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Monday, May 31, 2004


The buck for abuse once stopped at the top

NEW YORK -- One of the early explanations proffered for "Iraq prison abuse" was the U.S. military's failure to foresee the large numbers of Iraqis they would round up. This explanation (included in the May 9 New York Times article "In Abuse, a Picture of G.I.'s Ill Prepared and Overwhelmed") lost credibility in short order, quickly replaced by the revelation that the whole affair was "systemic," its cause rooted in the highest policy decision.

Yet, when the Times followed its account two days later with a mention of the Battle of Bataan, the initial attempt to point to an unforeseen situation to explain something that went wrong reminded me of a Japanese general during World War II. Why the Battle of Bataan? Because Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and came up with a no-nonsense report, is a Filipino-American whose father was captured on Bataan by the Japanese "whose cruelties," the Times had to add, "toward many of their prisoners has [sic] been well documented."

The Japanese general that came to mind is Lt. Gen. Masaharu Honma. The commander of the 14th Army, which was tasked with attacking the Philippines at the start of the Pacific War. Honma was tried post-bellum and hanged for the Bataan "death march." His crime was that his soldiers committed atrocities.

Because of setbacks, it took more time for Honma's forces to take the peninsula than expected. When Maj. Gen. Edward King raised a white flag on April 9, 1942, his forces faced an alarming situation. Americans and Filipinos "emerged to surrender, as if bubbling out of the earth -- from enemy positions, from the jungles, from the hillsides, from the valleys -- from every corner you could think of," as Fusako Tsunoda put it in her biography of Honma (1972).

The Japanese had estimated the enemy forces at 40,000 to 45,000 and hadn't expected them to capitulate so easily. In the end, 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers turned up, many debilitated by malaria and starving. There were also 20,000 refugees. And these people had to be moved at once to the north, to Camp O'Donnell, away from Corregidor, the island fortress to the south and the next target for attack.

Interestingly, Tsunoda, a woman who studied at the Sorbonne before the war, wrote four biographies of army officers. She did not set out to prove there were no atrocities in defense of Honma. There evidently were. The Japanese soldiers, inculcated with the notion that surrender was a matter of shame, regarded the enemy who surrendered with contempt.

Slapping, a routine method of punishment for any offense or infringement within the Japanese military, was likely administered to captives without restraint. There was the "battlefield frenzy," universal to any army, though Honma considered it a commander's duty to prevent it.

There may even have been some "group murders" or massacres, Tsunoda found. Col. Takeo Imai, a regimental commander during the Bataan battles, when told after the war that one of the charges against Honma was that his soldiers committed such murders, recalled a phone order that he had received to kill all of the captives in his unit. Dismayed, he requested a written order and then promptly freed the captives -- more than a thousand of them -- so that he could declare that he had no prisoners of war when the written order arrived. No such order reached him, but he heard about similar orders or rumors thereof.

The source evidently was the staff officer at the high command, Col. Masanobu Tsuji. His notoriety well preceded Japan's assault on Pearl Harbor. In "The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire" (1970), John Toland notes: "General Hitoshi Imamura, one of the most respected figures in the Army, saw the genius in Tsuji -- but also the madman." Here Toland is talking about 1940. Tsunoda, who wrote a biography of Imamura, believes that Tsuji was behind the Nanjing and Singapore massacres.

To Honma, all the stories of atrocities given by one witness after another produced by the prosecution at the Manila Trial were "all lies," as he wrote in his diary. He simply could not believe that his soldiers committed the savage acts attributed to them, let alone the prosecution contention that he ordered them. One of the more cultured officers in the Japanese Imperial Army, Honma was a man of rectitude. The officers under his command respected him on that account, including some who questioned his failure to pursue the American forces immediately as they fled from Manila to Bataan.

No, Tsunoda doesn't bring up the unexpected number of enemy soldiers who surrendered on Bataan to defend Honma, or the many deaths that occurred during the march north, although the majority of them were victims, no doubt, of what U.S. Army Maj. Richard Gordon calls "the deleterious effects of malaria" in his Internet account, "Bataan, Corregidor, and the Death March." But she does point out that the failure to provide the POWs with adequate transportation -- one of the charges made against him -- reflected the state of the Japanese Army at the time, not a deliberate act of savagery: It had few trucks to carry its own soldiers.

And this reminds me of another officer who was hanged, Lt. Gen. Shiyoku Kou. The highest-ranking Korean in the Imperial Japanese Army who was tasked with overseeing supplies in the Philippines in the last phase of the war, Kou was charged with mistreatment of POWs. Because it could not be proved that he, a gentleman-soldier by all accounts, ordered beating or other forms of torture, the focus was on his failure to provide POWs with enough food. Kou's point that he was barely able to secure food for his soldiers was to no avail. (Kou's name might read "Hong Sa Ikh" today, but he held to the Japanese pronunciation.)

Both Honma and Kou -- or for that matter, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, for whom the Manila Tribunal is mainly remembered -- were hanged for "negative criminality," the notion that a commander is culpable for crimes he was not able to prevent. This idea was not just "legally unrecognized," as Justice Frank Murphy asserted in his dissent when the Yamashita appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court; if accepted as legal doctrine, as it was by the court, it might seal "the fate of some future president of the United States and his chiefs of staff and military advisers."

Naturally, the U.S. has not dared follow the precedent in its own conduct.

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

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