“Gods”: The Rumpus Interview
I was thrilled and honored to be the subject of a very thought-provoking interview with the awesome lit blog The Rumpus, courtesy of fellow historical novelist Padma Viswanathan (who wrote The Toss of a Lemon, which is easily one of my favorite historical novels ever). Padma had some very smart questions to ask, ones that really had me pondering on why, exactly, I wrote The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and what questions I was trying to ask and (perhaps?) answer. Here’s one of the ones I found particularly interesting:
PV: This is a huge question, but please bear with me, and correct my understanding if you think I’ve gotten it wrong: How did you come to feel about the moral balances in the book, as conveyed through your characters? In particular, how did your understanding of the faults and decisions on each side evolve as you worked on the book? While we see the damage inflicted by the American bombs Cam drops, this role of his was official, whereas the Japanese who take him prisoner are in violation of Geneva Conventions. It obviously is wrong to bomb civilians, but that particular ill is still widespread, and wasn’t, I think, outlawed until post-WWII. In other words, the Japanese come across as brutal and benighted by our standards. No American is shown committing war crimes. Individual racism seems about equal on both sides. The spoils of Japanese-American homes evacuated by internment are used to furnish Anton’s model home, but that’s about all we get of systemic American wrongdoing, and it’s not illegal. What I took away was that, even despite the horror of the firebombing, the Japanese had to be stopped, much as the Nazis did. To portray Nazis as evil is something we take for granted, however, while showing the Japanese, or their military, that way must have been tougher, I imagine, not least because of the vexed question of race, and because of the nuclear bombings. Am I way off course?
JCE: Not at all. Those are actually the types of things I asked myself many times as I worked my way through the book, and finding objective answers to them was elusive, to say the least. In fact, I really can’t pretend to have done that—only to have explored the questions.
For me, part of that exploration involved questioning what we mean when we use terms like “evil” and “crime.” Defining either can be a murky task, but is especially so in wartime. I think, for instance, that it’s dangerous to use a blanket label like “evil” when thinking about an enemy–even in as egregious an example as the Nazis. In doing so, you risk distancing yourself to the point of losing sight of the potential universality of what happened in Germany. Yes, there were men in charge who were clearly monsters. But the greater problem was the German population–millions of Germans who considered themselves decent, moral human beings, who ended up following the Nazi agenda. They followed it not because they were intrinsically “evil,” but because they allowed themselves—be it through action or apathy–to be steered by national policies that carried sickening moral and human consequences. In the end that’s what the Japanese did as well, albeit on a different scale and to a different populace—so if you’re going to argue that one is “evil” you probably need to argue it for both, regardless of race or eventual fate. But in my opinion, what’s truly important to remember is just how easily—even casually—that evil occurred. And that it can occur again any time, in any nation (ours included), and at the hands of people who in all other respects are just like the rest of us.
Likewise, “crime” can become a very slippery term—particularly when it comes to air power (as the ongoing debate over its next phase—e.g. drones—attests to). My sense of the fire bombings, both in Germany and in Japan, was less that they were considered “legal” or “illegal” than that there was no clear legal framework yet established for them. The U.S. military essentially made up both the technology and the rules as it went, and by that point no one was going to stop them. And as Max Hastings writes in Retribution, the decision to “bomb and burn ‘em till they quit” really came down to a small handful of military leaders, with no weigh-in on the presidential level, and certainly no commentary from the U.K., which had long been doing blanket area bombing in Germany (a fact which, incidentally, I think partially addresses the “vexed race” question).
Those orchestrating the bombings acknowledged that civilians would be killed, but tried to balance it out morally by noting that Japan’s war industry was both small-scale and deeply enmeshed with the city’s residential neighborhoods. “The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war,” Curtis LeMay asserted later. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town. Had to be done.” As Hastings also points out, he and the other architects of the bombings conveniently overlooked the fact that the U.S. Naval Blockade had already effectively strangled Japan’s military industrial complex by 1945.
To be sure, LeMay’s seeming casualness about the hellfire he unleashed doesn’t obviate the fact that the Japanese, like the Germans, were clear aggressors in World War II, and clearly did need to be stopped. Nor does it change the fact that, unlike the Germans, an entire Japanese generation had been raised to see death as the preferable alternative to defeat—and was prepared to fight to the very last man, woman or child. There is little question that more American lives and many more Japanese lives would have been lost in a land invasion than were lost in America’s air campaign, however brutal it was.
There is, however, a very large question for me when it comes to the extent and execution of that campaign. Whatever they might have said publically, LeMay and his colleagues knew full well that in firebombing all sixty-seven of Japan’s major cities, they were sentencing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians to horrific deaths–for the sake of a military objective that was at best negligible. They also knew—from experiences like the London Blitz—that traditional area bombing can just as easily boost enemy moral as crush it. So the looming issue becomes less one of whether it was “legal” than whether it was worth the human and moral cost—especially given that, unlike the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is no obvious evidence that the firebombings brought Japan any closer to surrendering.
That also isn’t a question I can or even seek to answer in my book. But I think it’s one that needs to be considered.
To read the whole interview (plus a lot of other really cool lit stuff) go to TheRumpus.net.