The costs of war

by johnmccreery

I have spent much of the last three days translating material for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Tsuneo Enari, who for nearly 40 years has been obsessed with documenting the human cost of Japan’s wars in Asia and the Pacific, in the twelve-year period from the Mukden Incident on September 18, 1933, which provided Japan’s excuse for the invasion of north China and August 5, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies. He was, he says, drawn to this work by encounters with Japanese orphans, abandoned during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the end of the war and raised by Chinese foster parents in China. This led him to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to his most recent project, “Islands of Wailing Ghosts,” photographing the remains of the war on islands in the Pacific, where some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought. “Wailing ghosts” is a reference to a Tang Dynasty Chinese scholar’s report on imperial battlefields where the restless spirits of the unburied dead were said to wail at night.

Today’s translation was of a piece by historian of modern Japan Daikichi Irokawa, who was a student mobilized during the closing years of the war to command a torpedo boat packed with explosives and intended to make a suicide attack on the American fleet that was soon expected to arrive in Japanese waters. His sailors balked and the war ended before he had to carry out his mission.

In his essay, Irokawa describes an incident during a 1974 trip to Saipan, whose fall marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese empire in the Pacific. He writes,

From Marpi, at the northern tip of the island, I drove to Galapan. In the astonishing glow of a South Pacific sunset, the red flowers on the flame trees seemed soaked in blood. In the passenger seat was a young hitchhiker, humming through his nose, who knew nothing about what had happened here. This, however, was the road along which, just 30 years before, the surviving Japanese soldiers had died during their last banzai attack. I was choked up and my hands, gripping the steering wheel were shaking. Now this place is called Harakiri Gulch. 

The gap between his own response and that of the young hitchhiker, for whom the war is only a distant memory, is striking. Near the end of the essay, he summarizes data on the human cost of the war.

Yoshida Yutaka, an historian of modern Japan, has recently proposed that the number of Pacific War dead should be, at a minimum, 3.1 million: 2.3 million Japanese soldiers, 300,000 Japanese civilians killed overseas, and 500,000 Japanese civilians in Japan killed by allied air raids.  To these we can add more than 10 million Chinese soldiers and civilians, 200,000 Koreans, 1.11 million Filipinos, 30,000 Taiwanese, 100,000 Malaysians and Singaporians. Combining these with the dead from Vietnam and Indonesia, the total rises to over 19 million. By far the largest number of victims of this war started by Japan were Asian (Yoshida Yutaka 2007, Ajia Taiheiyo Senso (The Asia-Pacific War), Iwananami Shinsho). 

From a domestic perspective, the Pacific War is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Japanese people. One man in four was conscripted; when Japan surrendered there were 7.2 million Japanese soldiers, of whom 2.8 million were killed or wounded. Half of all Japanese households had sent soldiers to war, a proportion on a par with Germany.  The than three million Japanese who were killed were members of one in five households, mourned by more than 20 million family members.  A million wives lost their husbands; millions of children lost their fathers; millions of parents lost their sons. The war produced countless widows, widowers and orphans. 

About 3.5 million Japanese who had emigrated overseas lost their homes and were left with nothing but what they could carry on their backs. Fifteen million people had their homes destroyed. Five million were left unemployed; 3.5 million students were mobilized; three million women worked in factories.    Countless people died of sickness and injury following  air raids, atomic bombings or war-caused famine.

I think about America’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quick Google searches bring up Iraq Body Count figures that indicate a total of 150, 726 reported  casualties between the years 2003 and 2010, though as the report cited indicates, many deaths may have gone unreported (some estimates are upward of one million). In contrast, the total number of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq is 4,770, fewer than were killed in the battle for Saipan alone.  Quick calculations indicate that U.S. casualties are about 3.2% of the total in Iraq, while Japanese deaths accounted for 16.3% of those during the Asia-Pacific War. Will historians see our current wars as wars, or only skirmishes? How will they treat the difference between an experience like that of Japan, where everyone was affected directly or indirectly, and that of American civilians for whom domestic issues loom far larger than wars that take place somewhere “over there” in the distance and, unless we have service members in the family, affect us directly not at all?
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10 Comments to “The costs of war”

  1. How will historians view these conflicts? We may expect of course that their view will largely be determined by the future courses of events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I doubt however that it will be considered nothing more than a skirmish. It has been too long and too expensive for that. US soldiers lives that are lost are not nearly so dear as US soldiers permanently rendered incapable of supporting themselves and their families through injuries, both physical and psychological. I suspect that historians will see the conflict as a big waste of time and resources spent on the pursuit of impractical and unrealistic objectives of dubious value, at a time when the US desperately needed those resources elsewhere. A bird in hand is better than two in the bush. I can see only one objective worth pursuing there, and that is to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into unfriendly hands, The Taliban are not an existential threat to America.

  2. I agree and would continue by saying that the way that the wars have been used, as an ideological purpose, a justification, a mission and a cloud under which quantities of unrelated worries have been hidden, may well look more significant to historians than the actual shooting and dying on the faraway soils.

  3. Ok, “skirmishes” was a degradation too far. It is fascinating, though, that this is the only point that elicited a response. By far the more important one is the difference in the experience of war on the home front. Lots of pious honoring of the heroes who fight in place of the rest of us, who don’t even have to worry about refusing or evading a draft. No call for even the smallest sacrifice on our part. Lots more “information” thanks to TV and the Internet, but lots less direct contact with the violence, the dead or the wounded—unless we happen to belong to a family with members in the military. The very model of an affect-free, other-side-of-the-screen, postmodern experience. Not just dumbed down, numbed down, too.

  4. Sorry, but lots of people have family, neighbors, and friends who are in or were in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not so distant for many of us as that. But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to, and so young people aren’t so upset at the prospects of being shipped off as they might have been, and do not raise a ruckus on that account. And there hasn’t been a general call to sacrifice, not even by raising taxes.

  5. This is a very interesting post. I often joke that historians are people who tell other people’s stories for a living, like anthropologists, but that also means many of us think a lot about what it means to tell stories.

    Of course people tell their own stories too, as this guy does, and our mission may be to facilitate people’s telling of their own stories. ‘Let the data speak’, so to speak. But here the problem with that is pretty clear. The story is already pretty well processed, made-for-TV one might say. Of course narrative is always a particular extraction, ordering and presentation of an experiential manifold that otherwise threatens to overwhelm us. But when the conventions of narrativization get tropic enough, it can get hard to disentangle the experience ‘itself’, whatever that means, from the operations that have been performed on it to get it properly tellable.

  6. Speaking of narrative tropes, I’m always fascinated by the ‘how will historians view this’ one. Since I suppose all my thinking occurs in the present, I wonder what’s accomplished by it, assuming it’s not just a G.W. Bushesque play to add the weight of imagined posterity to present policies. What does our story gain by transposition into a future we obviously do not know?

  7. I actually wrote about this on Cliopatria a while back (since which time they’ve stopped implementing blockquote tags in any useful way, so what was quoted is now hard to work out but hopefully you can see). I find it more or less as bewildering as you but I suppose that the subtext is “was that a thing that will have lasting consequences that just happened?” Of course, it confuses historians with political `scientists’ but with people like Francis Fukuyama around that’s possibly understandable.

  8. An interesting thing is that the author of the translated bits IS an historian, whose life intersected with what he is writing about.

  9. Yup. He’s sophisticated and writes evocatively (or maybe it’s the translation ;-)). But it’s a stereotyped narrative, complete with blood-soaked imagery and body counts – nothing to disturb the familiar constructions of ‘tragic’ events, so that we may wonder whether the author or the trope is in charge, and certainly be curious what had to be discarded in the transformation over the years of the original experience into this polished account.

    Anyway this is all tangential to your original question. I think the answer is going to be relative to the forms of combat, the size and composition of armies, the ways life is valued, and what’s accomplished in context at the time. Alexander’s conquests, Hastings and Agincourt were also skirmishes by Great War standards.

    Jonathan, thanks for that link. I also wonder who history is, and why they’re so judgmental!

  10. Carl asks an interesting question. What *is* accomplished by imagining how future historians will view some current event? I would suggest that the answer is a fairly simple one: it invites us to imagine viewing the subject from another (imagined) perspective. It is an invaluable practice to “see the world (and yourself) through another’s eyes” despite the fact that we have never done so, and cannot do so if we tried, not only because it has the potential of making us more empathetic, but because doing so makes accessible certain information that might have been only latent in your situation. If I walk through a door, and see that another person has seen me, I can imagine the information that person has about me. If I imagine myself walking through that door, but as seen as a position on a map, certain spatial relationships and possibilities are made evident, and certain kinds of calculations are made possible. This power of the form of representation is what makes bird’s-eye-view navigation maps so useful (lots of information is latent in it, but accessible). Similarly, while climbing a mountain, we can imagine how we might be seen (or remain hidden) from a viewer at a distance.

    While we do not have a perspective from the future, we do have perspectives on the past, and can apply one to the other by analogical reasoning. Viewing contemporary life as an imagined historian views invites more objective comparison.

    Similarly, can imagine my movement through a bird’s eye perspective. I can push out of myself to iCurrent events loom large, as do those things that are near us. If I am climbing a mountain, and cannot see the whole of it, it may be gainful to imagine it from afar

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