Yesterday I watched through a BBC documentary on war crimes committed by Japan during WW2. The documentary discusses -in sometimes horrifying detail- the crimes against humanity committed by the Imperial Army of Japan. I think it is a pretty good introduction to the subject, and to summarise further, part 1 frames the atrocities in the context of increasing militarism in Japan, increased brutality of training in the Imperial Army, and nationalist/imperialist propaganda, before embarking on a tour of the first half of Japan's war with acts of brutality being the landmarks.
After watching part 2 (which completes the tour by focussing on the horrifying result of the belief in death-before-dishonour, as well as some of the American-inflicted suffering of the Japanese), I sat thinking about how it is both sides were willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.
As part 1 illustrated, POWs were treated very well by Japan during WW1, I'm not sure if this extends to non-Europeans, but it goes some way towards confirming that the Japanese are not intrinsically inhumane (I sincerely hope this doesn't need stating, but there it is anyway), but rather the social environment at the time was the root cause. Looking at the domestic history of Japan, it seems fairly obvious this was the case; however, why did America end up indiscriminately firebombing Japan?
Let's assume you're asked to run a bombing mission over civilian area during a war. Whether you agree is probably going to be based on: 1) whether you are blindly obedient, 2) whether you feel the mission will prevent defeat/danger to your homeland or allies, 3) whether you respect the people who will die. That is the order I would have written those items had I not watched the documentary, but now I think 2 and 3 are in the wrong order. Firstly, its evident that the Japanese soldiers -revelling in their early victories- had a contempt for their victims. But to an extent the same contempt is shown by the Allied soldiers, and while this is usually towards the Japanese soldiers, it seems that the bomber pilots (if not contemptuous) were indifferent to whether their targets were military or civilian, and they surely could not have been concerned for the safety of their homeland while dropping bombs on an increasingly crippled Japan, right? Perhaps they just wanted a quick end to the war to save their comrades the risk of being shot down, but even so, to weigh the lives of so many civilians (arguably they don't know how many civilians they will end up killing; however, I expect these people were fairly conversant with the power of their weaponry) against their comrades still hints to me of a disdain (or at least indifference) towards their victims.
OK, so what does this matter? Well firstly we can say with relative certainty from the above that atrocities will occur when there is disrespect for the opposing side, and these atrocities become worse with increasing disrespect, and increasing distance. Asking combatants to "please, very kindly respect the people whose government you are at war with" is just plain stupid because soldiers have a job which is psychologically devastating (killing people and exposure to mortal danger - how is that better than minimum wage?), which will inevitably lead to some level of unwanted behaviour, and when such behaviour is not systematically guarded against, and additional negative propaganda is imposed on top of that, you get the Imperial Japanese Army.
In other words, any war will lead to some atrocities, and propaganda makes things much, much worse. The problem is we have a number of warmongering nations (I'm looking at the US and UK here, but things have gotten more complicated than I've had time to keep up, recently), and a number of nations with state-run media (China, and Russia are often accused, but they're not the only ones). The examples in brackets are unlikely to go to war right now, but situations change (Japan was allied with the UK in the first World War, and with the Nazis in the second).
In this respect, the relative (and mutual) animosity* between Japan and China has to stop, because in the remote possibility that a war did happen between them, it would be terrible.
But what should we actually do? Well, here I think some politicians should take heed of a psychological experiment called "Robber's Cave Experiment". In that experiment, it was found that a group of boys separated from each other would naturally come into conflict when competing at given tasks, but that this could be overcome by integrating the groups and having them work towards common goals.
Translated to the world stage, this means we need to focus less on the transgressions made against each other, and more on cooperating on common goals. Note this doesn't mean letting ourselves get trodden on, but simply that we shouldn't ostracise countries because they do not conform to our expectations, rather we should use some of that energy create more opportunities for collaboration.
To an extent this is already happening due to trade. Trade has become essential to our societies, and this necessitates some degree of cooperation. When we go into our favourite shop, where we have a good relationship with the owner, and we comment that the paint job on the door looks like it needs redoing, that owner is far more likely to take on that information than if we said the same in a shop where we have no such relationship.
We all want the world to change for the better, and we want to do it now. Unfortunately, we simply cannot do it directly, the relationship must be built first, otherwise our clamouring for change simply drives us apart. Even when we have the power to impose the change, has this really worked for us in the past?
The problem with this is implementation. There is little we can do but vote for the moderate political candidates, promote tolerance, and focus on the benefits of collaboration (trade, science, and the arts are all exceptional examples).
*I've heard a number of my Japanese friends talk about the Chinese is really quite disturbing ways, and you really don't need to look hard to see that the Japanese are thought less-than-well of by a proportion of China too. Then again, perhaps looking harder would reveal otherwise.