14 December 2007

the Nanjing Atrocity and the War on Terror

I just read a brilliant article on the Nanjing atrocity. Japan persuaded itself that China was not a unified nation-state and therefore Chinese soldiers and civilians did not enjoy the protection of international law. By the time they extended the war on China to include nations they did recognise they had a an army accustomed to carrying out atrocities that could not be retrained or restrained.

The parallels are uncanny. Not only did japan use the same legal fiction: 'Our enemy is not a nation-state so international law does not apply', they also used the same cover-up: 'Our troops were out of control and there only isolated incidents' when in fact the imperial army repeatedly ordered the commission of war crimes. Japanese conduct at Nanjing was so appalling that the Nazi German consulate in Nanjing denounced it to Berlin as a war crime.

Such considerations shed light on three major underlying causes of the Nanking Atrocity. First, contempt for China as a modern nation led to a deficient concern for applying international law toward it. Just as serious fighting in northern China began, an undersecretary in the Army Ministry sent a notice dated 5 August 1937 to the China Garrison Army’s Chief of Staff: “It is inappropriate to act strictly in accordance with various stipulations in ‘Treaties and Practices Governing Land Warfare and Other Laws of War’.” Similar notices went out to other units as well. The message can only be construed as: “there is no need to obey international law.” Second, this overweening attitude diluted concern for protecting Chinese civilians, as well as foreign diplomats and residents, from the horrors of war. The CCAA was formed haphazardly on 7 November 1937. Since it was not supposed to move far west of Shanghai, it had no supply-and-support units to provision troops, who could only rely on plunder to sustain themselves en route to Nanking. This increased their frequency of contacts with, and opportunities for violence toward, civilians. The SEA and the Tenth Army had no liaison staff or units trained in diplomacy; so those armies’ relations with Japanese diplomatic officials in China were bad, to say the least. Troops viewed diplomats as a thorn in their side; diplomats who tried to stop army brutalities exposed themselves to danger. A third and related underlying cause of the Atrocity lay in the CCAA’s disregard for upholding troop discipline and morality. It had no specialized military police (MP) units, and the few individual MPs who were on hand could not possibly maintain order. As one attached to the Tenth Army bewailed, “With less than 100 of us to control 200,000 men in several divisions, what could we do?”

There may be a WWII precedent for the Bush administration's approach to the conduct of war, but it is certainly not Churchill.