Tuesday, October 11, 2016


I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and went to Columbus School, so clearly I've been indoctrinated enough so that I'm not inclined to view the Admiral of the Ocean Sea as one of history's greatest villains. But this is a good occasion to consider how we apply what may be more advanced ethical concepts to the persons and events of the past.

My first thought here is that we need to be careful about how quickly we judge according to our contemporary outlook, however accurate or not it may be. As the Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans disappear, will be still harbor suspicions about current-day Germany? Those same vets made most feel that using the atomic bomb saved millions of lives--those of our servicemen who would have died in an invasion of Japan. 

Today some assert that dropping the bomb was a war crime. Others suggest that interning Japanese on the West Coast in 1942 was wrong. Very little consideration is given to the fact that expecting a Japanese invasion was far from out of the question then, nor was it clear that we were going to win World War II in either the Pacific or Europe.

The line that might well be drawn occurred right after World War II at the trial of General Yamashita, the "butcher of Malaya." The general's defense was that Allied--American--success in vanquishing his army led to his loss of direct control and thus allowed atrocities to be committed. His defense was summarily rejected at the war crimes trial in Tokyo, as well as by the interim emperor, Douglas MacArthur, and then by the postwar Supreme Court majority, with only the two most radical justices ever--Murphy and Rutledge, not Black and Douglas--dissenting, citing Tom Paine.

The world does sanctimoniously single out Israeli occupation of the West Bank for condemnation, but who but extreme partisans would defend Netanyahu's behavior toward expanding settlements and his attempt to interfere in U.S. politics. The world has seemed to ignore genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, but not in the Balkans, perhaps because both Serbs and Bosnian Muslims qualified as white.

And last but not least in terms of a loss for hypocrisy, the murders in the Charleston church seemed to turn the tide against the Southern revisionism that successfully depicted the antebellum South as a land of chivalry and happy slavery. The Jeff Davis Highway and J.E.B. Stuart High School across the river in Virginia may be renamed. We may finally escape the image created by Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation (1915 film, that is).

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