War is hell
Most Americans regard World War II as a “just war” because the United States helped stem the vicious tide of global fascism. But during that war, American soldiers dismembered Japanese corpses and collected their body parts as souvenirs.
A contradiction? Not really. You can commit war crimes on behalf of a just war just as easily as an unjust one.
But you wouldn’t know that by reading comments about five U.S. soldiers accused of civilian murders this year in Afghanistan.
According to news reports, the soldiers also cut off fingers from corpses and posed in photographs with them. When the Army announced in October that it would court-martial one of the soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, reaction from antiwar activists was quick and predictable: The war was a mistake all along, and our military crimes prove it.
Meanwhile, Army officials moved to keep photographs of the atrocities out of the public eye. If the photos go viral, officials say, people around the world will turn against America’s struggle in Afghanistan.
Just like the antiwar crowd, ironically, the Army is assuming that war crimes will become a metaphor for the war itself.
They’re both wrong. The soldiers’ alleged acts are horrible, of course, and the military should prosecute the charges to the fullest. But these crimes don’t speak to the larger purpose and validity of the war in Afghanistan, any more than American atrocities during WW II reflected on the justice of our campaign against the Japanese.
Let’s leave aside the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the U.S. justified as a way to prevent further carnage. On the battlefield, American soldiers routinely killed Japanese civilians and mutilated Japanese bodies. Yes, our enemies committed all kinds of atrocities during the war. But so did we.
Americans collected bones, scalps and skulls from the Japanese dead or near-dead. None of this was a secret either. In 1944, Life magazine published a full-page photograph of an attractive young woman posing with a Japanese skull. " Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her,” the caption declared.
But skulls were difficult to carry and — especially — to prepare: Soldiers first had to remove the flesh from the severed head, either by boiling the head or by leaving it out for ants to eat. So they preferred to collect ears, which were tidy and small.
“The other night Stanley emptied his pockets of ‘souvenirs’ — eleven ears from dead Japs,” read a 1943 article in a Marine newspaper. “It was not disgusting, as it would be from the civilian point of view.”
Actually, most civilians seemed fine with the practice. That same year, a Baltimore newspaper reported that a local mother had asked authorities to allow her son to send her an ear he had cut off a Japanese soldier. She wanted to nail it to her door, she said, so everyone could see it.
Most of all, some American servicemen collected gold teeth. One Marine boasted of collecting 17 teeth, the last from a Japanese soldier who was still moving his hands. Another Marine slit a wounded Japanese’s cheeks open and carved out his teeth with a knife while the victim thrashed on the ground.
Although some Americans did object to these atrocities at the time, it would be much later before WW II veterans expressed regret for them. In a 1981 memoir, American biologist E.B. Sledge recalled watching American soldiers cut off a hand from a dead Japanese, urinate into the mouth of another corpse and shoot an old woman who was “just an old gook,” as one of Sledge’s comrades told him. “The fierce struggle for survival eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all,” Sledge wrote.
Significantly, though, Sledge continued to believe in the larger purpose of the war. The Japanese had attacked the United States and conquered much of East Asia, and they had to be stopped. Some U.S. military men had committed monstrous acts, to be sure, but America’s larger military cause remained just.
Is the cause in Afghanistan also just? I really don’t know. But here’s what I do know: The alleged crimes committed by Morlock and his platoon don’t speak to the answer. Atrocities happen in almost every war, just and unjust alike. So it’s far too simple — and a bit dishonest — to claim that the crimes of this war make the war itself criminal.
But it’s also dishonest for military officials to keep hiding the photographs of the atrocities, which should be released as soon as possible. If the war is just, it remains so regardless of what these soldiers did; and if it isn’t, we should pull up stakes and come home.
The photos will also remind us how far we’ve come since WW II, as a people and as a nation. Back then, most Americans accepted or even celebrated wartime mutilations; today, we’re mortified by them. But we shouldn’t let the atrocities color our overall view of the war, no matter how hard it is to look at them. That’s the easy way out.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”