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Monday, Dec. 31, 2001


War recalls the savaging of Okinawa

NEW YORK -- Evidently prompted by the war in Afghanistan, John Gregory Dunne has recently discussed three books in The New York Review of Books (Dec. 20) to remind us of the savaging process that is war. For Dunne, whose sensitivity to anything false matches that of his wife, Joan Didion, "The Greatest Generation" -- the most fashionable historical branding in America today -- is a "treacly concoction" and the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech that Peggy Noonan wrote for Ronald Reagan for the 40th anniversary of Omaha Beach is "sentimental claptrap."

The books Dunne has chosen are "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," by E. B. Sledge (1981); "The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb," by George Feifer (1992); and "The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War," by Samuel Hynes (1998).

Of the three, Hynes' is a "literary analysis of combatant diaries and memoirs from both world wars and Vietnam," Dunne tells us, so it is not a frontal treatment of Okinawa. Still, Hynes, a Princeton professor of literature who has edited, among other things, the Library of America's two-volume compilation "Reporting World War II" (1995), made bombing runs on Okinawa as a 20-year-old pilot and has left some accounts of that experience. To quote from a passage Dunne cites, Hynes recollects the scene after 14 million tons of bombs dropped (and that was only midway through the battle).

"The island I saw . . . was only a place to fight a battle. . . . This was once a landscape; now it's an anti-landscape; a space that can be defined only by war's destructions -- the bodies and the shell craters. There are no living creatures, no human habitations, no cultivated fields, not a tree or a road or a fence."

Dunne's article made me take down Masahide Ota's books from the shelf. Ota, governor of Okinawa from 1990 to 1998, survived the war as a wounded 20-year-old. He witnessed the burning alive of two dozen young women hiding in a cave after barrels of gasoline and an incendiary bomb dropped from the sky. He saw Japanese deliberately killing Japanese. The first book (1953) he wrote about the Battle of Okinawa concerned young Okinawa boys pressed into war.

The primary visual impression you get from Ota's "comprehensive" account of the battle, "Soshi: Okinawa-sen" (1982), is likely to be that the war the United States fought in 1945 was not much different from the war it fought in Vietnam or the war was fighting in Afghanistan.

As its subtitle, "Photographic Record," says, the book is amply illustrated with photographs borrowed mostly from the U.S. armed forces and the U.S. National Archives. These photos show overwhelming, highly mechanized offensive forces and, on the defensive side, wretched people in bedraggled clothes.

This, of course, is by no means to say that Japan did not have modern weapons. Its last significant naval sortie, which was dispatched to aid the defense of Okinawa in early April 1945, had the world's largest battleship, Yamato, and a brand-new cruiser, Yahagi, although the flotilla of 10 warships was destroyed in a matter of a few hours by U.S. aircraft long before it reached Okinawa.

Japan's artillery division on Okinawa was led by the capable Lt. Gen. Takasuke Wada. His men were so effective that the U.S. military suspected that a German officer was in command.

The impression of the kind of hopeless mismatch that the photographs give may not exactly be the author's either. Ota's main argument in his narrative is that the Japanese military used Okinawa as a "suteishi" (a stone strategically abandoned in the game of go for an advantage elsewhere) when it did not have any overall strategy whatsoever.

In contrast, the U.S. from the outset had a strategy based on confidence of final victory, Ota emphasizes. Only six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. organized a group to lay out plans for Japan after its defeat. As another manifestation of U.S. confidence, on March 26, 1945 -- a few days before the U.S. landing on mainland Okinawa -- Adm. Chester Nimitz placed the Okinawa archipelago under U.S. military rule, a move that Ota argues was possibly against international law.

The mismatch, in any event, was unmistakable in the outcome. Ota reports that the number of the dead during the three-month battle approaches a quarter of a million: 65,900 members of Japanese armed forces from mainland Japan, 28,000 soldiers from Okinawa and 130,000 civilians. (Okinawa's population at the time was an estimated 440,000.) The U.S. armed forces lost 14,000 men. The kill ratio between the defensive and offensive sides was 16 to 1. If the civilian dead are excluded, it was nearly 7 to 1.

The ratio of Japanese to U.S. servicemen killed throughout the Pacific War was greater than 10 to 1. The ratio in Okinawa was smaller simply because the Japanese armed forces ran out of men, as they had in Peleliu, a coral atoll in Palau (now called Belau), and Iwo Jima. (Peleliu, where 11,000 Japanese soldiers and 1,252 U.S. marines died, has recently cropped up as the name of the U.S. aircraft carrier that took in the first group of Taliban prisoners of war.)

The disparity in casualties was an irony in a horrible way. Men like Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho, chief of staff of Japan's land forces on Okinawa, kept up puerile exhortations to the very end, telling even civilians to kill 10 enemy soldiers each. On June 23, he and Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the defense of Okinawa, committed suicide. Two days later, Japan's high command ended the Okinawa operations.

But it was not until Sept. 7, five days after Japan's formal surrender, that the remnants of Japan's Okinawa forces signed surrender documents with U.S. Lt. Gen. Joseph Stillwell.

In 1995, Ota set out to create a "Heiwa no Ishiji" (Foundation for Peace), the title of his 1996 book. From his Web site ( www.ota-m.com/rf.html) I gather that the monument is comparable to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, but with a difference: It aims to inscribe all the names of those who perished during the Battle of Okinawa, including the civilians and the American and British soldiers. In the Battle of Okinawa, the British Royal Navy joined the U.S. forces in a major way for the first (and last) time during the Pacific War.

In that same year, Ota attracted worldwide attention when he refused to sign, on behalf of the Japanese government, a document allowing the U.S. military to continue to use the lands it had forcibly appropriated for its bases on Okinawa Island. The Japanese government sued, and the governor lost, first in the Fukuoka Prefectural Supreme Court, then in the Supreme Court.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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