Prisoners of war

Lester Tenney, commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a veterans organization, who spent most of the war as a prisoner of war in Japan working in a Mitsui mine, spoke yesterday at a hall in the shadow of the Japanese Diet.

Mr. Tenney is currently visiting Tokyo, hoping to raise awareness of what he and his fellow American POWs suffered and to receive apologies from the Japanese government and the companies that employed POWs as slave labor.

Before a largely Japanese (and largely elderly) audience, Mr. Tenney shared stories — both bad and good — from his time in captivity, explained why he was in Japan, and expressed his hopes for Japanese-American friendship. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mr. Tenney is how positive he was, something that was not lost upon the audience. When he said that he had forgiven the Japanese for what he suffered, there was no doubt, no wavering in his voice.

But more interesting was the question-and-answer session following his remarks. Three questioners were Japanese war veterans, who used their questions to speak at length about their own experiences in the war. One, a private, said that after the war he was imprisoned in an American camp in the Philippines for suspected war criminals, who were made to carry heavy logs for hours on end, presumably, he thought, as retribution for the Bataan Death March. Another, who said that he had been a guard on the march, tried to explain why it had been so terrible. Too few guards for too many prisoners, he said. A third didn’t have a point to make: he just told the audience about his own experience in the war, and told Mr. Tenney that he thought that the Americans fought bravely.

Ultimately Mr. Tenney and his questioners shared something in common: they are all still prisoners of war. More than sixty years later they still carry the war with them. It still occupies their thoughts. It fills them with the urge to talk, to share their stories with strangers. And so it is with war. Wounds heal, but veterans, it seems, carry the experience with them for the rest of their lives, leaving them forever scarred. Even Mr. Tenney, who has, so to speak, made his peace with the war, is still marked by his experience as a soldier and POW; his comrades, some of whom have asked him why he goes to Japan, are even more marked.

And so it is with nations. Nations carry their experiences with war with them, as their members do. As the Japanese veterans last night showed, Japan still carries the war with it. It is still transfigured by the wrenching trauma of the war, because for Japan, World War II is The War. No matter how much Japanese politicians want Japan to become a “normal” nation, Japan will not be decreed into normalcy, not so long as the veterans live on, not so long as some of their children and grandchildren promise to carry on their fight, not so long as the older generation of pacifists, their worldview shaped by experiences on the home front and their commitment to peace enshrined in the constitution, persists in disseminating a view of war that views all conflict through the prism of Japan’s war. Japan carries all of that in its collective unconscious, and nothing but time will heal the psychic wounds to the Japanese nation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tenney’s experience also highlights the skeletons in the closet of the US-Japan alliance. He is a living testament to the decision on the part of the US and Japan to leave history be for the sake of the alliance. Indeed, in response to a question, he noted that the US government ordered him and other POWs not to speak about their experiences as POWs in Japan a mere three days after the surrender in Tokyo Bay. The US government has repeatedly intervened to stop attempts by American POWs to sue the Japanese companies that used POWs as slave labor, with the State Department going so far as to serve as a witness for Mitsui in a suit filed by Mr. Tenney.

Such is the lot of men like Mr. Tenney. Abandoned by General MacArthur at Bataan, abandoned by his government when it decided that it needed Japan as an ally, Mr. Tenney was, like soldiers throughout history and (of course) on the Japanese side of the war, at the mercy of power politics and the decisions of distant leaders.

I don’t know whether Mr. Tenney will get the audience he desires with Prime Minister Fukuda. I don’t know whether he will get an apology from the Japanese government or compensation from Mitsui — or an apology from the US government for that matter. He certainly deserves it. Not only did he don a uniform for his country, not only did he suffer at the hands of the enemy for more than three years, he has carried his experiences with him for more than sixty years.

He and his comrades deserve justice not just from those at whose hands they suffered, but from the governments for whose sake justice has been postponed indefinitely.

3 thoughts on “Prisoners of war

  1. Anonymous

    \”Mr. Tenney is how positive he was, something that was not lost upon the audience. When he said that he had forgiven the Japanese for what he suffered, there was no doubt, no wavering in his voice.\”That just wasn\’t the impression I\’ve got when I read his numerous posts on NBR…


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