One of the most devastating attacks ever directed at civilians by the U.S. government--an event few remember-- occurred sixty years ago this week. On the nights of March 9th and 10th, 1945, some 334 B-29 bombers dropped 1,665 tons of napalm-filled bombs on the densely-populated city of Tokyo. Over 100,000 people were killed in the ensuing firestorm--more casualties than in the atomic bombs dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Sixteen square miles of urban neighborhoods--constructed of wood and populated largely by civilians--were completely incinerated, leaving homeless nearly 1.15 million survivors. As justification for this attack, historians cite the military's strategy to destroy civilian morale as well as household manufacturing units supporting Japan's war effort.
But could those responsible for military policy at the time have guessed that some sixty years later, many survivors of that bombing, along with their descendants, would still deeply resent the United States for what it did? Of course, the Japanese military and emperor deserve blame for prolonging the war, but in nine years of researching war commemorations, I have been constantly amazed at the persistence of resentment directed at the U.S. The Japanese may have been defeated, they "may have deserved" the systematic destruction of their major cities (as was the common, rather genocidal, sentiment of the time), and the nation may indeed have recovered with considerable U.S. aid to become a global economic power. But the lingering anger and sense of victimization among the survivors will no doubt accompany them to their graves. Fortunately for the U.S-led occupation after the war, these feelings never found expression in acts of revenge or an organized insurgency.
In the Arab Middle East, where historical memories of the last 1,600 years readily percolate to the surface through Islam and inter-clan conflicts, the tragedies and injustices of the past regularly become the political capital of the present. The ill-conceived U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq seems destined to endure as a resilient justification for perpetuating hatred, with tales and images of destruction and death circulating among cafes, schools, websites, and mosques worldwide. Although there has been a significant loss of civilian life in Iraq, the U.S. could ease the anguish of the Iraqi people by setting a specific date for troop withdrawal and, perhaps just as significantly, by providing reparations for those who have suffered because of its oftentimes brutal military policies.
If many citizens from one of our closest allies in East Asia choose to privilege their personal suffering over the glossy headlines of postwar success and democratic nation-building, we can only imagine what is in store for the U.S. in those parts of the world where it is already seen as an arrogant bully. Unlike the defeated passivity of the Japanese after World War II--where over 100,000 deaths by firebombing is barely acknowledged in the place where it occurred--today's global networks of information, immigration, and finance promise a transnational dimension to the politics of both commemoration and revenge. Would that these same networks be utilized for education, reconciliation, and healing the suffering of this expensive and dreadful war. (503 words)
John Nelson is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco.