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We Will Remember Them… or Will We?

In Events, Foreign Affairs on August 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

It may be odd to start writing a post about rememberance now; after all, it is August, not November. But something slipped gently under the news radar this week, which should all give us cause for thought. 15th August was VJ Day, the day where the world celebrates ‘Victory over Japan’. Confusingly, the Japanese also celebrate VJ day. This has traditionally been done at the Yasukuni Shrine. However, for the first time in 25 years, the Japanese government made a point of not performing an act of rememberance at this shrine.

The Japanese government did, of course, have another ceremony at a Tokyo cemetary, and elsewhere. However, opposition politicians are enraged. The government’s justification is that the Yasukuni Shrine honours all Japanese who died in WW2, including those later executed as war criminals. To the Japanese government, it is not proper to remember such men.

This raises interesting questions about the nature of rememberance. In Britain we make a point of remembering the ordinary soldiers who died somewhat pointlessly in the French trenches of WW1. We do not make a point of remembering people like Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who planned massive bombing raids on cites such as Dresden, almost completely destroying their historic centres. These actions were criticised most forthrightly by the eminent theologian of the time, C S Lewis, as well as by many later historians. VJ Day itself sometimes glosses over the fact that the victory was achieved only by use of the devastating atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing incredible loss of life. Perhaps this is partly why VJ Day receives less attention in the UK.

More recently, Tony Blair has published his memoires of office, which will be greatly insightful about the Iraq War. Some, such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, consider this war to be illegal. Blair is donating any proceeds he makes on the book to the Royal British Legion, a charity which cares for soldiers wounded or traumatised in the line of duty. Regardless of whether this is an admission of guilt, a PR exercise, or genuine kindness, issues of rememberance around Iraq will also come back to haunt us; the British population generally considered it to be wrong, yet are deeply passionate about honouring those soldiers who have died in that war. As the last of the Coalition of the Willing withdraw from Iraq, it will be interesting to see how or if the American and British people will remember Bush and Blair alongside those who fell in Iraq. And how do we, or, indeed, should we, remember those soldiers who took part in the Abu Graihb atrocities, or those serving in Guantanamo Bay?

The truth of the matter is that war is often more complex than black and white, right and wrong. Blair and Bush genuinely believed that the Iraq War was the right thing to do for their countries. Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo probably thought they were doing the best thing for Japan: Hirohito said in his famous ‘surrender address’:

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which we lay close to the heart. Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to insure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

This is a slanted view, for sure. But this text, this sort of reasoning is also something we should bear in mind when our leaders embark on their next grand scheme. We need rememberance to be about remembering, rather than some sort of perverse idolatory of our nation or our armed services, important though these are. Rememberance must be about remembering all the shades of grey, rather than a stylised, watered-down version that is palatable to our modern conceptions.

We should remember our war heroes and our war criminals, and possibly even consider that the same ideals motivated both.

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  1. It is always somewhat dangerous to attempt to distinguish the heroes from the villains when it comes to history, blinded as we are by our own preconceptions, and more worryingly, by our lack of all the relevant facts which led to individuals and groups taking the actions that they did. For example, Nazi Concentration Camp Guards are often cited as evil, with many of us believing if placed in the same situation we could never do such horrendous acts, but psychological experiments, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, suggest otherwise.

    Whilst I’m not saying that there are no value judgements to be made when it comes to historical analysis – of course there are – there are some places in history, such as war, where I think such judgements can be more arbitrary than helpful, and that sometimes we should suspend judgement on such things, reflecting on the tragedy of the event, rather than lay blame on some individuals and honour others. I particularly agree with the idea of remembering “all the shades of grey”, which is apt during a time when black and white conceptions of the world become an increasing affliction in a media-driven world of simple sound-bites and one sided reporting.

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