Lesson from Nagasaki for Iraq: how to defeat a foe


OPINION/Mark Steyn: Until 60 years ago, all Nagasaki meant to most westerners was the setting for Madame Butterfly and a novelty pop song from the 1920s: Back in Nagasaki where the fellers chew tobaccy And the women wicky-wacky- woo.

Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt- there was no shortage of recordings of "Nagasaki" through the 1930s and early 1940s - up to, oh, about two minutes past 11 on the morning of August 9th, 1945. And since then, well, you don't hear the song too much anymore. Nagasaki joined Hiroshima as a one-word shorthand for events beyond the scale of Tin Pan Alley exotica.

Sometimes the transformative event comes in an instant, as it did out of the skies from a B-29 60 Augusts ago.

Sometimes the transform- ation is slower and less perceptible: The United States that so confidently nuked two Japanese cities is as lost to us as the old pre-mushroom cloud Nagasaki. In what circumstances would Washington nuke an enemy today? Were we to rerun the second World War, advisers to the president would counsel against the poor optics of dropping the big one, problems keeping allies on board, media storm, congressional inquiries, UN resolutions, NGOs making a flap, etc. And chances are the administration would opt to slug it out town for town in a conventional invasion costing a million casualties.

There's no doubt the atomic bomb wound up saving lives - American, Japanese, and maybe millions in the lands the latter occupied. The more interesting question is to what degree it enabled the Japan we know today. They were a fearsome enemy, and had no time for decadent concepts such as magnanimity in victory. If you want the big picture, the Japanese occupation of China left 15 million Chinese dead.

If you want the small picture, consider Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. It fell to the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor, when the 22 British watchkeepers surrendered to vastly superior forces. The following year, the Japanese took their British prisoners, tied them to trees, decapitated them, and burned their bodies in a pit. You won't find that in the Geneva Conventions.

The Japanese fought a filthy war, but a mere six decades later America, Britain and Japan sit side by side at G7 meetings. The US and Canada apologise unceasingly for the wartime internment of Japanese civilians, and a historically uncontroversial authentic vernacular expression such as "the Japs fought a filthy war" is now so distasteful that use of it inevitably attracts noisy complaints about offensively racist characterisations. The old militarist culture - of kamikaze fanatics, and occupation regimes that routinely tortured and beheaded and even ate their prisoners - is dead as dead can be.

Would that have happened without Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the earlier non-nuclear raids? In one night of "conventional" bombing - March 9th - 100,000 civilians died in Tokyo. Taking a surrender from the enemy is one thing; ensuring that he's completely, totally, utterly beaten is another.

A peace without Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been a different kind of peace; the surrender would have been, in every sense, more "conditional". Japanese militarism would not have been so thoroughly vanquished, nor so obviously responsible for the nation's humiliation and devastation, and, therefore, not so irredeemably consigned to history. A greater affection and respect for the old regime could well have persisted, and lingered to hobble the new modern, democratic Japan devised by the Americans.

Which brings us to our present troubles. Nobody's suggesting nuking Mecca. Well, okay, the other day a Republican congressman, Tom Tancredo, did - or at any rate he raised the possibility that at some point we might well have to "bomb" Mecca. Even I, a fully paid-up armchair warmonger, baulked at that one, prompting some of my more robust correspondents to suggest I'd gone over to the side of the New York Times pantywaists.

But forget about bombing Mecca and consider the broader lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: an enemy folds when he knows he's finished. In Iraq, despite the swift fall of the Saddamites, it's not entirely clear the enemy did know.

Indeed, the western peaceniks' pre-war "human shields" operation was completely superfluous mainly because the Anglo-American forces decided to treat not just Iraqi civilians and not just Iraqi conscripts but virtually everyone other than Saddam, Uday and Qusay as a de facto human shield. Washington made a conscious choice to give every Iraqi the benefit of the doubt, including the fake surrenderers who ambushed the US marines at Nasiriyah.

If you could get to a rooftop, you could fire rocket-propelled grenades at the Brits and Yanks with impunity, because, under the most onerous rules of engagement ever devised, they wouldn't fire back just in case the building you were standing on hadn't been completely evacuated. Michael Moore and George Galloway may have thought the neocons were itching to massacre hundreds of thousands, but the behaviour of the Baathists suggests they knew better: they assumed western decency and, having no regard either for our lives or for those of their own people, acted accordingly.

Was this a mistake? Several analysts weren't happy about it at the time, simply because Washington and London were exposing their own troops to greater danger than necessary.

But, with hindsight, it also helped set up a lot of the problems Iraq's had to contend with since: not enough Baathists were killed in the initial invasion; too many bigshots survived to plot mischief and too many minnows were allowed to melt back into the general population to provide a delivery system for that mischief.

And in a basic psychological sense, excessive solicitude for the enemy won us not sympathy but contempt. Better Nagasaki than a lot of misplaced wicky-wacky-woo.

The main victims of western squeamishness in April 2003 were not American or coalition troops but the Iraqi civilians who today provide the principal target for "insurgents".

It would have better for them had more Baathists been killed in the initial invasion. It would have been preferable, too, if the swarm of foreign jihadi from neighbouring countries had occasionally been met with the "accidental" bombing of certain targets on the Syrian side of the border.

Wars fought under absurd degrees of self-imposed etiquette are the most difficult to win - see Korea, Vietnam or even Northern Ireland - and one lesson of Germany and Japan is that it's easier to rebuild societies if they've first been completely smashed.

Michael Ledeen, a shrewd analyst of the present conflict, likes to sign-off his essays by urging the administration, "Faster, please". That's good advice. So too is: Tougher, please.