The United States has made the "war on terrorism" the centerpiece of its global strategy since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It has proclaimed its leadership of a world-wide alliance to exterminate an "Axis of Evil." But what is terrorism? Who are its perpetrators? And what is the relationship between U.S. policies and terrorism? I would like to reflect on this question: what gives the nation that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that has waged war far from its shores throughout the world on an unprecedent scale and with unprecedented destruction of lands and peoples, the prerogative to define global norms of absolute good and absolute evil?
Drawing on the Geneva Convention of 1949, I define terrorism as the systematic use of violence and intimidation against civilian populations and the natural and social environments that sustain them. Terrorism may be carried out by individuals, groups, or states under conditions of social conflict including war. It has often been remarked that terrorism is the weapon of the powerless. But even a cursory survey of the history of human conflict reveals that the most egregious terrorism has been conducted by warring states. I call this state terrorism.
Among the most terrible ironies of the history of the long twentieth century is the fact that it has been both the moment of the most profound international efforts to limit the scope of wars to protect the innocent (human rights discourse), and an epoch in which the nature and technology of warfare came to direct its spearhead ever more powerfully against civilians. The twentieth century may be remembered not only as the century of total war, but also as the century in which the nature of war, above all air war, ineluctably spilled over into state terrorism.
I would like to briefly discuss American and Japanese warfare in World War II for the light it sheds on questions of terror in twentieth century warfare. One reason for this choice is that both nations, while far from alone, were pioneers in advancing the frontiers of state terrorism in the twentieth century. Another is that the differences in their post war trajectories permit us to reflect on the possibilities of transcending the link between powerful nations and destructive wars waged at the expense of weaker nations and peoples. Specifically, it is critical, if we are to act to prevent all forms of contemporary terrorism, that Americans at the peak of their military supremacy, yet recognizing as never before their own vulnerability, reflect on the conduct, past and present, of our nation.
During the fifteen year war (1931-45), Japan committed large-scale terror against Chinese and other Asian peoples. Widely recognized examples of Japanese state terror include the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 in which an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese, many of them civilians, were killed by an army run amok; the sexual enslavement of 100,000 to 200,000 ‘military comfort women’, mainly Koreans and Chinese but involving women from at least ten Asian nations; and the chemical and biological warfare programs of Unit 731 that took the lives of at least 3,000 victims in vivisectionist experiments (murder) as well as thousands more civilian lives in illegal chemical and biological attacks. Less discussed, but far more devastating in terms of the toll of human lives, was the Japanese military’s systematic destruction of the Chinese countryside in a war of pacification that developed many of the most sophisticated practices of search and destroy missions and strategic hamlets that U.S. planners would later implement in Vietnam. The war took the lives of an estimated fifteen to thirty million Chinese, the vast majority being civilians. We have detailed knowledge of these war crimes because of the systematic research by courageous Japanese scholars and authors such as Honda Katsuichi and Kasahara Tokushi on Nanjing, Tsuneishi Keiichi on 731 and CBW, and Yoshimi Yoshiaki and Tanaka Toshiyuki on the comfort women, as well as efforts by Chinese, Korean and other Asian victims to express their grievances and secure apology and reparations from the Japanese government.
Japan (at Shanghai) and Germany (in London) took the lead in World War II bombing that targeted cities and their people, as opposed to military targets such as weapons factories and bases. But in the final year of the war it was the United States with its mastery of the air and increasingly powerful bombs that delivered massive attacks on civilians in the form of area bombing. First, the U.S. joined Britain in the destruction of Dresden taking 35,000 civilian lives. Then, beginning with the March 1945 attack that took more than 100,000 civilian lives in Tokyo and created more than one million refugees, continuing on through the reduction to rubble of more than sixty Japanese cities, and culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a loss of life of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, the U.S. broke the fragile remaining taboos on civilian bombing. This deployment of air power against civilians would become the centerpiece of all subsequent U.S. wars, a practice in direct contravention of the Geneva principles, and cumulatively the single most important example of the use of terror in twentieth century warfare. As we mourn the 2,800 victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, including Americans and citizens of more than twenty countries, we should simultaneously recall the millions of civilians who have been victims of American bombing and other acts of terror during and after World War II.
In the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials, the U.S., in my opinion rightly but selectively, denounced and prosecuted German and Japanese war crimes. However, in a practice that continues to today, it defined war crimes of others while denying or ignoring its own war crimes such as the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in U.S. bombing of Japanese cities. Moreover, for reasons of realpolitik, Washington shielded from prosecution major Japanese figures, from Emperor Hirohito to the leaders of biowar Unit 731, thereby undermining the integrity of the tribunals.
In assessing Japanese and American warfare and state terrorism throughout the twentieth century, it is important to note that since World War II Japan has yet to come effectively to terms with its acts of terrorism against Asian people. But it is no less important to recognize that that nation has also remained at peace for nearly six decades while the United States has fought scores of wars throughout the globe, directly and by proxy. (An important qualification to this statement is the fact that a Japan has repeatedly and directly supported major U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan, to name the most important). In country after country, the U.S. has deployed technology designed to take the lives of large numbers of civilians while destroying cities, villages, and nature, and creating refugees on a vast scale. Here it is sufficient to mention but two of the landmarks of these wars, fought in violation of the Geneva principles protecting civilians:
Korea. The civilian death toll was in the range of half a million each in North and South. In addition, the war led to the creation of four million northern refugees fleeing from the North to the South, and the virtual destruction of both North and South.
Vietnam. The best estimates that we have suggest that three million Vietnamese, the majority of them civilians, lost their lives, millions more were forced to become refugees, and the land was devastated by bombing, napalm and herbicides. It is perhaps worth noting that despite the destruction and the toll in human lives that the U.S. military exacted in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, not one of these conflicts ended in U.S. victory, suggesting the limits of power of even the most powerful of military machines despite the capacity to kill civilians on an unprecedented scale.
In addition, in Afghanistan as well as in wars ranging from Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and Kosovo, the United States repeatedly directed attacks on civilians, most often by unleashing massive firepower, although in some, as in the case of Nicaragua, techniques of low intensity or counter-guerrilla conflict provided the vehicle for U.S. strategy. In thinking about contemporary state terrorism, a central point is the ability of the U.S. to use international forums to shield itself from charges of war crimes, and to define acts of terror exclusively as those directed against itself and its allies while ignoring its own crimes. An important exception was the 1987 World Court decision which ordered the U.S. to halt its attacks on Nicaragua and to pay reparations. The U.S. response was to dismiss the court judgment, escalate attacks on the Nicaraguan regime, and twice veto a Security Council resolution critical of the U.S.
If international norms regulating the conduct of war or proscribing terror are to have any meaning, they must apply to all nations and peoples, and the great powers must be held to the highest standards. The U.S. call for a "war on terrorism" directly violates this fundamental principle by defining even the most barbaric U.S. acts, and those of its allies, as necessary steps to purge the world of terrorism. U.S. terrorism against the people of Afghanistan, themselves the victims of a repressive government and in no way responsible for the 9-11 terror, illustrates the futility and inhumanity of a policy that reflexively unleashes mass destruction rather than searching for means likely to understand the reasons why the U.S. became the object of terrorist attack, still less to address the problems that give rise to terrorism in this and other instances.
As Arundhati Roy observed: "Nothing can excuse or justify an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by religious fundamentalists, private militia, people’s resistance movementsor whether it’s dressed up as a war of retribution by a recognised government. The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world. Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington. It is worth reflecting whether U.S. leadership in a "war on terrorism" that ignores the social roots of terrorism embedded in poverty and the denial of sovereignty to oppressed peoples, and that itself is predicated on unfettered targeting of civilians, can hope to reduce no less eliminate terrorism."