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Attempting Analogy: Japanese Manchuria and Occupied Iraq

Pulitzer-prize winning Japanese historian Herbert Bix's long analysis of the U.S. situation in Iraq, focusing on the problem of the source of war crimes, has been posted on HNN (HNN got it from Japan Focus, which got it from ZNet). I am not sure about Bix's analysis of war crimes: categories have to be broad to encompass the variety of situations he cites, and in the end it's hard to imagine a war without war crimes. Perhaps that's his point, as Hemingway said,"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime." Bix's invocation of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-38 caught my attention, however, and suggests at least a possible course of action for us in Iraq today. For a while now -- since the alliance of Shiite and Sunni insurgencies reminded me of the Nationalist-Communist United Front against Japan -- I've been thinking about the parallels between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Japanese militaristic imperialism in Manchuria. John Dower, much more distinguished than I, drew parallels between Iraq and Manchuria almost a year ago, but the situation has changed somewhat since then -- strengthening the analogy in my opinion -- and, without criticizing his analysis, our emphasis and conclusions differ. A brief history, then the parallels.

The Japanese occupation of Manchuria began with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) which resulted in undisputed Japanese influence in Korea (Protectorate, then annexed in 1910) and transfer to Japan of Russian railways in Manchuria, which came with considerable land and mineral development rights. The dissolution of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) opened up decades of confusion and warlordism in China. This disorder suited Japanese purposes: a major seizure of Chinese autonomy was attempted, and largely thwarted in 1915 (21 Demands), but Japanese influence in China remained substantial and offensive to most Chinese. The Chinese warlord who controlled Manchuria, Zhang Zuolin, was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928; Zhang Xueliang, his son and successor, actually had a working relationship with Japan, though they were not happy about his support for the Nationalist movement. In 1931 a group of mid-level Japanese officers, with some support and consent from higher-ups, staged a railway bombing in Mukden, and used the incident as an excuse to"suppress bandits" and initiated a full-scale occupation of Manchuria. The official justification was the protection of natural resources -- Manchuria's coal, iron, and minerals -- crucial to Japan's economic health and strategic security.

The occupation of Manchuria was solidified into the puppet state of Manchukuo, nominally headed by the Manchu who had briefly held the position of the last Qing emperor, but quite thoroughly controlled by Japanese"advisors." The League of Nations sent observers, the Lytton Commission, who condemned the invasion and sham-autonomy as an imperialistic land grab, whereupon Japan resigned from the League and began courting better relations with other international outcasts (Germany and Italy).

The establishment of Manchukuo, though, did not settle the question for Chinese, and border skirmishes between Japanese forces and various Chinese forces (neighboring warlords and Communists, mostly) continued. Japanese also increased their military presence in China's treaty ports, in order to better protect Japanese nationals and their increasingly important business interests in China. A minor clash in Shanghai in 1937 between Japanese and Chinese patrols escalated into a substantial Japanese assault on the city (resulting in the first U.S. WWII casualties, including Robert Karl Reischauer).

In spite of civilian and military reservations about full-scale operations, the opportunity to"settle" the ongoing border skirmishes was too good to pass up, and Japan proceeded to invade deep into China. They took a huge swath of northern China, and the urbanized coast, with remarkably little difficulty. What resistance they did meet they responded to with great brutality, including the atrocities at Nanjing. Chinese forces, though, did not collapse: Nationalist and Communist forces, along with warlords of unoccupied territories, began to work together against Japanese occupation. They didn't make a lot of progress (nor did they entirely overcome their hostility to each other), but the Japanese spent huge quantities of human and economic capital trying to"settle" the situation. Eventually, as a result of Roosevelt's economic pressure against the China campaign, Japan declared war on the U.S., but did not have the resources to carry it out successfully, largely because of the continuing continental conflict.

What are the commonalities between Manchukuo and Iraq?

  • The most obvious is the economic root of the conflict -- resources necessary for continued economic health -- and popular support based on an inflated sense of crisis.
  • There is an interesting, but inconclusive, structural parallel between the two Chinese campaigns and the two Gulf Wars.
  • The collaborationist puppet government had no native legitimacy, little de facto sovereignty, and no real desire to see their external supporters withdraw military and economic support.
  • The ongoing low-intensity conflict between a powerful mechanized military and a popular local guerilla movement is another; add, too, the way in which the external enemy produced a united front between groups with local conflicts.
  • The rhetoric is parallel, too: the Japanese were very clear that they hoped to bring the benefits of modern economic development and political"stability" to north China. The unrealistic expectation that overwhelming military force could settle questions of economic and social conflict is also strikingly similar.
  • Civilian authorities even denounced the military actions, though they had no constitutional grounds to restrain them.

Unlike Prof. Bix, I don't want to draw a moral equivalence. There are differences, enough of them that any attempt to draw moral conclusions must be done independently. The U.S. Constitution is a much more balanced and nuanced document underlying a more vigorous and dynamic system than the Meiji Constitution. At least, I think so. Twenty-first century Americans are not Imperial Japanese. At least, not mostly.

What I do want to do is suggest that the end result of the Japanese"adventure" in Manchuria and China is clearly undesirable for the U.S. in Iraq and the Middle East. The Japanese failure to respect Chinese autonomy, even in disorder, resulted in a quagmire the likes of which make Vietnam look like a duck-pond. The Japanese desire to impose stability and development turned not only the occupied and unoccupied Chinese against them, but invited the ire of the non-fascistic West. The Japanese ideology of superiority and manipulated atmosphere of crisis resulted in war crimes, atrocities and greater disorder. The end result was the utter destruction of Japan: physical devastation, millions of deaths, tens of millions of injuries, extended occupation, social and intellectual and religious purges, and complete political reconstruction on enemy terms, not to mention decades of lingering hostility.

"What could they have done differently?" I hear skeptics asking. Does it matter? What worse result could you possibly construct from that situation? You can't even argue that anti-Communism was a worthy cause because; a, it wasn't really a substantial goal of Japan and; b, China fell under Communist control in no small part because of the Communist Army's fortitude and successes against Japan created goodwill and provided valuable experience for the civil war against Nationalism. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, but it wasn't bad luck: it was a sustained systemic failure.

What can we do differently? The obvious answer is to disengage. I don't mean run away, but to shift from military occupation and U.S.-run reconstruction to diplomatic engagement and aid. We must have reasonable expectations of what might result from elections, and a tolerance for disorder and non-optimal outcomes. We must show every possible respect to Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty, so that whatever government we leave in Iraq can indeed survive without our military support, and that our financial support of Iraqi reconstruction, which will remain necessary until Iraqi oil revenues are well above their present levels, is not tied to political subservience.

Hegel, in Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, said"What experience and history teach is this -- that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it." He is wrong -- the brief-lived Powell Doctrine is proof of that. I'd like to prove him wrong again.

Related Links

  • John Dower, Is the U.S. Repeating the Mistakes of Japan in the 1930s?