I don’t like to write book reviews, though I suppose if I wrote more of them, I would become better at it. I like to read them a lot. If you don’t have time to read many books, you can learn about those books via reviews. A good review tells you something about the reviewer’s thinking, as it relates to the subject matter of the book. That means you’re reading the review for the interesting ideas it contains, not for a thumbs up or thumbs down that helps you decide whether to read the book.
So the book becomes a springboard. I had a teacher in graduate school who wanted us to write reaction papers for our reading assignments. I didn’t even know what that was: I had never encountered that term before. He explained what he meant by the term, and I remember reading that explanation multiple times. In the end, a reaction paper, and a book review that discusses ideas the book brings to mind, are not so different.
Recently, then, I finished Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken. Louis Zamperini, the subject of the book, wisecracked that Hillenbrand would have an easier time with the research for Unbroken than she did for Seabiscuit, “because I can talk.” He also said that if he ever wants to know anything about the time he spent in Japan, “I just go and ask Laura.” Whether she writes about a horse, or about a war hero, Hillenbrand picks good subjects.
I did not want to see the film version of Unbroken, because of its treatment of the theme of torture. I’ve had enough of that subject. I think about it a fair amount, but I don’t need to see it in a major motion picture. Still, I wanted to write a short obervation, now that the book is finished.
Hillenbrand says that the United States hanged about 900 Japanese soldiers and civilians for war crimes after Japan surrendered. Many of those convicted of crimes were prison camp guards, who committed brutality against prisoners of war. Descriptions of Japanese brutality in Hillenbrand’s book leave no doubt about how bad it was. I wondered how prisoners who experienced that treatment managed to make it out of Japan alive. Many didn’t.
Now you can say that I circle back to this point too readily, but the acts for which we hanged prison guards in 1946 and 1947 in Japan are exactly the same acts committed against prisoners at Bagram prison in Afghanistan, for a number of years. Beatings, compliance positions, terrible conditions: all of these acts are present in the Japanese camps during World War II, and at Bagram during the so-called war on terror. The only difference is that the Japanese did not waterboard Zamperini and his fellow prisoners. They used that technique elsewhere.
So even waterboarding appears in both cases. Americans hanged not just a few notorious guards as examples. They tracked down every guard that used Bagram-like techniques, tried and convicted each one, then hanged them. How does our president respond to an official report that details techniques and atrocities just as appalling as those committed by the Japanese? He says, “Yes, we tortured some folks.”
Winners get to decide who the criminals are. Whether at Nuremburg or in Japan, the United States took pride in bringing quick justice to those who committed war crimes during the just-ended war. Modern international law on war crimes formed around these post-war trials. Execution for convicted war criminals made this warning plain: anyone caught doing the same thing in future wars will meet the same end. You’ll hang from a rope until you stop breathing.
Then sixty short years later, prison guards and interrogators acting for the United States commit exactly the same acts that we defined as war crimes in international courts. They were not one-off acts of brutality committed by individuals who went too far. They were part of a planned program of torture directed by the country’s highest officials. The program lasted for a number of years. Officials defended the program in public. They characterized the program’s torture and brutality as enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT). They suggested that no international conventions or law would touch the program, because they had already defined it as legal.
I don’t advocate hanging or any other type of execution for Americans who committed torture. I’m against execution, whether for Japanese prison guards, or for American interrogators who acted in exactly the same way. Moreover, underlings should not be called to account when their superiors and leaders are not called to account. Nevertheless, honesty about the brutality practiced against prisoners of war, by everyone involved in those practices, would be a big help. So far, questions about torture are still partisan affairs.