The Right Coast

June 22, 2005
Senator Durbin's Comments and the Okinawa Suicides
By Gail Heriot

What happens when an army has a reputation for brutality in its treatment of prisoners ? Their opponents fight back all the harder in order avoid becoming prisoners. More people on both sides end up dead. That’s why the American military has a long history of attempting to cultivate an image of humane treatment. And with a few exceptions they’ve earned the image they seek.

The New York Times ran a particularly poignant story earlier this week about the World War II Battle for Okinawa in 1945 that can be seen as a variation on this theme. In that terrible episode, Japanese civilians were misled by the Japanese Imperial Army into believing that the approaching Americans were savages who would rape and torture them. Many killed themselves to avoid that terrible fate. Then the real Americans arrived ...too late for some ... bearing candy and cigarettes. I quote from the article:

"For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them," said Mr. Nakamura, now a guide at a museum housed in a traditional dwelling that bears bullet holes from the American attack. As Japanese defenses crumbled on the island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents committed suicide, he said. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he said, he passed one cave where 10 villagers had killed themselves.

"I heard my sister calling out, 'Kill me now, hurry,' " Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her.

"I tried to also strangle myself with a rope," he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. "But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself."

Minutes later, the Americans took them captive.

"The U.S. soldier touched me to check if I had any weapons," he recalled. "Then he gave us candy and cigarettes. That was my first experience on coming out of the cave."

His mother lived into her 80's.

"We talked about the war," Mr. Nakamura said. "But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter."

A horrific story, isn’t it? That’s part of what makes Senator Durbin’s statement inexcusable. America’s reputation for the humane treatment of those it takes prisoner isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s vital. Sooner or later lives will depend on it. America’s current enemies (like its former enemy the Japanese Imperial Army) already have every motivation to mislead. It is wrong to make it easy for them by making foolish comparisons between Guantanamo Bay and the Nazi, Soviet, and Pol Pot regimes.

Does that mean that Americans should refrain from criticizing Guantanamo Bay abuses altogether? Of course not. Indeed, a public debate that neither exaggerates nor minimizes the situation may actual bolster our credibility. But a little persepctive is required.