A few days ago I watched part of a public-TV documentary, whose title I didn’t catch, about the US firebombing of Japanese cities. It was factually interesting but also full of hindsight judgment of the whole enterprise as immoral. (It’s possible that I missed something as I did not watch the entire documentary.) There was an emphasis on the death, destruction and horrible suffering that the bombing caused in Japan, and also on deaths among American air crews. There were interviews with former B-29 crew members who expressed moral qualms about what they had done.
This was all reasonable. I have no doubt that our bombing of German and Japanese cities was one of the most terrible things ever done. But what made the documentary tendentious was that it left out the political and military context; there was no more than superficial discussion of what led the USA to adopt such brutal tactics. The remarkable tenacity and cruelty of the Japanese fighters we encountered in our island-hopping campaign weren’t discussed, nor was the terrifying prospect of invading the Japanese home islands — a prospect which, until the atomic bombings, appeared certain and would have certainly killed millions. Instead the documentary framed our decision to burn the cities as having been based on Curtis LeMay’s desire to find a more-effective alternative to using inaccurate high-explosive bombs against Japanese factories. Of course, when you present the story in such a narrow way it makes it look like we went too far. The documentary might have been redeemed if someone had said: Yes, we did terrible things, but they only became conceivable late in the war after we learned what the enemy was capable of, and the alternatives were all much worse. But no one said that, at least not that I heard.
I don’t think this documentary could have been made in the 1960s or 1970s. It would have been widely seen as revisionist. Too many people were still aware, either from direct experience or from having learned about the war from family elders or in school or from the media, of the rationale for destroying the Japanese cities. But nowadays probably a lot of the people doing film production, and certainly a lot of the viewers, are too young and too scantily educated about World War II to recognize an incomplete historical treatment when they see one. This is a great pity in the context of the current war, because people in the democracies need to understand that insufficient seriousness in fighting radical Islam now could in the long run lead to a situation in which we kill millions in order to get the fight over with and protect our people. It could happen. The history of our war with Japan makes clear what we are capable of doing to an enemy who provokes us sufficiently. The Islamists, who are as cruel as the Japanese were, need to understand this too, but probably won’t until it’s too late.
(And of course these are not original thoughts on my part. I am grateful to a number of bloggers, as well as commenters on this blog, for helping me to think them through for myself.)
UPDATE: In the comments, Jim Bennett suggests that the Islamists are making the same specific miscalculation as the Japanese did: “The Japanese thought that suicide tactics would demoralize the Americans and serve as a demonstration of Japanese resolve. They were right, in a way, but they failed to anticipate what the results of that effect would be.” The thugs and autocrats who make war on us often have a poor understanding of the political dynamics of democratic societies in general and of American society in particular. Eventually they tend to overplay their hands.
The real game is the competition for public opinion in our country. Successful war means an early consensus for defeating the enemy; unsuccessful war means no consensus on what to do or even what the problem is — until the enemy miscalculates and provokes us severely. Both scenarios have the same ending for the enemy.
The only successful enemies the USA has are ones with limited goals who are shrewd enough to remain below our threshold of provocation. The leaders of wartime Japan were insufficiently shrewd and failed to limit their goals. The Islamists appear to be repeating those mistakes.