Memorial Daze

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

On the island of Okinawa is a very unusual war memorial. The Cornerstone of Peace resembles the Vietnam War memorial in certain respects: large black walls inscribed with names. But the Cornerstone of Peace has a different shape: curved, concentric walls rather than an angled slash. More importantly, the Okinawa memorial lists all of those who died in the World War II Battle of Okinawa: Americans, Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans, and others.

It seems like such a simple thing: a war memorial that lists all of the dead. War and memory are not such simple things, however. The names on a memorial—or the “faces of the fallen” that appear in a newspaper—are what “we” must remember on Memorial Day. In fact, such remembrances are designed to define who “we” are. We are the people for whom these ultimate sacrifices were made. To list all the war dead would unravel this very definition and blur all sorts of boundaries.

With his recent films about another World War II battle, Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood does some boundary-blurring of his own. Flags of Our Fathers provides a look at the bloody engagement from the American side. Letters from Iwo Jima gives the Japanese side of the conflict. But with World War II veterans now in their eighties, Iwo Jima is safely out of the controversy zone. After all, the Bush administration is pushing Japan to abandon its peace constitution and develop a full-fledged military. Not surprisingly, then, Eastwood’s empathetic treatment of Japanese soldiers didn’t generate any American Legion or VFW boycotts.

Films, because they are the expression of a particular director, can afford to be multifaceted in this way. War memorials, however, express some national quintessence. They cannot flirt with ambiguity or irony.

How did Okinawa manage to construct its many-sided Cornerstone of Peace? Partly it has to do with the post-war dispensation of the island, which was under U.S. administrative control until 1972 after which it became a Japan prefecture. Partly it has to do with the battle itself: 150,000 Okinawans died in the March 1945 face-off, more than the American and Japanese casualties combined. And partly it has to do with new Okinawan political leadership attempting to raise a third, critical voice in the U.S.-Japan Security partnership.

But on this Memorial Day here in the United States, imagine for a moment what it might take to construct a U.S. version of the Cornerstone of Peace. Imagine a war memorial, even one that commemorates World War II, that put American and “enemy” names side by side. Now that would be a revolutionary war memorial!

The Other Iraq Surge

As we mourn war so do we make war. Although the U.S. government claims to be fighting on behalf of Iraqis, there are few mentions of the Iraqi casualties in the conflict. They, too, have made the ultimate sacrifice, though not willingly. According to the website Iraq Body Count, the fourth year of the war ending in March 2007 “has been by far the worst year for violence against civilians in Iraq since the invasion.” Almost half of the civilian casualties after the initial weeks of the war came over the last year. Here, at least, one can read the names of as many of the Iraqi civilian casualties that can be gathered.

The increased number of Iraq civilian casualties is not the only overlooked surge. As FPIF’s military affairs analyst Dan Smith points out, the U.S. army is experiencing not simply a surge in the number of troops sent over to Iraq. There’s been a surge in logistical needs, in the participation of private contractors, and in combat fatalities.

In contrast, Smith proposes a different surge: “Until the White House launches a ‘surge’ in integrity, the continuing offensive posture of coalition forces in Iraq will prolong the diversion of attention and resources away from the redevelopment of Iraq’s economy, institutions of governance, and social structures.”

Japan, meanwhile, has been pushing a minor surge of its own. Tokyo provided the Bush administration with support for the Iraq War. And recently, the cabinet unanimously approved a two-year extension of the Japanese troop deployment.

Japan’s surge, as FPIF contributor Shirzad Azad explains, is all about energy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently made a five-country tour of the Middle East. “Topping Abe’s agenda on his recent trip was seeking new ways of securing energy supplies for Japan,” Azad writes in Japan Infiltrates the Middle East. “Tokyo has long been dependent on the Middle East for most of its oil imports, and Japan’s increased demand for natural gas is likely to deepen its dependence on that turbulent and volatile region. Japan is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and roughly 90% of its oil needs come from the Middle East. Japan is worried that the emergence of newly energy-hungry economies of Asia, especially China and India, may challenge its long-term access to crude oil and natural gas in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf area.”

NAFTA, Indigenous Women, and Chomsky Part II

We tend to think of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as an economic mechanism. It was negotiated to reduce barriers to trade and the movement of capital among the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

But as FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen explains in NAFTA: Kicked up a Notch, NAFTA is also about security. NAFTA has generated a new Security and Prosperity Partnership that links the three countries’ counter-terrorism strategies. A great deal falls in the category of counter-terrorism: beefing about the borders, joint trainings of the military and police, modernization of equipment, and the adoption of new technologies.

For Mexico in particular, this new development is troubling. “The SPP measures to coordinate security have pressured Mexico to militarize its southern border and adopt repressive measures toward Central and South Americans presumably in transit to the United States,” writes Carlsen. “The false conflation of undocumented immigration with security in the United States has also led to measures that have little to do with Mexico’s own national security and cause friction with friendly nations, such as the decision to require visas for citizens of Brazil and Ecuador to enter the country.”

In the second part of his two-part interview with FPIF contributor Michael Shank—this time on India-Pakistan relations—Noam Chomsky also reflects on the relationship between military and commercial interests. The nuclear deal between the United States and India, for instance, is not just about a strengthened security relationship. “It opens exports markets in India. In fact, Condoleezza Rice testified in Congress to that effect: that it would have commercial value to the United States, it would open Indian markets for exports,” Chomsky relates. “The main exports might be military jets. That’s exactly what we don’t want because that’s going to again be a trigger for escalation. India gets more advanced offensive military forces, Pakistan will want the same, and China will want the same.”

Finally, in New York, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has just wrapped up its deliberations. As Yifat Susskind explains in Indigenous Women’s Pushback, Indigenous activists and their allies have been pushing for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that the United States, and several other major countries, has tried to water down to irrelevance. Susskind links the efforts of Indigenous communities to secure collective rights to the efforts of Indigenous women to challenge gender-based violence. She also describes the extraordinary work of Samburu women to build a women-run village in Kenya and the Miskito community to preserve their culture and traditions in Nicaragua.

“Indigenous Peoples have fought for centuries against genocide, displacement, colonization, and forced assimilation. This violence has left Indigenous communities among the poorest and most marginalized in the world, alienated from state politics, and disenfranchised by national governments,” Susskind writes. “Because of gender discrimination, the pattern is most entrenched for Indigenous women. Today, the human rights—and very survival of—Indigenous Peoples are increasingly threatened, as states and corporations battle for control of the Earth’s dwindling supply of natural resources, many of which are located on Indigenous territories.”

The pushback of Indigenous Peoples is an extraordinary development in world history. Indigenous activists are working at an international level at the UN. They are strengthening communities at a local level. And they are also challenging the national mythos of war. The Okinawans, after all, are also an Indigenous people. And perhaps that is the ultimate reason why the extraordinary Cornerstone of Peace lists all the casualties of war. On this Memorial Day, let us all honor this bold, Indigenous approach and memorialize beyond borders.

FPIF, May 29, 2007

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