Sunday, March 8, 2009

War Crime and Punishment

On the bullet train to Hamamatsu (pictured to the left), one quickly realizes how much was built or rebuilt after the war. Most of the country in fact. So much of it looks prefabbed and hastily constructed, temporary buildings reminiscent of West Berlin before the wall came down. General Curtis LeMay's firebombing strategy, the results of which were the impetus for this rebuilding, was not in fact that different from what had already been made acceptable throughout Europe by the blitz, the vengeance weapons, the carpet bombing of cities by masses of planes that blotted out the sun, the single-minded development of superweapons capable of wiping out a city in a flash of neutrons, heat and gamma rays. But the paper and wood houses that populated Japan at the time were more susceptible than the stone buildings of Europe and the resulting conflagrations reached temperatures that boiled their victims in the rivers into which they swam to escape. LeMay once famously remarked that it was a good thing we won or he and many other of the Allied commanders would have been prosecuted for war crimes.

And that is the nut of crimes of war: it's a prerequisite to commit them in order to be guilty of them, but one also has to lose the war.

In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager tells of receiving orders to fly to some particular grid coordinates in Germany and kill every living thing within a square mile. I don't remember the exact quote, but it was something to the effect that he didn't feel good about it, but orders is orders: more or less the Nuremberg defense. The losers don't get a chance to raise the question.

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