Starting with elementary facts about the largest land-sea-air battle in history may make sense because they’re so little known. Or approximation of facts, since the number of Okinawan civilians killed in 1945 will never be known, the three months of battle for their once famously peaceful, traditionally submissive island having destroyed virtually all records together with almost every building of significance. The best estimates put the death toll at slightly less than 150,000, roughly a third of the population. The 2,350 deaths at Pearl Harbor weren’t the same 33 percent of American lives but .00002 percent. Proportionately on 9/11, it would have been not 3,000 of us killed but more than 90,000,000.
The “collateral damage” on Okinawa was all but unknown in America even then, thanks partly to dimly understood differences between its people and ethnic Japanese. Although Okinawans are Japanese nationals, they have a distinct culture and ethnicity. Another reason is that the fighting on Iwo Jima weeks earlier had become the symbol of the savagery of the Pacific War’s island combat, savagery that all but excluded other considerations. The power of images to cloud and negate actuality, in that case the stirring photograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, all but ensured Iwo would remain the symbol even after the far longer, harder fighting on and around Okinawa had caused more than twice as many Americans casualties than Iwo, a garrison island with no civilian population, and Guadalcanal combined.
It also made little difference, understandably, to our public imagination that the vastly outgunned defenders, who fought with a fraction of the American supplies including food and medicines, endured a far worse ordeal. Or that the greatest tragedy by far, immense for a people of their number, was the one that befell the Okinawan people, who are among the world’s most hospitable and least military. Miserable as life was for Japanese soldiers when American bombs and naval shells were landing, they were protected in their caves while helpless non-combatants were doing the bulk of the dying. Americans and Japanese mainlanders continue mourning their respective 12,000-odd and 60,000-odd dead and missing, and it still makes little difference to us that the civilians suffered far more.
In some ways, the Okinawan deaths were even more horrible than the smaller number in Hiroshima two months later. The islanders had weeks to witness their children’s mutilation by Japanese troops, when the morale of those troops collapsed after their sacrificial defense. But, the typhoon of bombs and steel, as they called the enormous American firepower, killed vastly more. Although every officer of higher rank knew bombardments would cause more civilian than military casualties, no great pains were taken to spare women and children from its deluge. Our forces that dropped leaflets to warn civilians did not understand that fear of treason charges toward Japan and disbelief that it would be defeated would negate their effect. Also giving a low priority to civilians, our infantrymen began firing indiscriminately at houses, their occupants, and anything else that moved. Of course no one can blame our exhausted, sensibly terrified combat troops, but the results were gruesome. And if innocence can be quantified, Okinawans had more of it than the Hiroshima victims. They bore less responsibility, if any, for the war in which they were massacred.
Those facts haven’t kept our country from behaving shamefully to them and their descendants. Not entirely shamefully because some Americans have done characteristically generous things for individual Okinawans, such as funding schools, orphanages and scholarships for study here, and not all our official behavior has been oppressive. Still, that’s what we’ve been as a nation, not only during the 66 years since 1945 but since the first encounter of our peoples almost a century earlier. We’ve always done what we wanted on the island, which has almost never been what its people wanted.
What the great majority of today’s Okinawans want from Americans is easily discovered by putting ourselves in their shoes for no more than a minute. How would we like it if a foreign power’s military bases occupied a large percentage of the best American land? If, for example, Long Island, New York, California’s Sacramento Valley or, in a more accurate territorial equivalent, most of our Midwest was occupied by Russian or Chinese bases? And that’s not taking into account the powerful Okinawan aversion to everything military that is so unlike our fancy for it.
Our presence diminishes the quality of Okinawan life like a physical handicap that can never be forgotten. Not our presence as visitors but as occupiers, which is essentially what we remain, whatever legal arrangements Washington and Tokyo devised for our 38 facilities that occupy 20 percent of Okinawan territory. Those arrangements were made not merely without the participation of the island’s inhabitants but also with full knowledge that they’d hate what would be done to them, which is of course precisely why they were excluded from participation. Many injustices are difficult to uncover, but not that one.
Okinawans’ ghastly lesson from World War II was that far from protecting them from anything, foreign military bases on their island invite devastation from other foreign powers determined to destroy them. That’s why the tanks, planes, and howitzers our forces proudly park at the gates to our bases there make them shudder rather than breathe easier. They have no enemies. Far from protecting those people, as our military P.R units claim, we’re injuring them. Flying together from towering flagpoles, the Stars and Stripes and the Rising Sun of the imperial powers that leveled the island in 1945 symbolize abuse by Tokyo as well as Washington of innocents who never did anything to harm either nation.
Tokyo’s more relentless and otherwise worse abuse than ours began in 1879, when Japan annexed and subjugated the then independent island kingdom whose culture was, as it remains, distinctly un-Japanese in its easy acceptance of foreigners as well as its anti-militarism. America’s began with Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in 1853, when he and his squadron were on their way to open Japan to American interests. Perry was a great hero at home, but if Americans put themselves in those Okinawan shoes for just that moment, they’d see someone quite different in the passionate imperialist who barged in uninvited to their truly peace-loving island a hundred and fifty-eight years ago. Okinawans, who had possessed no weapons for centuries, blinked at his squadron’s enormous guns before succumbing to them. The Commodore, who was utterly convinced Americans had a right and duty to teach Asians how to live and make use of their resources while they were at it, stayed a month and behaved repulsively throughout. His description of his often outrageous bullying as wonderfully moral generosity may have been worse. In letters to Washington, Perry assured the Secretary of the Navy that he was much benefitting the Okinawan people, who liked and admired him. Echoes of that nonsense sound in current American declarations that we’re using our military might for their benefit.
A striking aspect of Perry’s behavior during his several visits to Okinawa was that it was far worse than in the Japan he was resolved to open. Why did he make Okinawans suffer even more than the savage Japanese, who were inhospitable to shipwrecked American whaling crews? Although the peaceful, uncommonly hospitable Okinawans had never been guilty of even the tiniest offense against a single American, Perry knew the island was much under the control of Satsuma, a feudal province of Japan that had invaded in 1609. He also knew its agents would report his terrifying weaponry and mighty resolve to Tokyo (then called Edo), to which he’d soon be sailing with guns ten or a hundred times more powerful than any in Japan. Thus he abused Okinawans to scare Japan, and got away with it because Okinawa was weak and defenseless.
That became a pattern. Okinawa had nothing to do with Japan’s aggression in Manchuria that began in 1931 or with its equally brutal extension to China that began in 1937. More relevant to the history of the US-Okinawa relationship, it had nothing to do with the Pearl Harbor attack that continues to sear our memory. Nevertheless, the Okinawa that was innocent, except for the compulsory service of some of its men in the Japanese army, paid a vastly greater price for World War II than did mainland Japan. The current camouflaging of motive about our bases on Okinawa is in the same spirit of the U.S. doing its self-serving thing and calling it something else. Although Washington claims the bases protect its people, their primary purpose, like that of the bases of previous empires, is to protect and advance its own interests. President Obama’s changes to our foreign policy rhetoric have left our deeply embedded reliance on military force virtually unchanged.
The price Okinawans pay extends far beyond simply having lived where the great battle was fought. After the three-month campaign ended in June 1945, Americans did as they pleased with the island, taking whatever land they wanted, including sacred ground, to build bases. Troops bulldozed shrines and dispossessed people with equal disregard. Eyewitness accounts of the island in the late 1940s and the 1950s still make stomachs churn.
While mainland Japan was recovering from the war, Okinawans continued serving out the immense punishment they did not deserve, punishment that has increased every year since because they continue to suffer. Not only are they forbidden to enter the huge airfields where military aircraft produce constant noise; much of their airspace also remains restricted to them. Those disturbances are minor only in comparison to the crimes, crashes, and other accidents that destroy homes and take civilian lives, including those of children.
Under the American occupation that lasted until 1972, all crimes committed against civilians, including thefts, frauds, burglaries, muggings, and homicides, were tried not by civilian authorities but in military courts that usually imposed minor punishments when the defendants weren’t acquitted or returned stateside. The crimes included rapes, probably many thousands of them, and the children they produced were among the thousands our servicemen fathered and left behind when their tours ended.
We did nothing remotely similar to the Japanese mainland despite its initiation of the Pacific War’s death, destruction, and pain. Okinawa suffered not only because it happened to be the only nominally Japanese land where ground fighting took place but also because it was small and weak: unable to protest and of little concern to Tokyo as well as Washington. The crying injustice continues today, somewhat moderated but ultimately intolerable to anyone willing to take an honest look. Mainland Japan, which doesn’t want American bases on its land, shunts more than half of them to Okinawa’s 0.6 percent of Japanese territory.
A promise that the bases would be disbanded or greatly shrunk did more than anything else to move Okinawans to vote to revert to Japan in 1972. An agreement signed in 1969 by President Nixon and the Japanese Prime Minister stipulated that they’d be reduced to the same level as on the Japanese mainland after reversion. The deception by Tokyo was in keeping with its history of abusing Okinawa, the sum of which Washington knew perfectly well exceeded its own abuse. When questioned about the wild imbalance, Japanese officials answer with pathetic explanations on the order of history being at fault, as if they or their colleagues hadn’t made the arrangements. Okinawa, being the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures and its people being the continuing subject of racial discrimination, has too little political clout to make Tokyo honor its promises. And we’re complicit in Japan’s policy and practice of injustice in the bases issue. Since Washington still wields great influence on Japanese foreign policy, to put the relationship as tactfully as possible, we are ultimately responsible for the hugely disproportionate placement of bases there.
Skillfully using the even more powerful squadron with which he returned to Okinawa and Japan in 1854, Commodore Perry frightened Edo into opening Japan to his satisfaction and America’s profit. Japan then had no national army, only the forces of its feudal provinces. It also had no navy, but the shock and humiliation administered by Perry’s force that comprised roughly a quarter of the American navy prompted great passion among Japanese leaders to build their own big warships with big guns. Although Japan had never seen a steamship before Perry arrived, it indeed built its own steam navy with astonishing speed, and by the end of the century, was doing to other Asian nations what America had done to it using military power to compel weaker peoples to bend to their will.
That illustrates that countries with large military forces almost always use them for much more than the defense their leaders claim as their purpose. It’s also an illustration of the frequent backfires of military force, there by prompting Japanese yearning for the weapons Perry had used to have his way with them. Of course the Commodore was convinced he was doing good for America while he was sowing so much long term bad. Pearl Harbor, with its many causes, cannot be attributed solely to revenge for Perry’s diktats that produced enormous turmoil and opened the way for the very shameful Unequal Treaties we imposed on Tokyo. Still, he prompted and nourished feelings that would support the sneak attack of December 1941. Japan now had big battle fleets and used them against the power that had terrified and humiliated it.
As for Okinawa, there’s also little doubt that Japan’s militarization in response to Perry contributed to its impetus to force the weaponless Ryukyu monarchy to accept its annexation to Japan. In that way too, America helped lower the quality of Okinawan life because most Japanese treated the racially mixed people a little like American whites of the time treated American blacks. However, the Battle of Okinawa was incomparably worse for them than anything they’d previously suffered. In the way that combat stress causes so much mental and emotional disorder, those three months of horror that Okinawans spent in the lowest level of battle hell ripped their society, which had been uncommonly healthy by any standard, to shreds in some respects. The beautiful sub-tropical landscape had become, as an Okinawan survivor put it, a vast field of mud, lead, decay and maggots. The tombs of their ancestors, on which their religious life had centered, were among the ninety percent of structures that had been blasted to rubble and dust. Crime and suicide, which had been virtually unknown before the battle, became, and remain, serious problems.
Dissident American strategists argue that our Okinawan bases are obsolete but the Pentagon holds on to them because the thought of losing forward positions disturbs most military commanders. Beyond that, a case can be made that America’s relatively new, meaning post-World War II, addiction to weapons distorts our vision.
To a man with a big hammer, every problem looks like a nail, a proverb warns. Of course military force is important and sometimes necessary. However, belief that its use will help achieve any goal is a belief that hugely swelled during our decades of fear that communism sought to rule the world and continues in our present paranoia about terrorism can be self-defeating. It furthers a tendency to think first of military solutions, even to problems that have none. As Amos Elon recently wrote, to vanquish an idea, you must offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one. Our country was founded in healthy skepticism about military attitudes such as Thomas Jefferson’s disapproval of a standing army in peacetime because it might overawe the public sentiment. That wisdom all but disappeared as maintenance of the immense military establishment begat in response to our perceptions about the Soviet threat made us profoundly militaristic in our thinking. It isn’t surprising that we’ve used that force for all but constant warfare; most previous empires did the same.
Even when not fighting, usually far from home, those previous empires contributed to their own demise by spending too much attention, energy, and money defending and expanding interests far beyond their peripheries while their domestic infrastructures, personal as well as physical, deteriorated. As their faith in weapons helped make them less and less sensitive to other needs, the spoils of their empires made them dumber and more corrupted as well as less fit and degenerated in their civic qualities, as we seem in danger of becoming. The danger to America may be particularly great because much of our society’s positive energy has always come from belief that we’re devoted to justice and fair play. Our violations committed in pursuit of imperial activities as we rely more and more on might rather than right are eating away at that conviction and at our appeal to others as a society.
Some of that is speculative. What is not is that the battle of Okinawa never ended in the sense that American forces remain on the site much against the majority’s will. Mile after mile of our bases, almost all of them on the flat, tillable land that has always been scarce on the mountainous island, disfigure territory and lives alike. Ugly barbed-wire fences are evidence that we’re behaving there in direct violation of our belief in truth, justice, and decency. Our actions there, which have a disturbing resemblance to George III’s treatment of the American colonies, are hard to defend without ignoring all considerations except narrowly military ones, and not even all of those. Legality is also ignored. The Japan-US Security Treaty of 1960 that provides warrant for our bases throughout Japan, including on Okinawa, entitles us to station troops there for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East. But as Gavan McCormack of the Australian National University pointed out last year, our Marines there are neither a defensive nor a Far Eastern force but an expeditionary attack force, dispatched repeatedly since 1990 for participation in the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars, and held in readiness to be launched as a ground force into enemy territory. As a senior official in the Japanese Department of Defense put it, “the 3rd Marine Division is a force for deployment at any time to particular regions beyond Japan not for the defense of particular regions.”
Are our big sticks taking us where we want to go or are we, like Perry, sowing future trouble for ourselves with them? How sound will it be in the long run that the United States, born in wariness of military influence on politics, may now be spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined? That’s an estimate by respected economists, precise figures being difficult to establish because no country, including our own, tells the truth about such matters. (As for defense, the misuse of that word is as good as any other for illustrating George Orwell’s thesis about twisting language for political purposes.)
Okinawa prompts thought about how much good our more than 250,000 troops who serve on our thousand-odd bases in 135 foreign countries are doing for ourselves and others. Is it the same kind of reason keeping them there that moved us to produce 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs during the Cold War? A visit to the island and tour of some of our 38 land- hogging facilities may well pose the question of whether our military establishment and thinking are making us the people we want to be. Even if you don’t get to know extremely courteous Okinawans long enough for them to open up about their wish to be free, it may well also prompt shame. Of course they have their share of lotus eaters and money-grubbers who want more of the money bases earn in ground rent, now paid almost entirely by Tokyo, and the takings of bars and cafés. But I won’t apologize for repeating that the majority wants nothing more than to be left in peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George Feifer is the author of Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and TheAtomic Bomb (1992) and The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb (2001) a new edition of which has just been published.