procurements that fueled Japan‘s economy from 1950 was critical to reconstruction. With the U.S. assuring Japan‘s security, domestic investment could be concentrated on economic, infrastructure and social reconstruction. The occupation gave rise to a shared U.S.-Japan vision of an economically robust and democratic Japan within the ambit of American power in a post-colonial Asia divided along Cold War lines.


Not all Japanese occupation programs proceeded smoothly, of course. Deadlock between different sections of the occupation, and at times between the occupation and the Japanese administration, meant that programs designed to dismantle the zaibatsu, the large economic-financial combines that dominated the prewar economy and that occupation authorities initially identified as the driving force behind Japanese militarism and colonialism, were stillborn. Likewise, the occupation’s reverse course of 1947, driven by mounting Cold War concerns and the anticipation of a Third World War, led to an attack on labor and progressive forces generally. By contrast, programs that enjoyed strong popular support including the peace constitution, land reform, the vote for women, and numerous health and welfare measures, not only were fully implemented but were sustained following the formal end of the occupation in 1952, despite U.S. pressures to scale back some of the most far-reaching reforms.


In the immediate postwar years both the U.S. and Soviet leadership were persuaded of the efficacy of social reform and the capacity of the developmental state to heal the wounds of war and guide nations on the path to economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, one element of the Cold War was the competition between them to promote reform. Consequently, land reform was implemented not only in revolutionary China, Vietnam and North Korea, but also in Japan, Taiwan and even, albeit limited in scope, South Korea. Throughout much of postwar East Asia, strong states emerged that controlled the workings of capital and the market.


The U.S. occupation profoundly shaped the postwar Japanese order. Japanese colonialism and militarism were eliminated, basic reforms implemented, and recovery, development and democracy concentrated the national energies for the next five decades.


These gains were won at a price that included Japan‘s dependency, involving its acquiescence in and support for all U.S. wars and Cold War designs in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. The occupation also perpetuated, albeit in a weakened form, Japan‘s imperial system, thereby restricting the scope of democracy and impeding efforts to fully come to terms with that nation’s wartime and colonial atrocities.


In sum, broad congruence of Japanese and American interests in reform and reconstruction made possible achievements of Japan‘s postwar reconstruction while