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Monday, Feb. 23, 2004


Critical war questions beg for an answer

NEW YORK -- First, my historian friend George Akita sent me a clipping of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's article that appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser (Aug. 7, 2003). Titled "We need rules for waging war," the piece begins with McNamara remembering the night of March 9, 1945, when 334 B-29s bombed a section of Tokyo and "burned to death 83,793 Japanese civilians and injured 40,918 more." The numbers are McNamara's. (I note this because I haven't seen such precise figures in any Japanese description of the raid.)

At the time, McNamara was on Guam on temporary assignment from Air Force Headquarters in Washington, and U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of air operations in the Pacific, asked him to join the after-mission briefings. One remark by the general that McNamara recalls is: "If we lose the war, we'll be tried as war criminals."

The point of McNamara's argument in his essay, indeed, is to call for a "proportionality rule" to limit enemy casualties, although he said LeMay would dismiss the idea as "ridiculous."

Then, Paul Lashmar, whom I did not know, wrote to ask if I'd be interested in the documentary on LeMay that he made for the BBC. Lashmar said he had read my column on the Tokyo air raid in these pages ("Great Tokyo Air Raid was a war crime," Sept. 30, 2002). I said yes, and the video of the program, "Baiting the Bear," duly arrived. It documents LeMay not just as a man who incinerated Tokyo and other Japanese cities but as one who went on to aim for ever greater destruction.

With the onset of the Cold War, LeMay advocated a "preventive war" against the Soviet Union; the idea was to destroy "the bear" before it acquired any ability to strike back.

In the super-secret "Project Control," he probably usurped the ability to "push the button." The terror frenzy LeMay stoked up resulted in what Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith calls the "culture of destruction" in the documentary.

Then came Errol Morris' interview with McNamara, "The Fog of War." Part of last fall's New York Film Festival, the documentary examines the life of McNamara, perhaps the most reviled secretary of defense in American history. The stress is, of course, on his role in World War II, the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War.

In "Baiting the Bear," LeMay may come across as monstrous but also as somewhat comical; after all, he inspired the character of Col. Jack Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," a film billed as a comedy. In "The Fog of War" McNamara comes across as neither. He remains supremely rational in the film, as he evidently has in his life. And if some of the viewers come away from the movie with a sense of resignation, as I have, the main reason is that quality of McNamara.

The sense of resignation is reinforced by a few factors. There is, first, the title, "The Fog of War." Alexander Cockburn has noted, in the U.S. political newsletter Counterpunch (Jan. 24, 2004), that Carl von Clausewitz, to whom the term is attributed, actually did not use it. In any case, what was important for the Prussian military theorist was "eliminating fog" so as to see "moral forces."

To most of us who don't know von Clausewitz and his thinking, though, the term allows McNamara to become a sympathetic figure. Yes, he was bright, yes, he was rational, but "we all make mistakes," as he observes at one point.

There is also the interweaving into the documentary of 11 "lessons" that McNamara says he has distilled from his life, most of them from that part of his life related to things military. This narrative arrangement enables McNamara to argue, or at least intimate, that under all those general and specific historical circumstances few rational, thinking men would have acted otherwise -- a position few of us can refute. It is this didactic aspect of the story, one assumes, that prompted the creator or the distributor of the film to make a patently educational Web site for it for young people: sonyclassics.com/fogofwar.

Does McNamara feel responsible for his role in the Vietnam War? In "The Fog of War," he does not hesitate to ascribe the ultimate responsibility to his superior when the war was going out of control: President Lyndon B. Johnson. But his article for The Honolulu Advertiser suggests otherwise. Obviously written after "The Fog of War" was completed, he asks: "Is it legal to incinerate 83,000 people in a single night to achieve your war aims? Was (the atomic bombing of) Hiroshima legal? Was the use of Agent Orange -- which occurred while I was secretary of defense -- a violation of international law?" His answer: "These questions are critical."

Is a proportionality rule possible? The need for proportionality is one of McNamara's "lessons" in "The Fog of War." Proportionality, I should add, is one reason The World Court finally outlawed the nuclear bomb, in 1996, after decades of deliberations.

One answer to this question -- or at least an intimation of one -- was given by a reader of Roger Angell's article on "The Fog of War" in The New Yorker (Jan. 19, 2004). Angell wrote: "Sixty-seven Japanese cities were firebombed by the B-29s and 350,000 civilians burnt to death -- and the war in effect won -- well before Hiroshima." In response, Alan Robert Scott, of Branford, Connecticut, who says he was an officer aboard a warship during the Battle of Okinawa, wrote to The New Yorker (Feb. 9, 2004):

"All three ships (outside the harbor of Okinawa) were destroyed by kamikazes, as were the next three that joined us. The army and the marines on the beach were engaged in bloody battle. One night, a hospital ship all lit up was hit by a kamikaze in the center of its red cross. . . . If the Japanese had surrendered . . . there would have been no Hiroshima; but they did not."

"That war has been softened in memory," Angell wrote. Apparently nothing of the sort has happened to Scott in the intervening six decades. He hasn't reflected on Angell's point: the proportions of Japanese and American deaths during the Pacific War. If we limit ourselves to combatants, it was 10 Japanese to one American. If we limit ourselves to civilians. . . . Who knows? I have never seen a figure.

Also, what is proportionality? Even if something like 60 Vietnamese to one American in the Vietnam War, by McNamara's own reckoning, is deemed unacceptable, is 10 to one acceptable?

One of the horror stories told in the 1950s was that Nazis made it their policy to randomly round up 10 local people and shoot them when one German was killed in the occupied land.

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

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