Guilt of War Belongs to All

Noam Chomsky

The Observer, July 30, 1995

The year 1995 is one of memories, and for some, regrets and apologies as well. The victors of the Second World War have ruled out any apology or expression of remorse for the atomic bombings or other actions, but Japan has repeatedly been condemned for failing to confess its war guilt fully and adequately as the anniversary of VJ Day approaches.

The argument over the atomic bomb has a point. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however awful, were not acts of aggression, but atrocities in response to aggression.

But to paint Japan as a singularly evil aggressor which refuses to apologise for its past ignores not only the gestures which the Tokyo government has made, but also the gestures which the West has not.

Visiting China in May, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama marked the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war by expressing ‘sincere repentance for our past… including aggression and colonial rule that caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for many people in your country and other Asian nations’.

Not long before, Nicholas Kristof, the Tokyo correspondent of the New York Times, reported a poll showing that the Japanese ‘believe four to one that their government has not adequately compensated the people of countries that Japan invaded or colonised’. He also noted that, two years earlier, the Japanese Prime Minster had offered Japan’s victims an ‘explicit apology for the war’.

Kristof went on to write, however, of his concern for Japan’s failure to offer an adequate apology ‘for invading other Asian countries and killing millions of people’. One of his articles was headlined, ‘Why Japan hasn’t said that word’, expressing our bewilderment over Japan’s unwillingness to acknowledge guilt.

The same cry was taken up in Britain by the Daily Telegraph’s defence correspondent, John Keegan. ‘Why won’t the Japanese say sorry?’ he asked. Presidents Kohl and Mitterrand made a joint pilgrimage to Verdun to settle their differences; Germany acknowleged its guilt for the Holocaust and paid some reparations to survivors; but the Japanese, he complained, had ‘wriggled out’ of expressing remorse. Keegan noted that in June the Japanese parliament passed a motion changing ‘apology’ to something vaguer meaning ‘reflection’ or ‘self-examination’.

The New York Times can be relied on to give a balanced view. Thus, Kristof argued that: ‘Japan is not the only country that has difficulty saying it is sorry. American officials have toppled governments over the past half-century, and Americans do not lose much sleep over the American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812 or the incursions into Mexico in 1914 and 1916 — the obvious cases that come to mind when we consider the possible reasons to “say that word”.’

Aggressors only have to apologise when they lose wars, and, even then, there are exceptions. Some Japanese intellectuals are said to have admitted that Germany is more remorseful than Japan over the Second World War, but they explain that Germany’s mighty neighbours would not let the Germans forget what they had done. Weaker nations, such as China and Korea, have not been in a position to exert such pressure on Japan.

Few intellectuals in the United States have asked whether similar factors might have something to do with the American talent that so amazed Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French writer, as he watched the ‘triumphal march of civilisation across the desert’: namely the miraculous destruction of the natives with ‘complete respect for the laws of humanity… with singlular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world’.

Or, as Theodore Roosevelt, the racist historian who became President of the United States, put it in The Winning of the West, his 1890s’ four-volume celebration of the American spirit: ‘As a nation, our Indian policy is to be blamed, because of the weakness it displayed, because of its shortsightedness, and its occasional leaning to the policy of sentimental humanitarians; and we have often promised what was impossible to perform; but there has been no wilful wrongdoing’.

According to Keegan, it is a Japanese tribal custom, ‘not to admit that the tribe itself has done wrong, either in the present or the past. It would indeed be wrong to make such an admission; wrong for the tribe, wrong for any individual member’.

Could 200 years of a history of crushing weaker adversaries have something to do with the fact that the very idea of ‘saying that word’ is even less comprehensible in American culture? Such questions occur only to ‘wild men in the wings’, to borrow former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy’s description in 1967 of those who failed to perceive the nobility of the US crusade in Vietnam.

The twentieth anniversary in April of the departure of US forces from Vietnam caused much commentary, but nothing approaching Japan’s ‘sincere repentance for having caused unbearable suffering and sorrow’ to the Asian people. The concept is unintelligible to Americans.

The toll of Indo-Chinese dead during the US wars is impressive even by twentieth-century standards. In the run-up to the anniversary, the Vietnamese government released new figures on casualties, which have been generally accepted.

Hanoi reported that 2 million civilians had been killed, the overwhelming majority in the south, along with 1.1m North Vietnamese and southern resistance fighters (Viet Cong, in the terminology of US propaganda). An additional 300,000 were listed missing in action.

Washington reports 225,000 killed in the army of its client regime (‘South Vietnam’); and the CIA estimates 600,000 Cambodians killed during the US phase of what the one independent governmental inquiry (by Finland) calls the ‘Decade of Genocide’ in Cambodia: 1969 to 1978. Thousands more were killed in Laos, mainly by US attacks that were in large part unrelated to the war in Vietnam.

The US bears responsibility for these dead, just as Japan is responsible for deaths in China and Russia for deaths in Afghanistan. The same applies to whoever pulled the trigger, a truism understood very well by Western intellectuals when responsibility can be laid at someone else’s door.

It is a tribute to the US educational system that Americans estimate Vietnamese deaths at a mere 100,000. But only ‘wild men’ will ask what the reaction would be to comparable estimates of victims in Germany or Japan, or pre-Gorbachov Russia, and what the answer tells us about ourselves.

In Somalia recently, the US command did not count Somali casualties. Marine Lt General Anthony Zinni, who commanded the US troops withdrawal, informed the press: ‘I’m not counting bodies… I’m not interested’.

But, according to Charles Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy: ‘CIA officials privately concede the US military may have killed from 7,000 to 10,000 Somalis,’ while losing 34 US soldiers.

This was nothing to lose any sleep over, of course, hardly more than a footnote to the record compiled from the days when the founders were caring for ‘that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty’, as President John Quincy Adams (1825-29) described the project long after his own contribution to it was over. As Secretary of State in the early nineteenth century, he was the originator of the doctrine of unauthorized executive war that has a long history, up to Vietnam.

In Britain, there has at least been some serious soul-searching over the bombing of Dresden by the British and US forces, destroying the city and killing tens of thousands of civilians. Britain had been under serious attack, something the US has not suffered since the war of 1812.

In contrast, the fiftieth anniversary of the American fire-bombing of Tokyo, which was so devastating that it was removed from the list of potential atom bomb targets because further destruction would merely pile rubble upon rubble and bodies upon bodies, was marked by an article in the Washington Post bearing the headline: ‘Japan revising past role: more aggressor, less victim’.

As with the long list of other crimes, the reaction to the anniversary of the firebombing was narrow: if that’s what it took to win, that’s what should have been done.

In his recent memoirs In Retrospect, Robert McNamara, the architect of America’s intervention in Vietnam, relates that, by 1967, ‘the stresses and tensions’ were so bad that he sometimes had to take a sleeping pill.

Fortunately, for the nation’s health, there is not much else that might cause Americans to ‘lose sleep’ as we commemorate events of recent history.