The Uncertainties of War and the Hope of History

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Whether or not the timing and international approval of this war was right, some things are worse than war. For one, unimpeded and massive atrocities are worse than war. It's true that one can never know for sure whether war will bring an end to the worse thing. One only feels compelled: I must try. It is as though you come upon a gang molesting an elderly woman. You have no idea whether intervention will save her or just double the casualties. All you know is: this cannot be left unopposed. I must try.

In Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley's heart-wrenching account of the battle for Iwo Jima, he reminds us that in one month following the invasion of February 19, 1944, 6,800 Marines were buried on that barren eight-mile-square island six hundred miles south of Tokyo. The Americans had killed 21,000 Japanese, but suffered 26,000 casualties. The Second Battalion sent 1,400 boys (many still teenagers) onto the beach. 177 walked off, and 91 of those had been wounded at least once and returned to battle.

All this for two air strips! - says the blind cynic. What could possibly be worse than such carnage? Let history answer. In 1942 America was fighting two very different enemies. In North Africa there were "rules." "Gentlemen's agreements suspended hostilities for the day at five o'clock each afternoon, and each side held it's fire for medics to care for the wounded."

In the Pacific things were different. The Japanese had captured Nanking [now, Nanjing], the capital of China, on December 13, 1937. As the troops entered the city, the unarmed Chinese civilians

suffered an orgy of torture and death. In less than a month Japanese troops, with the encouragement of their officers, killed up to 350,000 Chinese civilians. Pregnant women were marched to one killing field where Japanese placed bets on the sex of the fetus about to tumble from its mother's womb, cut by a samurai sword. In another area of town drunken soldiers laughed and tossed babies in the air to be skewered on the ends of their buddies' bayonets. (Warning: photos and documentation.)

Three hundred fifty thousand: That amounted to more civilians dying in one city in one month than died in entire countries during the entire war. In six years of combat France lost 108,000 civilians; Belgium 101,000 civilians; the Netherlands 242,000. The Japanese in Nanking killed even more than the atomic bombs later would. (Hiroshima had 140,000 dead, Nagasaki, 70,000). The Japanese "loot all, kill all, burn all" scorched-earth policy in North China would eventually reduce the population from forty-four million to twenty-five million.

The U.S. Army had encountered the Japanese army's ways in the Philippines and Burma. Stories of buddies found trussed like pigs, disemboweled with their severed genitals in their mouths circulated, as did horrifying accounts of boys staked in the hot sun, forced to endure the voracious bugs who savored the honey rubbed into the prisoner's eyes and mouth. (Flags of Our Fathers, pp. 65-66)

This was the deeper backdrop to Pearl Harbor. More immediately, there was the expansionist drive of Japan into Indo-China between 1939 and 1940, and the perceived opportunity offered by the distraction of war in Europe. Japan was emboldened to attack America on December 7, 1941, and 2,403 Americans died in that attack with 1,178 wounded - similar to the numbers of September 11, 2001.

Was the defeat of Japanese aggression with its history of atrocities worth Iwo Jima? Were the containment of Hitler and Hirohito worth 405,399 lost American lives in World War II? What world would exist today if there had been no resistance? God alone knows the answer to that. But that is not how we make decisions. Leaders do not know what will be. They only know what is and should not be. How great must the danger be? How great the evil? At what point is the risk of war worth it? Our leaders have answered. God will decide if they were right.

History holds out to us a hope that few can imagine. Let us turn it into a prayer. Along with all our cries for spared life and short conflict and just outcomes, let us make the unspeakably hopeful request:

O God, may the world of 2003 see the same friendship between Iraq and America that has now so long existed between Japan and America - once unthinkable in the 1940's. And may the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose love embraces all Arab peoples, be humbly offered as freely in Iraq as it is in Japan today.