Tokyo Air Raid was a war crime
- THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK
Great Tokyo Air Raid was a war crime
By HIROAKI SATO, The Japan Times: Sept. 30, 2002
On Dec. 7, 1964, the Japanese government conferred the First Order of
Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun upon Gen. Curtis LeMay -
- yes, the same general who, less than 20 years earlier, had
incinerated "well over half a million Japanese civilians, perhaps
nearly a million."
In May 1964, the general, now the chief of staff of the U.S. Air
Force, had declaimed: "Tell the Vietnamese they've got to draw in
their horns or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."
I was reminded of the Japanese government's bizarre act when I read
the responses of several readers of The Atlantic Monthly to the news
that a museum had finally been created in Tokyo to memorialize the
Great Tokyo Air Raid. In the wee hours of March 10, 1945, 300 B-29s
dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries on one section of Tokyo -- a space
seven-tenths the size of Manhattan -- and in 2 1/2 hours "scorched
and boiled and baked to death" 100,000 people. The quoted words are
No, "news" is not the right word. For his July-August column in the
monthly, Jonathan Rauch mentioned the opening of a "small museum" and
spoke of what lay behind it: an "obscure" air raid. "Few Americans
have even heard of it," he wrote, "and few Japanese like to dwell on
Rauch met a survivor of the firebombing, a Japanese friend's mother,
back in 1990. He admired her for her "matter-of-fact, detached
manner." Her attitude was: "What happened happened, and war is always
bad, and 1945 is ancient history." Still, "the Tokyo attack deserves
the most introspection of all," Rauch decided, "even as it receives
In sheer magnitude, the calamity brought by the firebombing surpassed
both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least according to the U.S. Strategic
Bombing Survey conducted shortly after the war. But the devastation
of Tokyo, along with that of Hamburg and Dresden, was laid aside the
moment an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki.
With the advent of a weapon capable of snuffing out a large city in a
flash, the sense suddenly took root that "the continuity of life was,
for the first time, put into question," as Mary McCarthy put it.
In fact, one Japanese writer reported, in 1968, that "in the 22 years
since the war the Asahi Shimbun has written only four times about
March 10," while taking up Hiroshima 100 times more often. At about
that time, Saotome Katsumoto, who survived the firestorm as a 12-year-
old boy, resolved to do something about it. It took him over three
decades to create his modest archival center.
Was the raid justified? Rauch asked in his column. As with the
dropping of the second atomic bomb, the question is legitimate.
First, before and during World War II there were people who thought
indiscriminate slaughter of civilians had to be avoided. Tacticians
in the U.S. Army Air Forces themselves were split between those who
believed in "precision-bombing" and those who were "area bombers."
Brigadier Gen. Haywood Hansell, who was assigned to execute the first
serious bombings against Japan, was of the former group. But he was
duly relieved of his duty as ineffectual and replaced by LeMay. And
LeMay, switching from high explosives to incendiaries, went on to
carry out what Gen. Douglas MacArthur's aide, Brigadier Gen. Bonner
Fellers, called "one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of
noncombatants in all history."
Equally important, the victors of World War II did not just expand
the definition of "war crimes," but introduced the new concepts
of "crimes against peace" and "crimes against humanity." And these
ideas have gained support in recent years. Probably with the latter
development in mind, Rauch wrote: "I believe the firebombing of Tokyo
should be considered a war crime."
Some readers did not like this. And the five responses The Atlantic
has chosen to print in its October issue are yet another reminder:
When it comes to Japan and World War II, some Americans are incapable
of accommodating different viewpoints.
Blaine Browne, in Lighthouse Point, Fla., begins by taking Rauch to
task for following "a convoluted path toward his goal of elevating
the March 1945 U.S. firebomb raid on Tokyo to the historical
prominence he feels it deserves," so you can guess the tenor of his
letter. But in his determination to dismiss the importance of "an
event that, as Rauch complains, has gone largely un-remarked since
its occurrence," Browne makes one point he may not have intended.
"By early 1945 the American public's willingness to support
operations that might produce any significant casualties was
increasingly strained," he tells us, and concludes: "The Truman
administration's decision to use the atomic bomb must be considered
in this context."
I know Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has taken a somewhat
different tack and argued President Harry Truman used atomic bombs
because American taxpayers would have revolted if they learned their
government had expended $2 billion on the Manhattan Project but had
not used what it produced. The amount was sizable at the time; the
creation and maintenance of the large fleet of B-29s cost $3 billion.
But I don't know if Bernstein would go as far as to suggest what
Browne does. By Browne's logic, Japan's invasion of China, for
example, must be considered all right -- in the context of the
Michael Franzblau, in San Rafael, Calif., writes: "Concern that
Curtis LeMay's Army Air Corps committed war crimes in the firebombing
of Tokyo has to be balanced by awareness of the despicable activities
of the Imperial Japanese Army in China."
In other words, you murdered relatives of someone I know, so I
murdered some of yours. This argument may have worked in the age of
gunfighters in the American west. But it evidently wouldn't have
worked in the military tribunals convened after the war. In any
event, the countries that sat to judge Germany and Japan were careful
to exclude their own deeds from consideration.
The shortest letter cited in The Atlantic comes from Devin Croft, in
Littleton, Col. It reads in its entirety: "If the United States owed
any debt to the dead of Tokyo, it was long since repaid through the
reconstruction of Japan in the postwar years."
That is one conclusion some Japanese may accept, however
ambivalently. But Croft, too, evades Rauch's point. Any deliberate
mass slaughter of civilians is a war crime. And what happened in the
early hours of March 10, 1945, was the greatest slaughter a single
air raid produced in world history.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.
The Japan Times: Sept. 30, 2002
Dr. Muhammad Al-Massari comments:
(1) Japan never targeted US civilians in its history. The Pearl
Harbor attacks were against a purely military target. The only
problem with Pearl Harbor is that the Japanese war declaration on the
US did not arrive in time before the attacks giving the US
politicians the opportunity to scream their heads off crying: foul!
Technically the Pearl Harbor attack was even not carried against an
American territory. Hawaii was admitted to the US in 1951, so the
Japanese attack was, strictly speaking, not on US soil!!
Thus the Great Tokyo Air Raid, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are
not justified at all by the principle of "justified retribution and
(2) The claim "that Curtis LeMay's Army Air Corps committed war
crimes in the firebombing of Tokyo has to be balanced by awareness of
the despicable activities of the Imperial Japanese Army in China" as
Michael Franzblau, of San Rafael, Calif., wrote is absurd, because:
(a) The two activities differ fundamentally different in type,
scope and extension contradicting the "principle of measured and
(b) The despicable activities of the Imperial Japanese Army in
China were mostly transgressions of individual soldiers and local
commanders. Very little seems to be official Japanese Government
policy for which Japan as a nation and legal person of International
Law can be held responsible and hence punishable, as a nation and
people! The punishment has to be directed towards the responsible
individuals, and possibly military units, not against the "Japanese
People" as a legal entity.
(c) It is not clear that the Chinese have authorized the US to
act in their behalf by transferring their right of grievance. History
shows that they were more than capable to pursue their right and
exact retribution. Most of "The despicable activities of the Imperial
Japanese Army in China" cannot be classified strictly as crimes
against humanities, giving the justification to the US to act on
behalf of them as "human beings" without authorization.
Actually "crimes against humanity" were not yet defined (at least in
the Western tradition) nor was any punishment yet formalized.
(3) The behavior of the Japanese Government in the whole affair, not
only in conferring the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of
the Rising Sun upon Gen. Curtis LeMay, cannot be described in mild
terms like: bizarre. It is treasonous and nothing less. Moreover the
Japanese Government cannot be excused by being a government of a de
facto occupied country and thus acting under duress. The Japanese
people, led by thinkers and intellectuals should start a serious
accounting process of their treasonous politicians. A Japanese Usama
bin Ladin is past due and badly needed!!
(4) A similar analysis applies also to the Anglo-American fire
bombing of Dresden and other German cities. Such acts went far above
and beyond the legally and morally permissible according
to "justified retribution and measured response". The fire bombing of
Dresden is especially despicable and criminal:
(a) It has no precedence from the Nazi side. The Nazis never
fire-bombed a British city!
(b) Dresden was a commercial and university city with little
heavy industry or military facilities, thus of little or no
(5) All human beings of sound judgment must reject and denounce the
logic of those who invoke American public opinion against war
casualties and/or American tax money as a justification for the US
using Nukes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We must also absolutely
reject the claim that Hiroshima may have been justified, but not
Nagasaki, or vice versa. Such "American" pseudo-intellectual
acrobatic should not intimidate us.
Actually All human beings of sound judgment must re-evaluate their
understanding of the US collective mind: Is there any MIND at all?!
May be we are dealing with self-righteous arrogant idiots?! How
dangerous it is to leave the raging US bull get away with its current
policies?! What can be done?!
It is absolutely mandatory to evaluate the 11/9 attacks in this
light, otherwise we are BLIND and we will remain BLIND for ever!
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