Journal of World History 7.1 (1996) 154-156
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Memorializing the crucial events that constituted the final stages of World War II fifty years ago has not happened without considerable soul searching by the belligerents about the atrocities they committed. Before the war, in the 1930s, a Western democracy such as the United States associated the atrocities of the new warfare with the evil tendencies of the fascist powers. How innocent, for example, was the American condemnation of Japan for its "barbaric" practice of targeting civilians in Chinese cities on bombing missions. Then after Pearl Harbor, Americans tended to polarize the adversaries into the good guys and the bad guys. It was the evil empires alone that darkened the world with such horrible deeds as the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking.
In today's more global perspective, the earlier moral indignation that justified Dresden and Hiroshima in the name of patriotic rhetoric has given way—in many people—to feelings of remorse for crimes committed as perpetrators of total war and genocide. Among academics, the earlier, narrowly focused analysis on mass violence during World War II has changed radically as research has widened in search of the historical dynamics linking atrocities in the war with the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I, the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China, the killing fields of Cambodia, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
As Sheldon Harris's book indicates, taking a comparative approach [End Page 154] to war and genocide does not mitigate the atrocities committed by each of the belligerents. Harris's image of the Japanese soldier is the familiar brutal, fanatic martinet who feels not the slightest compassion for his victims, who in this case are human guinea pigs misused for experiments in biological warfare. His portrait of Ishii Shiro, the Japanese military scientist most responsible for the gruesome experiments, seems to confirm the stereotype of the ultranationalist officer of the period "espousing...anti-Capitalist, anti-bourgeois, anti-liberal, and pro-National Socialist views" (p. 17). Nor is Harris flattering about Japanese racism, which was directed largely against the Chinese, who constituted most of the victims in the experiments. He suggests that "given their perspective, they knew their victims were inferior beings who were being sacrificed for a higher cause" (p.47).
On the other hand, Harris does not indict the Japanese for their culture as much as he depicts the values and attitudes of leading powers during a catastrophic period in world history. The fact is that the Nazi doctor syndrome was supported by governments around the globe. Ishii was supported in his endeavor to promote biological and chemical warfare (BCW) "as the weapon of the future" (p. 19) by such important figures as Koizumi Chikahiko, Japan's health minister, and Emperor Hirohito himself.
Precisely what kind of research was being favorably supported from 1931 to 1945? In at least a hundred experimental stations throughout Manchuria known as Unit 731, leading Japanese scientists and army medical personnel deliberately infected human beings with dangerous germs and chemicals to ascertain their effectiveness in warfare. Harris documents Ishii's determination to answer certain questions by direct empirical investigation, using mostly Chinese and Russians as guinea pigs. Is it possible, for example, to infect men in the same way that lice, mosquitos, ticks, and fleas do? Where in the human body is it best to inject the infectious agent? Can the delivery of bacteria by aircraft actually bring about epidemics? Is polluting the water supply more effective in causing epidemics? The laboratories actually produced some of the most harmful pathogens known at the time, including plague, typhus, tetanus, anthrax, and smallpox. Carefully designed experiments with humans were then planned and executed, such as fastening captives to a stake and then blasting the site with plague-infested flea bombs. Harris fully describes these grim happenings in his first seven chapters.