American South and Japan share uncomfortable response to historic wrongs
The controversy over Confederate monuments isn’t new, but it has flared up in the past few years, and once again here it is front and center in the news. Because it’s not new, I wrote about it in 2015, and my thoughts are more or less the same today. And, as it happens, today is also the anniversary of Japan announcing its surrender in World War II.
This September , China will host a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The United States will celebrate not just the anniversary of World War II, but also that of the end of the American Civil War. April 9 marks 150 years since Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Northern General Ulysses S. Grant, unifying the United States and bringing about the end of slavery (although fighting continued under other generals).
Both wars played a role in ending brutal repression. Both wars preserved their respective federal government’s sovereignty over (most of) their land. Yet there is one more shameful similarity between the two wars, and that is this: neither Japan nor the former states of the confederacy have fully come to terms with their history.
In America, there remains an affinity among some southerners for the “lost cause of the south.” When The New Republic’s Brian Beutler wrote an article arguing that April 9 should be a national holiday, some conservatives, southerners, and southern conservatives reacted angrily. Rick Moran, an editor at PJ Media, accused Beutler of “hating the south.”
It shouldn’t be this way. After all, the Confederate States of America no longer exist and only existed for five years. The last living Confederate veteran died in 1951. No one today has any connection to the Confederacy.
Every country has made mistakes. In America’s case, slavery was a big one. At the same time, there is a natural desire for people to be proud of their ancestors and their history. Americans celebrate winning their independence from Britain and defeating the Nazis and Japanese imperialists in World War II.
Yet there was also a losing side in those wars, and that is one of Japan’s big mistakes. So it is understandable, to a degree, that Japan has a hard time coping with it. Japanese soldiers took up arms and put their lives on the line — even if they were fighting for an unjust cause. The rank and file soldier didn’t have the same level of culpability as the politicians and generals.
The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates all soldiers who died fighting for Japan from 1868 to 1947. Unfortunately, among those soldiers are 1,068 convicted war criminals, including 14 convicted of A-Class crimes in World War II. The on-site Yushukan museum includes misinformation about the war, stating, for example, that Japan’s puppet state of Manchuria was established by Chinese ethnic groups. No matter how patriotic someone is, the truth should reign supreme.
That the southern states seceded from the United States largely in order to preserve slavery — as they feared northern Republicans like Abraham Lincoln would try to restrict the immoral practice — is a fact even if some southerners with a misguided affection for the Confederacy are offended by hearing it.
The United States has condemned Japanese prime ministers for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the past. But sprinkled throughout the United States, there remain shrines to war criminals and traitors from the American Civil War. In 2000, a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was erected in Selma, Alabama, site of a historic civil rights march. Bedford, who would later be the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, presided over the massacre at Ft. Pillow, where hundreds of surrendering soldiers and black civilian Unionists were slaughtered.
Organizations called “the Sons of Confederate Veterans” exist throughout the country, even in states that didn’t secede. The Delaware chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans built a shrine in 2007 to those traitors who joined the Confederacy and fought against their own state. Unlike the shrines in the South to soldiers who just happened to be living there and defending their homes, they went out of their way to join the wrong side.
Like the Japanese war museum, which refers to World War II as the “Greater East Asia War,” the neo-confederate groups also have an alternative name meant to soften the war: the “War between the States.” A monument in Edgecombe Country, North Carolina (inscribed in 1904) is dedicated to the “defenders of state sovereignty.” Many places and even military institutions are named after Confederate generals, Beutler pointed out, as he argued for the naming of places after confederates to be ceased.
Since every American alive today is a citizen of the winning side, it shouldn’t be a controversial proposition. Yet some people feel their grandparents or great grandparents who fought for the Confederates are being “blamed.” To say that the Confederacy was wrong — as it was — isn’t an attack on every confederate soldier.
Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki confronted this question in his final film, “The Wind Rises.” How much blame should the designer of fighter planes Jiro Horikoshi shoulder for the destruction wrought by his A6M Zero? In the end, he was just doing a job, working for money and his country.
Yet it is also true that many individuals did make terrible choices that made them personally responsible for mass murder and other war crimes, and it is true that many of them had children. Adolf Eichmann deserves condemnation for sending Jews off to concentration camps. That he had four children doesn’t make a bit of difference.
Additionally: Here are some thoughts I wrote on Facebook yesterday:
Having th/fought a lot about the Confederate monuments debate, which has become a big issue again this past week, here are my four questions I think people should answer in order to arrive at their position:
1.) Does the fact that he was someone’s grandfather have any bearing on whether he was right? Or is it just an emotional argument to say, “You are disrespecting my heritage. You offended me”? If someone fought for something that was wrong, isn’t that wrong?
2.) Should Germany build statues to Nazi generals?
3.) Are the United States, South Korea, and China right to condemn Japanese leaders when they visit the Yasukuni Shrine [which enshrines, among others, a number of Class A war criminals]? Why, those war criminals were people’s fathers, a part of Japanese history, weren’t they?
4.) Timothy McVeigh was a part of Oklahoma City history. Should Oklahoma City build a statue of him? Is refusing to build a statue of him “denying history”?
Feature photo by Matt Yglesias.