From Nanjing 1937 to Fallujah 2004:

The roots of the Japan-China War (1937-45) can be traced back to the surprise attack that Japanese army officers launched, in September 1931, on Chinese forces in Manchuria. Their premeditated coup led to Japan‘s seizure of the vast, resource-rich region. Initially carried out in the name of self-defense, the Manchurian takeover was later justified as a step toward establishing a new status quo in Asia. A long series of clashes alternating with truces followed between Japanese forces and Chinese un-reconciled to Japanese rule.


Starting with the battle of Shanghai, a port city at the mouth of the Yangzi River in early autumn 1937, the war began in earnest. During fighting near the foreign concessions, Japanese forces started killing Chinese prisoners of war on the spot. Three-months later, after they had completely encircled and isolated Nanjing, Chinese resistance crumbled and the capital of Nationalist China fell. Frustrated and exhausted Japanese army units, their discipline frayed by fierce fighting, went on a rampage. The news of killing, pillage, arson, and rape was widely reported and spread quickly throughout the world. Chinese anger increased; nationalist resistance hardened and a "fight Japan" attitude spread.


Japan‘s decision to take Nanjing and the ensuing bloodbath marked strategic and symbolic turning points in a war of conquest for which no solution short of withdrawal would ever be in sight. But Nanjing might not have become a symbol of massacre in the West had the interests of the Great Powers not been served by remembering it. For the Japanese sinking of the U.S. gunboat "Panay" and the British gunboats "Lady Bird" and "Bee," occurred in the midst of the attack on Nanjing. News of these incidents overlapped with reporting on the massacre and highlighted the seriousness of the challenge that Japan was mounting to Anglo-American imperialism in China.


 By late 1938 the Japanese imperial armed forces had bogged down. They had been constantly treating the Chinese as a conquered people, underestimating the hatred that their brutal behavior had engendered. Now, they could neither win the war nor, for domestic political reasons, acknowledge having lost it. They could only go on winning battles, occupying coastal cities and their hinterlands, and setting up puppet governments with Japanese officers in the background, running the show. Hoping to break the stalemate, Tokyo spread the fighting to Southeast Asia, then escalated again by attacking Pearl Harbor. The road to diplomatic failure and calamity that Japan‘s leaders had embarked on in 1931 ended, fourteen years later in August 1945, with the unconditional surrender of a nation in ruins from American bombing.




Imperial Japan was hardly alone in killing the innocent. The second half of the twentieth century, which really began in 1945, witnessed massive attacks on civilian populations and scores of atrocities from which Americans too easily averted their eyes because their own government or its client regimes was doing most of the killing. To pose comparative questions about war crimes in different situations, times, and places is a simple but useful strategy for illustrating this nationalist bias. The U.S. war in Vietnam, Israel‘s thirty-seven-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. occupation-war in Iraq are three events that, when brought together with Japan‘s China War, illustrate the usefulness of the comparative approach. They also serve to make explicit how war crimes are used to justify as well as criticize the international behavior of states.


In the 1960s and early 1970s the United States was fighting in Vietnam. It was the heyday first of President Kennedy, who started the war, and Johnson and Nixon who escalated the killing to genocidal levels because they too were unwilling to acknowledge defeat in an ideological crusade against global communism. Leading voices of sanity, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn most notably, grappled with historical analogies to 1930s Japan. It should have been only a matter of common sense for American elites to have recognized the parallels between the imperialisms of Japan and the United States, and to have grasped that the weaknesses of the American position in Vietnam would eventually result in defeat. Unfortunately, few had the courage or vision to recognize the power of the analogy. As the case of former Sec. of Defense Robert S. McNamara illustrates, no senior American decision-maker ever acknowledged that the concept of "crime" was applicable to what the U.S did in Indochina.


After the cold war I revisited the 1930s in order to study the varied roles that the Showa Emperor Hirohito had played in mobilizing the energies of the Japanese people for war, and in making an immoral war seem moral. Later I drew parallels between Japanese atrocities in China and American atrocities in Vietnam.{1} One general similarity was that between the mainstream, postwar Japanese response to the Nanjing massacre, and the debate over American involvement in Vietnam, which came to a climax at the time of the My Lai or Son My village atrocity, in which American soldiers murdered nearly five hundred unharmed, non-combatant civilians.


Japan‘s postwar leaders were forced to draw lessons from the lost war. The Japanese people, exposed for the first time to eyewitness testimony and photographic evidence presented at the Tokyo international war crimes trial, learned the truth about some of the atrocities and war crimes that their soldiers had committed. Other crimes, such as the sexual slavery of "comfort women," would remain hidden for decades. But after the American occupation of their country had ended, and throughout most of the cold war, official denial of mass atrocities and the repetition of lies rather than the clarification of facts dominated Japanese government responses to the Nanjing massacre. This suggests that the deep wounds inflicted by war on the Japanese people penetrated their conservative political class the least.


In the United States after the Vietnam War something similar happened. Political and military leaders, as well as young, ambitious future-politicians like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who served in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, and bureaucrats like Paul Wolfowitz who started his government service under Ford, failed to learn any "lessons" from the U.S. war beyond the need to avoid another "quagmire." The only flaws in the war that they ever perceived were strategic and tactical ones, and those pertaining to media access to the battlefield. No international war crimes tribunal stood in judgment on American war crimes, nor did the American polity (unlike Japan‘s) undergo any radical restructuring. The anti-war movement, effective in mounting critiques and helping to end the war, was unable to sustain pressure for domestic institutional reforms that would lead to fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy.


Neither the House nor the Senate held Presidents Johnson and Nixon legally accountable for lying repeatedly to the American people about the origins and reasons for the war. Neither president nor top civilian and military advisers were ever charged with having committed war crimes. The mainstream American response to atrocity was to shift blame for events like the My Lai massacre downward onto a lowly second lieutenant while ignoring the larger operation of which My Lai was a part: Operation Wheeler Wallawa, which killed an estimated 10,000-11,000 Vietnamese civilians.{2} Treating My Lai as an exception, and covering up countless other atrocities against unarmed civilians — from the murders committed by Bob Kerrey’s unit at Thang Phong to those committed by the US Army’s "Tiger Force" unit — was part of a larger pattern of justifying the Vietnam War to the American people.{3}


At the end of Nixon’s presidency no moral reckoning with American war crimes occurred. The sole lesson from the My Lai incident that political elites drew (and that the corporate media echoed) was that "we are great and good" for My Lai was the exception, not the rule. Perhaps that conclusion was understandable given the public’s immersion in the propaganda of that time. Subsequent presidents and their advisers did recognize that it was in their self-interest to avoid a situation like the one that had humbled the U.S. in Vietnam. But dominant political and military values never altered. In dealing with weak states that refused to follow Washington‘s orders, the Pentagon and the White House again and again resorted to indiscriminate terror, coercion, and intimidation to achieve their objectives. After a brief interregnum, U.S. global military interventionism resumed in response to the rise of  Islamic nationalism in Iran, civil war in Lebanon, and movements to overthrow U.S. client regimes in Latin America.


Three decades later the failure to reform America‘s deeply flawed political system, and the rise of the war-mongering neo-cons, led to Bush’s own "Vietnam" in Iraq. And this time, in place of My Lai, Thang Phong, or Son Thang, the U.S. marines are conducting a revenge massacre of civilians in Fallujah, a city of some 300, 000, thirty-five miles west of Baghdad, on the edge of the Iraq desert.


Opinions about Fallujah and the April rebellion are still forming, but the general outlines are clear, as is the context in which the fighting arose. In late March, after six months of relative quiet in the rebellious Sunni city of Fallujah, U.S. marines, newly arrived in Iraq, took over from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and tried to enter Fallujah to assert their control. Their provocative actions set off a cycle of revenge killings which, on March 31, led to the ambush-murder and mutilation of four U.S. mercenaries by a small band of unknown men.


Shortly afterwards, on March 25, 2004, proconsul Paul Bremer, head of the isolated U.S. "Provisional Coalition Authority" in Iraq, announced that the U.S. government intended to retain its occupying army and permanent military bases in Iraq no matter what any future Iraqi government might do or request. Not since the Japanese imperial army established "suzerainty" over "Manchukuo" in 1932, and later ruled occupied China from behind the façade of other puppet governments had an imperialist power resorted to such a nakedly colonial formula. But Bremer communicated precisely that to Iraqis: Outwardly the U.S. would proclaim the existence of a new state of affairs; in practice it would continue to exercise complete dominion over Iraq and not allow it to control its armed forces, police, or foreign policy, let alone rescind his earlier orders privatizing the Iraqi economy. This legerdemain was to be displayed for all the world to see on June 30, the day something called "sovereignty," which the U.S. never legitimately possessed, was "transferred" to some other U.S.-selected entity.


Bremer then moved to eliminate an outspokenly anti-American Iraqi leader: the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, descendant of a leading Shiite family that had provided both religious and political leadership for modern Iraq from its earliest days. His grandfather was Iraq’s prime minister in 1932; Ba’athists murdered his uncle, a venerated Ayatollah, in 1980 and his own father nineteen years later.{4} To arrest Sadr and destroy his militia, the "Army of the Mahdi," became Bremer’s objective. A small newspaper published by Sadr’s followers was closed; a Sadr deputy in Najaf arrested. In reply, protestors took to the streets and Sadr called on his supporters to conduct sit-ins against the occupation. The largest demonstration occurred in East Baghdad, in an impoverished district known as Sadr City. On April 3, the U.S. military command escalated the crisis, ordering troops to fire on the crowds and sending tanks into Baghdad‘s streets.{5}


Over the next few days small-scale fighting erupted across Iraq between Iraqis and so called "Coalition" troops, consisting mainly of soldiers sent by their governments, against the wishes of overwhelming majorities of their people, in return for deals cut with the Bush administration. Joining with several other religious militias, the "Mahdi Army" expelled Coalition police and soldiers from towns and cities where resentment against the Americans was strongest.{6} Because Sadr’s and other religious militias represented a social movement with broad popular support, they easily gained control of six Shiite cities, including Karbala, Kufa, and parts of nearby Najaf, with little loss of human life. In this way, moving more quickly than Bremer, Sadr and his militia ignited a nationwide rebellion which exposed the political powerlessness of the occupation and brought to an end the impunity of both the American military and private mercenaries who comprise a growing proportion of U.S. forces.


By April 4 American forces, their assorted Coalition partners, and Iraqi collaborators were under assault throughout south, central, and northern Iraq. Two days later, when marines intent on avenging the earlier murder of the four Americans made another foray into Fallujah’s central residential neighborhoods, they responded to stiff resistance by slaughtering unarmed civilians, including women and children. Concurrently, in Baghdad’s Sadr City, Shiite militiamen supportive of al-Sadr, took control of the city hall and police headquarters.{7} An AP journalist, writing from the sacred pilgrimage city of  Najaf, quoted al-Sadr as declaring, "America has shown its evil intentions, and the proud Iraqi people cannot accept it . . . . They must defend their rights by any means they see fit."{8} The Shiite and Sunni rebellions had become linked.


At that point the stunned U.S. military deployed all the force it could muster to shatter the Iraqis’ will to resist. Overstretched American combat soldiers, applying Israeli street-fighting tactics against the Sunnis and Shiites, retook many Shiite cities that the militias had controlled. But they have been unable to regain control of East Baghdad, and they have yet to capture or kill al-Sadr or destroyed his militias, their stated objectives.{9}


As reports spread of the marine siege and "lockdown" of an entire city, the heroism of the poorly armed Fallujah resistance and the indiscriminate U.S. destruction of civilian lives and property has kindled a fire of intense hatred in the hearts of many Iraqis. Energized through their mosques, Shiites and Sunnis, historic enemies, began to cooperate in sending food assistance and joining the national resistance. In the capital as in the provinces, U.S. troops fired on pro-Sadr demonstrators; in violation of international law they barged into hospitals and arrested the wounded. To prevent banned weapons from being sent to Fallujah along with food aid, they conducted punitive searches of mosques, kicking in doors, spraying walls and ceilings with gunfire, and in other ways desecrating them. In the process they destroyed tons of foodstuff earmarked for the encircled cities.


In besieged Fallujah, where the resistance fought the marines to a standoff, the worst war crimes occurred. The U.S. military dropped 500-ton, laser-guided bombs and body-shredding cluster bombs, destroying mosques, schools, and whole residential areas. "Predator" drones, helicopters, and AC-130 gunships rained death on all who ventured onto the streets. When this level of "shock and awe" failed to quell the uprising, the US military command declared a "truce," hoping to wait out the rebellion until the marines determined the next appropriate level of destructi

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