U.S. War Crimes: Time for an Apology?

An edited version of this post is available at Foreign Policy In Focus.

“I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
–George H. W. Bush, 1989

Japan is often accused of lacking contrition for horrible acts committed by the Imperial Army, but apologies have, in fact, been proffered. As but one example, in 1993 Prime Minister Hosokawa declared: “I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people and to state that we will demonstrate our new determination by contributing more than ever before to world peace.” In this respect, Japan is far ahead of the United States. So recent calls for the U.S. to apologize for atrocities it committed during its war with Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are entirely appropriate. It’s incumbent on any country guilty of war crimes to atone for them. Apologies would be deeply meaningful, not only to survivors, but to the descendants of victims as well.

Apology, if sincere, requires self-reflection and the possibility of changing one’s behavior. That, indeed, should be a primary motivation: one is horrified at one’s own action, and doesn’t want to repeat it. Conversely, one who insists on the justice of his past actions is unlikely to change.

The knots we tie ourselves into to avoid facing up to our wrongs lead us into a hypocrisy that should make us uneasy. The House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2007 urging Japan to apologize again for the “comfort women” system, and the Washington Post suggested that not just private compensation, but direct reparations should be paid to survivors as well. It is rightly observed that a time will come when no one will be left to accept apologies or benefit from payments. But I doubt that the House or the Post has ever extended the same consideration to victims of atomic and incendiary bombing in Japan.

The whitewashing of American history is a gift to those in other countries who do the same. As Philip Seaton writes in Japan’s Contested War Memories, “American refusals to issue an official apology give conservatives and nationalists in Japan a trump card: ‘why should we apologize when others do not?’” Similarly, State Department condemnations of Syria’s targeting of noncombatants ring hollow when that is precisely what the U.S. did in 1945. America’s dominance in world politics gives it considerable influence over international norms, sometimes in ways that conflict with official policy. Thus, even as it decries the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the message it sends by defending their only use is that such weapons are legitimate.

From the moral to the practical, a U.S. apology would have many salutary effects. The Susan Rices and Keith Alexanders of the world, however, are unlikely to agree, and can be expected to do all they can to prevent such an outcome. The prospects of an apology, therefore, are exceedingly dim. Let’s examine some of the obstacles.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that in 2009 Japan actually warned the Obama administration against visiting Hiroshima and making an apology. They may have feared that doing so would undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” or perhaps impair any future effort by Japan to develop nuclear weapons of its own. At any rate, this should not deter any president from an apology, which in any case should be made not to the Japanese government, but to the people of the bombed cities.

The recent appeals, naturally, are directed at the current president, who came to office in 2009 raising hopes for a sharp break from the jingoism and militarism of the Bush years. Since then, he has continued to move people with soaring rhetoric, such as his April 2009 speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament. Over time, we have seen how unreliable a guide such rhetoric can be to his actual policies. But if Obama accepts an invitation to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the significance of that will lie in what he says. And here, it is not the Prague speech that provides the best indicator, but the Oslo speech later that year in which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

In parts, the speech seems thoughtful and even rings true: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.“ But overall, the speech was a ringing defense of American power. Were Obama to go to Hiroshima, instead of an apology, he would more likely deliver statements like this: “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Ultimately, though, the moral paradoxes are resolved: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Harsh judgments are meted out to others: “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma — there must be consequences.  Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy — but there must be consequences when those things fail.” But as we saw in the case of torture, there are never consequences for the U.S.

So let’s be careful what we wish for. It is sheer fantasy to think that the 44th president would make a heartfelt apology for the decisions of the 33rd. The best we can hope for from a president known for caution is that he would simply lay a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. More likely, he would set the cause back with a vague expression of regret at the lives lost on both sides, accompanied by a historically dubious rationalization of the bombings as supposedly having ended the war and saved lives. The last thing the hibakusha want to hear is “We’d do the same thing all over again.”

The problem with official Japanese apologies is that far-right politicians keep nullifying them with statements denying that the Nanjing Massacre occurred or that the Imperial Army was responsible for the “comfort women” system. Is there any doubt that American troglodytes would act in the same way?

That alone is no argument against an apology, but it does mean that only someone who will forcefully defend her stand should make it. Recall that when falsely accused of going on an apology tour, Obama’s only response was to deny it, thus giving credence to the idea that there’s something wrong with apologizing.

In Japan, apologies like Hosokawa’s, along with textbooks that discussed wartime atrocities and sexual slavery, were met with a virulent reaction by the far right. Were Obama to so much as express mild regret, even some Democrats would abandon him. People calling him a traitor would be all over the Sunday talk shows, while those able to argue for apology would struggle to be heard. Are we ready for a fight like this? If not, as with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s 1995 plan for an exhibit looking squarely at the Hiroshima bombing, it might end up entrenching the very attitudes we want to change.

The refusal to admit that one’s country has done evil things doesn’t exist in isolation. It is supported by an ideology, and in the U.S., that ideology is American exceptionalism. For if you insist that your country is the greatest on the face of the earth and always uses its power for good, you are going to have a hard time incorporating war crimes into that picture.

American exceptionalism is fraught with contradictions. Its advocates sometimes declare that we’re great because of our ideals – but if you insist on sticking to them, you’re accused of naiveté. In both Japan and the U.S., those who rant the loudest about their country’s greatness are often most hostile to its finest attributes.

Apologizing for one war crime would inevitably raise the issue of others, from Operation Speedy Express to sanctions on Iraq to (quite possibly) Fallujah, and pretty soon pressure would build against committing new ones. So exceptionalism is not just an ideology for idiots; exempting one’s country from moral scrutiny also serves the interests of the “realists” at the State Department and Pentagon for whom any constraint on future actions is anathema. Thus, they are dedicated to preserving the view that only other countries commit crimes against humanity, while U.S. misdeeds are merely the acts of “bad apples”.

Daunting as the task of displacing an ideology is, American exceptionalism should be seen as the central impediment to war crimes apologies. The alternative is to strive to do right guided by what Noam Chomsky has called the principle of universality – “if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us.”

As of 2009, a poll found that 61% of Americans considered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be justified. It is hard enough to get the government to act when public opinion is with us. As for achieving an official apology for those acts, we clearly have our work cut out.

To the extent that progress can come from leaders at all, I think it makes more sense to seek it from those lower down on the totem pole. Before we can get to a presidential apology, we’ll need a lot more acts like Nancy Pelosi’s wreath-laying at Hiroshima in 2008. A la “only Nixon could go to China,” it would be very helpful if an enlightened Republican or retired military officer would do likewise. Harry Truman’s grandson showed the way in 2012. We need more legislators with the courage to shun the language of exceptionalism. Recall that Joe Biden’s remark on marriage equality led to a shift on the issue from Obama. Perhaps a future vice president can provide the final push toward an apology.

But the hope for a quick fix by relying on top-down (or even middle-down) approaches is likely to be disappointed. Those of us who believe the U.S. has things to atone for need to speak about it, and not just to each other. Seaton tells of Kurahashi Ayako, who at the behest of her late father had his apology for acts committed while serving in China inscribed on his gravestone. In doing so, she defied powerful social pressures. Kurahashi, writes Seaton, “saw herself fitting a common pattern in Japan: although people have silent knowledge of Japanese aggression, it is taboo to talk about it.”

Americans, too, have a taboo to break.

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