George Will

"Don't cheer, boys. The poor devils are dying." -- Capt. John Philip of the USS Texas, to his crew as they watched the Spanish ship Vizcaya burn off Santiago Bay, Cuba, in 1898.

WASHINGTON -- On March 9, 1945, 346 B-29s left the Marianas, bound for Tokyo, where they dropped 1,858 tons of incendiaries that destroyed one-sixth of Japan's capital, killing 83,000. Gen. Curtis LeMay, then commander of the air assault on Japan, later wrote, "We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo ... than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined."

That was inaccurate -- 80,000 died at Hiroshima alone. And in his new biography of LeMay, Barrett Tillman writes that the general was more empathetic than his rhetoric suggested: "He could envision a three-year-old girl screaming for her mother in a burning house." But LeMay was a warrior "whose government gave him a task that required killing large numbers of enemy civilians so the war could be won."

It has been hotly debated how much indiscriminate killing of civilians in the Asian and European theaters really was "required" and therefore was morally permissible. Even during the war there was empathy for civilian victims, at least European victims. And less than 15 years after the war, movies (e.g., "The Young Lions," 1958) offered sympathetic portrayals of common German soldiers swept into combat by the cyclone of a war launched by a tyrant.

But attitudes about the Japanese were especially harsh during the war and have been less softened by time. During the war, it was acceptable for a billboard -- signed by Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey -- at a U.S. Navy base in the South Pacific to exhort "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs." Killing America's enemies was Halsey's trade. His rhetoric, however, was symptomatic of the special ferocity, rooted in race, of the war against Japan: "We are drowning and burning them all over the Pacific, and it is just as much pleasure to burn them as to drown them." Halsey endorsed the Chinese proverb that the "Jap race" was the result of "a mating between female apes and the worst Chinese criminals."

Wartime signs in West Coast restaurants announced: "This Restaurant Poisons Both Rats and Japs." In 1943, the Navy's representative on the committee considering what should be done with a defeated Japan recommended genocide -- "the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race.''

Stephen Hunter, movie critic for The Washington Post, says that of the more than 600 English-language movies made about World War II since 1940, only four -- most notably "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) -- "have even acknowledged the humanity" of Japanese soldiers.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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