Monday, May 18, 2009

It's The Context, Stupid

There's a new book out titled "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" written by Warren Kozak. Kozak also wrote a recent op-ed piece for the WSJ about LeMay's exploits in World War 2, specifically, the general's horrific bombing campaign against the Japanese.

Following Pearl Harbor, this country asked its military leaders to commit acts that, when taken out of context, can be viewed as war crimes today. Between March and August of 1945, 38-year-old Gen. Curtis LeMay ordered the deaths of more civilians than any other man in U.S. history. No one else comes close, not William Tecumseh Sherman, not George S. Patton -- no one. On the night of March 9, 1945, LeMay sent 346 huge B-29 bombers loaded with napalm from the Mariana Islands (Guam, Saipan and Tinian) to Tokyo. The first planes dropped their incendiaries on the front and back of the target area -- like lighting up both ends of a football field at night. The rest of the planes filled in the middle. More than 16 square miles of Japan's capital city were gutted, two million people were left homeless, and 100,000 were dead. It didn't end there. Washington gave LeMay the green light as his bombers burned 64 more cities. He used the World Almanac and just went down the list by population. Altogether, an estimated 350,000 people lost their lives.
Anyone hearing this for the first time in 2009 would be hard pressed to defend such an action. Yet at the time, newspapers across America heralded the event as a tremendous achievement -- not unlike the moon landing 24 years later. The New York Times ran the story of the bombings on its front page for 10 straight days. Its lead editorial on March 12, 1945, warned the Japanese that if they didn't give up more was on the way. The New Yorker magazine ran a glowing three part series on LeMay. Time magazine put him on its cover.

Those are the same publications that now decry the use of infinitely more restrained efforts to secure our country. Yes, the threat posed by Japan was (probably) greater than the one we face today. Kozak reminds us that Japan had perpetrated its own holocaust in Asia, killing 17 million people. And the paramount goal at the time was preventing the need for an invasion of Japan with its casualty totals expected to be upwards of one million Americans and two million Japanese. Still, we shouldn't underestimate our current predicament. We're not going to be overtaken by an advancing military power. But a single (never mind multiple) nuclear, biological or chemical attack would cause lasting, possibly irreparable damage to our way of life. The means of its prevention include diplomacy, military force and actionable intelligence. We shouldn't forgo the latter two of these because of wrongheaded ideas about the "rights" of terrorists who have long rejected civilized norms. Otherwise thoughtful people holding those ideas should still be able to see that the political environment immediately after 9/11/2001 and continuing for at least two years was much different than it was on 9/10/2001 or even now. I strongly disagree that any of our values have been compromised, but put into context, isn't it understandable that intelligence agents and government advisors and lawyers would be willing to compromise certain values to protect the country from the very real possibilty of a terrorist attack? To deny that this was a reasonable approach to take and to threaten prosecutions of those involved is myopic at best and (in Mark Steyn's words) "is the most destructive type of politics with key elements of national security" at worst.

Kozak's op-ed

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