One thing I hear a fair amount1 is people saying that since the Iraqis/Arabs/whatevers are so inhuman to “us”, it's ok, indeed both just and desirable, for “us” to do “whatever it takes” or “give them what they deserve”. I take that to mean that because there are some vicious Islamic terrorist groups out there, and because some Arab governments repress their own peoples, it follows that the citizen-soldiers of our democracy should regress to bestiality either for retribution or deterrence. Neither one of which I find either persuasive or even palatable.
Our country's history offers a better lesson, documented in a wonderful New York Times story in today's paper, Enemies in the Heat of Battle, Friends for 60 Years.
The campaign to get the Japanese out of their caves on the islands near Japan was as brutal and vicious as any in the second world war. The Japanese were considered by many to be exceptionally vicious fighters who didn't always obey the laws of war (albeit more so in other theaters, those in which they had held the upper hand). Everything being said about Iraqis or Al Qaeda today was said about the Japanese sixty years ago, and worse.
Takeo Sato, then a Japanese officer, was part of the Japanese effort to defend Saipan, captured when part of his cave fell in due to naval shelling. He became the prisoner of Marine Lt. John Rich, who ultimately befriended his captive. When fortune found a demobilized Mr. Rich in Japan a few months after the war, he went to the homes of six POWs it had been his job to question, and told their families their sons were still alive. From this sprang an improbable but enduring friendship. Now Rich and his former prisoner, both in their eighties, are revisiting Saipan with their extended families.
It's hard to imagine that we'll be reading any stories like this about Iraq in our dotage. And therein lies part of the problem…
1 [Update: Here's Trent Lott in today's NYT Magazine:
You recently created a stir when you defended the interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib.
Most of the people in Mississippi came up to me and said: “Thank Goodness. America comes first.” Interrogation is not a Sunday-school class. You don't get information that will save American lives by withholding pancakes.
But unleashing killer dogs on naked Iraqis is not the same as withholding pancakes.
I was amazed that people reacted like that. Did the dogs bite them? Did the dogs assault them? How are you going to get people to give information that will lead to the saving of lives?