Assessing the Culture of Cruelty
While I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Felton’s article [“Culture of Cruelty,” January] on Japan’s cruelty in World War II, Felton left the impression that an unbroken continuum of Japanese cruelty existed from the early 17th century up through World War II.
Philip Towle of Cambridge University wrote an article for Military Affairs in 1975 wherein he asserted: “Since 1945 it has usually been argued that the ill treatment of prisoners by the Japanese during the Second World War was the result of their traditional attitudes. They believed that people who surrendered in wartime were beneath contempt and treated them accordingly. However, it is not true to say that the Japanese have always acted this way. On the only other occasion when the Japanese fought a major war with a European country, in the war against Russia in 1904–05 in Manchuria, they behaved with admirable humanity and restraint towards their European prisoners. Indeed, the European observers at the front were agreed that they behaved far better than the Russians did.”
So, if the Japanese had traditionally treated prisoners, internees and hostages with cruelty, why did they alter their behavior for the Russo-Japanese War? Towle’s observation: “Why did Japanese behavior change between 1905 and the 1930s? In 1904 they desperately needed European support (and particularly British) to prevent other countries going to Russia’s help.…Once again it appears probable that Japanese behavior changed considerably during the following three decades. Such changes may have been influenced by the fact that the Japanese no longer felt the need to satisfy Western standards and by changes in Japanese society itself. Both explanations are probably partially correct; certainly they are nearer the truth than those that suggest that the Japanese invariably treated their prisoners badly.”
I must reluctantly float my stick with Towle’s thesis rather than Felton’s, but only as it relates to any absolute historical continuum of cruelty.
Japanese wartime cruelty is certainly worthy of exposure and condemnation and Felton has performed this necessary historical task most admirably.
Lt. Col. Frank X. Weiss
U.S. Army (Ret.)
I enjoy reading Military History, even as our unit continues to make it here in the Middle East. My explosive ordnance disposal technicians all read it and find many parallels from the past to the present. However, “Culture of Cruelty” was a mismatch for the magazine.
Especially for readers still serving, the lessons drawn from it are actually quite dangerous, as it attempts to sell the idea that cruelty in war is a product of the culture, and that Japan, by reason of her history, had a special proclivity for it. Much as some people would like to continue the propaganda narratives of over half a century ago, the Japanese were not alone in this.
Captain Al Johnson
Thank you for publishing “The Culture of Cruelty.” Humanity’s ability to turn to cruelty based on the demonization of enemies is a truly frightening thing.
I would have liked to have read more about General Sadao Araki. When the Japanese army returned from Russia after World War I, the army was severely downsized. To take care of the officers, military training was instituted in every middle school under the supervision of a serving officer. In addition, every Japanese male was required to enter the service for a period of time. The mysticism about dying for the emperor and treating other races as beasts was largely created by Araki and was constantly reinforced in school and the army for two generations.
In contrast to Mark Felton’s excellent article on Japanese cruelty in World War II is their treatment of at least 5,000 Jews in Shanghai, China, during the same period. I had an uncle and aunt who fled from Austria to Shanghai and survived, ending up very successful citizens after the war. When the German ambassador to Japan demanded the Japanese turn the Jews [in Shanghai] over to the Germans, he was refused.
The Japanese may have looked on Jews there as tenacious survivors and respected that.
I would like to thank your magazine for the article on [Victoria Cross recipient] William Seeley [“Britain’s American Hero,” by Stephen Harding, March].
In May 2009, with the consent of the Seeley family, three members of the Military Collectors’ Club of Canada, with the assistance of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, placed an overdue headstone [above] on the grave site of William Henry Harrison Seeley at Evergreen Cemetery in Stoughton, Mass.
W.R. Mullen, CD
Thomas B. Allen’s article “One Revolution, Two Wars,” in the January 2011 issue of Military History, reminds us that the American Revolution was in many regards a civil war—much the same as those fought in other countries (and in our own between 1861 and 1865). Loyalists/Tories, those residents of what was declared in 1776 the United States of America who fought for their sovereign king, were Americans, just as much as were the eventually victorious Patriots. Ancestors of members of both sides had lived for several generations in the territory that became the United States. The fact they were on the losing side of the conflict does not change their status as Americans, even though they would have had it otherwise.
That said, I wonder why the Loyalist/Tory casualty figures are not included with those of the Patriots when calculating American casualties of the Revolutionary War. The casualty figures for the opposing sides in the Civil War are often combined. Sept. 17, 1862, the date of the one-day Battle of Antietam, is widely reported to be the most costly single day in terms of American casualties—because the figures of dead, wounded, etc., are combinations of Confederate and Federal reports. This seems logical and appropriate.
It seems illogical and inappropriate that the same accounting method is not applied to the Revolutionary War. Doing so would help us gain a better appreciation of what the Revolutionary War was all about.
Herbert N. Clark
Concerning your article “10 Battles That Shaped America” [by Thomas Fleming], in the January 2011 Military History: Let me suggest inserting one.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union willed that it establish long-range missile sites in Cuba. The Unites States willed that no such action take place. The Soviets moved missiles into Cuba. The United States notified the Soviets that was not permitted. The Soviets proceeded with their intent. A major portion of U.S. Army assets were moved into Florida or into staging areas farther in the interior. Likewise for the U.S. Air Force. Strategic Air Command went on high alert. The Navy imposed a blockade of Cuban ports. A U-2 was shot down with the loss of the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson. The Soviets suffered no loss to any form of combat. The Soviets withdrew their missiles and evacuated their troops from Cuba.
Had there been an outcome favorable to the Soviet Union and the communist world, one shudders at the thought of that consequence to the Western democracies or, for that matter, the world. Analyzing the “what might have been” of history is generally an exercise in futility. Yet it is from such forward-looking analysis we learn and plan for the future.
Lt. Col. Paul L. Wertz
U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
[Re. “Playing at War,” January:] You left out one of the most prolific toymakers of the 20th century. Louis Marx and Co. created playsets of this country’s most historic times, including Battleground, Desert Fox, American Patrol and the Battle of Iwo Jima. Marx action sets were made up of weapons of those times. Whether you were a cavalry trooper rushing to the aid of settlers or a GI storming a beach, Marx toys have always been and will always be toys of accurate design.
For further information read Playset Magazine, published by Atomic Enterprises, or Marx: Toy Kings, Volumes I and II, by Rusty Kern.
Your short article “Arlington Blunders Prompt Overhaul” on P. 13 of the November issue states that Army Secretary John McHugh created a new director post to oversee the 131 national cemeteries. This is wrong. The Army secretary has no jurisdiction over the 131 national cemeteries under the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Arlington National Cemetery is one of only two national cemeteries under the Army (the other is the Soldier’s Home in D.C.) and is separate and out of the chain of command of the VA. While the Army has many post cemeteries, they are not classified as national cemeteries. To clarify the inventory of national cemeteries: VA has 131, the National Park Service has 14 (mostly Civil War battlefield cemeteries) and the Army has two. The American Battle Monuments Commission oversees U.S. military cemeteries in foreign countries.
Your “Letter from Military History” in the September 2010 issue regarding the enormous impact of weather upon the history of warfare was an interesting snapshot of an underappreciated topic. I have two comments. The first relates to what you didn’t say. Though your list of examples was good in terms of extreme conditions, they were mostly events where the weather did not alter the outcome. I was half expecting to see listed an incident that I first learned about from the pages of your magazine—the 1529 Ottoman siege of Vienna. Because of a particularly wet winter, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent could not move his heavy siege guns over the muddy roads. Without them, the siege failed. It is one of the great “what if” stories, because there was no European relief force on the horizon to save Austria.
And second, I must take issue with something that you did say. The forces of Napoléon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler were not defeated by “Russia’s howling winters.” They were defeated by Russians. Great distances, bad roads and hellish winters have always been powerful allies to Russia, but it was the sacrifices of ordinary Russian foot soldiers and civilians that saved their country in both cases. If in 1812 the people of the czar had not been willing to scorch their own earth and burn their spiritual capital, the Grande Armée probably would have succeeded. And if the Red Army’s performance had been equal to that of, say, Benito Mussolini’s forces, the Russian winter would have fallen to the level of an inconvenience to the Wehrmacht.
San Jose, Calif.