09 Aug History’s Two Worst War Criminals
Many of our younger international scholars are rightfully insisting that nations own up to their past atrocities. They are pressing Japan to fully disclose the enslavement of Korean “comfort women” who were forced to accompany the rampaging Japanese armies in China during the second world war. The scholars are demanding that Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia give a full accounting of the war crimes they committed in former Yugoslavia in the last decade of the twentieth century. They are calling upon Turkey for full accountability of the Armenian massacres of 1915.
But our credibility becomes eroded if we conceal our own past. We should be calling upon our own government to acknowledge the war crimes that have sullied American history. To some extent lawyers are doing this with respect to our pre-Union war crimes against Native Americans. Yet nothing can be as dramatic as the personification of war criminality. I suggest we should begin calling specific attention to the two persons whom I will nominate below as the worst war criminals in human history. I omit Stalin and Hitler because the genocides they unleashed should not be labeled as war crimes even though the number of victims was in the millions. (Stalin’s genocide took place in the 1930s, and Hitler’s holocaust actually ran counter to the German war effort.)
Here are my two nominees about whom too much attention cannot possibly be paid:
GENERAL WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN. During the Civil War, General Grant insisted that the defeat of Confederate armies was the first and foremost objective of Union strategy. Disobeying this policy, General Sherman set forth on a march to Savannah and the sea on November 15, 1864. He led his Union troops away from every Confederate army camp or stronghold. Instead, his army proceeded through the soft belly of the South, burning and destroying the civilians, their homes, their property, their farms, their food, their entire countryside. They murdered the children and the elderly, raped the women and then shot them, and stole every valuable they could get their hands on. Today General Sherman is featured in high-school history texts for saying “War is hell.” But nevertheless there is some controversy about him. There are parents who object to the use of the word “hell” in textbooks that their teen-age children are required to read.
GENERAL CURTIS LE MAY. In air campaigns against Japan in 1944 and 1945, General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Army Air Corps also defied the established wartime policy of the United States. That policy called for precision daylight bombing of military targets. Instead, LeMay retrofitted his planes with napalm cannisters (jellied gasoline), and dropped them at night over the northern suburbs of Tokyo, which were then the most densely populated areas in the world. Of course there were no men of fighting age present; there were only women, children, and the elderly packed in their wooden homes. On one evening, March 9, 1945, LeMay’s pilots were particuarly lucky: there was a brisk wind that carried the flaming napalm across wide distances. The heat that was generated was so great that the few people who could get out of their homes in time and jump into the nearest river or lake were boiled to death. General LeMay had successfully presided over the murder of 100,000 innocent people. He also had a quip to give to posterity: “There are no innocent civilians, so it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders.”
When I participated on a war crimes panel at West Point some years ago, I brought up LeMay’s name as an arch war criminal. Despite my saying this in a room packed with cadets and high brass, no forcible action was taken against me. Perhaps the reason for the restraint was that the West Pointers were prepared for remarks such as mine. All eyes turned to one of the observers in the first row, an Army officer who was also a professor at West point. After standing up and establishing his credentials as a major student of aerial warfare, he sharply disputed my assertion that LeMay dropped bombs on non-military targets. He said that the women in the targeted area were active participants in furthering the Japanese war effort: they were darning socks and mending army uniforms.