My father, the soldier of occupation

Lacking the benefit of my father’s first-person perspective has spurred me to do my own research into the US occupation of Japan, a subject I have found holds little interest for most Americans of my acquaintance.

THE AUTHOR’S FATHER (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the summer of 1945, US Army corporal David Mandell was stationed in the Philippines and training to take part in Operation Downfall, the planned allied invasion of Japan. His unit was to be among the first to hit the beach, and he was convinced he would end among the slain, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Then, on August 6, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and three days later on Nagasaki, spurring the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender. Decades later, especially on anniversaries of that event, Cpl.
Mandell would more than once tell his son – me – that he owed his life, as I did my very existence, to president Harry Truman’s decision to use newly invented atomic weapons on the Japanese.
This was a very early lesson for me on the moral complexity of history, that events and developments on which we are often quick to reach judgment, are rarely as simple as they appear from perspectives limited by time and space. Nowadays, for example, we are more apt to focus on the terrible suffering the A-bombs inflicted on Japanese civilians, rather than the lives of the American servicemen who were spared by their use, or the even greater losses the Japanese would have suffered if the war had continued beyond that point.
Among the handful of photographs remaining of my father’s military service was one showing him shortly after these events, walking down a street somewhere in Japan, accompanied by a young Japanese woman dressed in full geisha-style garb. Unfortunately, he died when I was quite young and not yet curious about his personal history, depriving me of the opportunity to inquire about the circumstances of that particular scene.
But I regret even more not having had the opportunity to more seriously discuss with him how he felt about the bulk of his military service, serving as a soldier in the post-war occupation of Japan. This regret has only increased over the years, because growing up in the US in the post-Vietnam War era, I never thought that I would also do military service; and even less so, that most of my experience in uniform would also consist of serving as a soldier of occupation, through a dozen stints of reserve duty in the West Bank and Gaza.
Lacking the benefit of my father’s first-person perspective has spurred me to do my own research into the US occupation of Japan, a subject I have found holds little interest for most Americans of my acquaintance.
Some interesting facts: It went longer than many seem to think, extending until 1952 throughout the whole country, and up to 1972 in the Ryuku Islands, home to over a million Japanese. The US still maintains a large military presence on Japanese soil of over 50,000, many at its massive military bases on Okinawa.
Allied occupation troops committed their fair share of atrocities in the years after the war, including thousands of reported rapes. But Japanese attitudes toward their occupation are complex, too much so to delve into here, with many crediting it for ushering in an era of democracy, social progress and eventual prosperity. It’s sometimes hard to remember here that “occupation” was not, is not, always a dirty word. (Although the other US occupation in the South Pacific, its four-decade rule of the Philippines, was a true imperialist venture totally unjustifiable through a contemporary lens.) I’M GOING to resist here making any facile comparisons between my father’s service as a soldier of occupation in Japan, and my own in the West Bank and Gaza, although that temptation certainly exists. But I do sometimes wonder how later generations will judge my place in history, as I do his.
I have no idea. But even at this premature stage, based on personal experiences as a citizen, soldier and journalist, I’ve reached a few conclusions about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. They are: • That if the Arab states had not taken aggressive action against Israel in 1967, or had granted the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza even the smallest bit of political autonomy during the two decades when Egypt and Jordan occupied those areas, a Palestinian state would today be a reality.
• That ultimately, a Palestinian state in Gaza and parts of the West Bank will be required for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. That it is unwise for Israel to take actions that will make that outcome more difficult, such as building or expanding Jewish settlements beyond the security barrier in areas largely populated by Palestinians.
• That Israel was right to withdraw from the Gaza Strip despite the military consequences, because the Jewish settlements there had become too costly to defend, Israel had no historical claims to the area, and its occupation of the area was becoming a self-defeating quagmire. That Israel cannot at present carry out a similar withdrawal from the West Bank because the military consequences of having another failed Arab state right next door to its most populated areas would prove too costly.
• That Israel is justified in demanding a military presence in the Jordan Valley, and a period of demilitarization, as part of a West Bank withdrawal.
• That the international community is wrong both practically and morally to focus more on pressuring Israel to meet Palestinian preconditions for negotiating a final agreement, than on pressuring the Palestinians to start such talks without preconditions.
• That, as with all military occupations throughout history, acts of cruelty and injustice are sometimes perpetrated by the occupiers on the occupied people, and these must be addressed when they occur. That no, Israel is not an “evil country” because such acts happen and the occupation continues, as Haaretz editorial writer Gideon Levy asserted this week.
Levy fingered Israel as just one in a “family of evil states” without mentioning the others that qualify.
Perhaps he counts the US among them; certainly the Iraqi and Afghani peoples have suffered worse under the American-led occupation of those countries since 2000, no matter what the justification, than the Palestinians have under Israeli rule.
Many people today consider the American atomic bombing of Japan as an “evil” act, and that may indeed prove history’s verdict a millennium from now. But if I owe my very existence to that “evil” act, and am convinced my children owe theirs to the “evil” occupation of the West Bank – I guess I can live with that.
During the past few days several of my journalistic colleagues have gotten themselves worked up in a kerfuffle initially sparked by Levy’s column and others like it in Haaretz. My only contribution to this discussion, as noted here, is that it is far too easy to make simple pronouncements about complex issues, especially for those of us doomed to write in a field succinctly described as only “the first draft of history.”
And in the end of course, history won’t give a damn, and will make its own revisions. Or as the proverb, usually attributed to our Arab brethren, so aptly puts it: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English News.