The Lessons of History:
What the Japanese Occupation Really Teaches Us
by Lloyd Jansen
October 16, 2002
The new Bush plan to administer a post-war Iraq with a U.S.
occupation force is based on a bad reading of history and is
bound to result in disaster. The Administration points to the
success of our six-and-a-half year occupation of post WWII Japan
under General Douglas McArthur. Let's review history and make
some comparisons. Ironically, the Japanese occupation, rather
than justifying an occupation of Iraq, offers us a very good
model for how to avoid a war with Iraq altogether.
When we occupied Japan, it was universally accepted as just.
Japan had aggressively attacked Korea, China, the Soviet Union,
the United States, and the Philippines. The Soviet Union was the
only state that objected to our occupation, but only because it
argued that it should have been entitled to half the conquest.
(We and Japan can both be grateful that we held our ground and
denied the Soviet's this prize.)
If we occupy Iraq, we will be opposed by most of the world,
and most strongly so by those in the Islamic states. Our
occupation will fuel resentment against the United States.
While this may make relations with other states difficult, it
will also endanger us all as it will serve as an excellent
recruitment tool for Al Qaida.
When we defeated Japan, there were loud cries to try the
hated Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal and have him hung,
as we did with General Tojo. McArthur counseled instead that
Hirohito would be most useful alive. McArthur prevailed.
Hirohito, the revered symbolic leader of a nearly homogenous
nation, told the Japanese that they had fought honorably but
had lost. As such, they were duty bound to follow the orders
of the victors. Using this fealty to the Emperor, McArthur
could send a handful of soldiers to a town and they could
command it -- safely and effectively.
In Iraq, there will be no such unifying leader to employ.
Our occupation will be resented by great numbers who believe we
only have designs on Iraqi oil and domination of Muslims.
American troops will be targets of snipers and bombers and
a phenomenally large and tough occupation force will be necessary
for security. There are competing religious sects, competing
ethnic groups, competing tribal groups, and some 100 opposition
groups. Many will want revenge against surviving supporters of
the currently ruling Ba'ath Party. We will be fighting chaos.
Other states will likely argue that we dug the hole and can dig
ourselves out of it. International help will be very limited.
We may win the war, but we will surely lose the peace. We are
already losing it in Afghanistan where the Taliban essentially
rule much of the Pashtun area again.
Our treatment of defeated Japan, and of Germany and Italy as
well, does offer a good model to follow regarding Iraq, but not
the way Bush thinks it does. To understand this, we must first
look at how WWI was settled. The Treaty of Versailles was
designed to humiliate, punish, and immiserate the Germans. It
succeeded on all counts and the Germans eventually turned to
Hitler. At the end of WWII, the former Army Chief of Staff,
George C. Marshall, reminded us that the victors of WWI had
pursued "a negative course." As Secretary of State, he oversaw
the Marshall Plan in which some $22 billion in reconstruction aid
was sent to Europe, including to the hated Germans and Italians.
McArthur supervised a similar rebuilding of Japan. All three
states are now solid democratic citizens of the world and our
What have we done with Iraq? We have sought to humiliate,
punish, and immiserate the Iraqi people. Our leaders always speak
of punishment of Hussein. But it is the innocent Iraqi people
whom we have savaged. After we attacked civilian water plants
in the Gulf War, we have refused to allow the import of
reconstruction materials. Chlorine and water filtration equipment
could be used for military purposes, we argue. And so at least
500,000 Iraqis, mostly children, have died from water borne
diseases. We have done this in the hope that immiserated Iraqis
would blame Hussein and topple him. Marshall once said that the
real enemies of freedom and democracy were "hunger, poverty,
desperation, and chaos" -- exactly what sanctions have given the
When asked on "60 Minutes" in 1996 about the hundreds of
thousands of deaths, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright
replied that "the price is worth it." When this is quoted in
Mosques throughout the Islamic world, need we wonder why so many
hate us? Importantly, the military leaders of our WWII
foes were all removed from power. Hussein continues to rule.
It is wise to contain him and to destroy his weapons. But
instead of punishing the innocent Iraqi population, what if
we sent in blue helmeted American construction workers to
rebuild the water treatment plants? How would we be seen
in Iraq and the rest of the Islamic world? I am proud of
the Marshall and McArthur reconstruction programs. We have
reaped great rewards, including both peace and much international
respect. I am intensely ashamed of our Bush Sr., Clinton, and
Bush Jr. plans for Iraq. We have reaped hatred, pain, and loss.
It may be late, but it is not too late. We could still change
course if we had leadership wise enough. Hussein should be
indicted for his war crimes. Offer large rewards for any who
turn him over. Find and destroy any weapons he may have.
But let us pursue a positive course for the Iraqi people --
and for us. I fear, instead, that our government is about to
make things much worse.
Lloyd Jansen holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a
faculty member at Green River Community College in Auburn WA.
He also gives public lectures on the ideological roots of Al Qaida
and the U.S. response.
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Last updated: November 8, 2002