Another Independence Day is upon us, a time for celebrating ourselves and for being grateful to the folks who started this amazing experiment. Given the cynicism and world-weariness that seems so prevalent now, it’s easy to forget that our system of government and our society in general can be remarkably humane and idealistic.
Which is not to say we’re anywhere near perfect, and I think it’s healthy for us to admit that to ourselves from time to time. And to the rest of the world, lest we seem insufferably self-satisfied. We need only scan our own history, with an open mind, to see our many warts. Genocide, slavery, several wars initiated for territory and resources — we’re not always all that much better than the nations we like to look down upon. And when fighting those wars, we’re not always that much more humane than our enemies.
When Japan pulled the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on that beautiful Sunday morning in December 1941, the brutal destruction of American lives horrified those who saw it, while the attackers reveled in their success, some telling later how they laughed to see their torpedoes and bombs cause massive explosions of the ships anchored below.
In March 1945, having chosen a clear, windy night for maximum effect, General Curtis LeMay deployed three hundred B29 bombers to firebomb Tokyo, a virtual tinderbox, so as to cause terror and maximum death and damage, persuading the Japanese to surrender. More than 100,000 were killed, most of them women, children, and elderly, and many more were severely injured, still more left homeless. Half of Tokyo was obliterated by the inferno. The raid, the most destructive in history, outdid but was less famous than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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General LeMay said that if America had lost the war, he would have been hanged as a war criminal. Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a young officer in WWII who helped plan the raid, commented in later years that they both would have been considered criminals, and he pondered whether winning the war made them any less guilty.
This awareness of guilt doesn’t lessen terrible, even if necessary, deeds, but it at least shows an ability to feel remorse for causing suffering and destruction. Some of those who vehemently supported the interning of Japanese families during World War II, having them live under armed guard in primitive conditions despite the fact that they were extraordinarily loyal to America, would later come to bitterly regret this action.
But injustice and brutality, while certainly plentiful throughout our history, are not the whole story. We often are, as Lincoln said, “touched by the better angels of our nature.” When General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Craig Nelson says in his book “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness” that the Japanese population had been so afraid of what the American conquerors would do that 5 million of the 7 million remaining citizens of Tokyo had fled into hiding.
A Japanese official listened to the general’s speech and reported in amazement to the Emperor. Instead of retribution, MacArthur spoke of reconciliation, of understanding, of “freedom, tolerance, and justice.” The Japanese official was ecstatic, thrilled. He said, “For the living heroes and dead martyrs of the war this speech was a wreath of undying flowers.” He doubted that his own country, had it been victorious, could have been so magnanimous. He concluded that the Japanese “were not beaten on the battlefields by dint of arms. We were defeated by a nobler ideal.”
If only we can somehow keep striving to live up to that standard. This Independence Day might be a good time to look back with clear eyes and resolve to aim more surely for the nobler ideal.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”