Good soldiers, bad soldiers

Posted: Aug 20, 2001 12:00 AM
If you want a problem for which there is no solution -- zero solution -- it is the problem of the war dead. Twenty Koreans, protesting the appearance of the Japanese prime minister at a military shrine, actually severed the tips of their little fingers. That is a pretty vivid form of protest, not to be flirted with by aspiring violinists.

Once upon a time I was seated next to the Philippine president at dinner in Manila and he told me of visiting Japan, a necessary diplomatic duty after his election. It was very difficult to do because Ferdinand Marcos had suffered grievously at the hands of the Japanese who invaded the Philippines.

He arrived in Tokyo and was taken to the great banquet hall. After dinner he was whisked away to an adjacent chamber. "I saw there 15 or 20 shriveled old men and suddenly I knew who they were: former generals and admirals of the hated Japanese military." The moment had come for the symbolic offering. "The Japanese prime minister told me to point to any one I liked, and his little finger would instantly be chopped off, as an indication of the sincerity of their repentance."

Marcos prevailed on his hosts to do something else by way of demonstrating national remorse, but that is the kind of thing the current prime minister walked into early in the week. He had promised, seeking his party's endorsement as leader, to honor the war dead on Aug. 15, which is the day the Japanese surrendered to the United States. Objections immediately were registered -- to "honor" that day meant to keep aflame the nationalist fires that consumed Korea, much of China and the Pacific.

So what did the prime minister do? He visited the shrine two days earlier. By such millimetric measurements are political abysses hurdled. Koizumi was a paragon of grace explaining what he did and why. "I am shamed that I had to retract what I said as prime minister, but right now I have to put aside my longtime beliefs and pursue my duty based on a wide range of national interests."

Politics requires political concessions, as President Bush is aware. The whole business of the war dead is a recurrent problem. President Reagan ran square into it in 1985 when he found that his schedulers had placed him at a graveyard in Germany that held the bones not only of regular army Germans, but also of dead SS troops. Elie Weisel, chief spokesman for Holocaust victims, personally pleaded with the president to withdraw his offer to appear. On the other side were those who counseled that it was best to surmount the question -- which German died honorably, which dishonorably -- and of course there was the diplomatic problem of disrupting a schedule laid out for him by Chancellor Kohl, his host, at a series of celebrations specifically designed to encourage the theme that bygones are bygones. Which is right for diplomats, not right at all for historians or moralists.

There is no way to get around the grotesque historical fact, which is that soldiers fight heroically no matter the character of the government they serve. On a millennial broadcast of "Meet the Press," General Powell was asked by Tim Russert what he thought was the salient fingerprint of the 20th century and he replied the heroism of the American fighting man. I objected, on the grounds above: namely that Russians and Germans also fought valiantly, never mind the cause they were serving. Senator Moynihan genially intervened, raising his hand to say, "Bill, this is one you won't win."

He was right. We honor the Confederate dead though they fought for a Confederacy that would have preserved slavery. But it was a prophetic hallmark of Lincoln to try to draw a curtain over that question. When Francisco Franco opened the extraordinary Valley of the Fallen honoring the dead in one of the ugliest civil wars in history, he astonished the Spanish public by declaring that the bones of those who fought on his side, and those who fought on the other side, were welcome in that great tomb.

The Japanese prime minister can't have had in mind, when honoring his war dead, the soldiers who undertook the rape of Nanking. There are buried, we must suppose, in every German military cemetery the bones of truly evil men. But to begin with, it's all but impossible to segregate these, and the diplomatic imperative is to move in the other direction, in part from necessity, in part from the sheer difficulty of performing the moral divisions. This is a historical period in which the Japanese prime minister honors his dead, and in which Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt exchanged toasts with Josef Stalin.