This is a British lawyer's narrative of Japanese atrocities in WWII and in the years immediately preceding. Baron Russell of Liverpool was a senior legal advisor to the British Army of the Rhine during the nazi war trials, and on the basis that someone who writes history is a historian, he qualifies for that title too. Russell starts his narration in the early 30's with the Japanese concession in Manchuria, the running warfare this involved with the Kuo Min Tang government of Chiang Kai-shek, and the conduct of the Japanese military during that period. His purpose in taking his start-point here is to analyse, to some extent at least, the roots and origins of the mind-sets that led certain human beings to behave in the way they did during WWII.
Russell's analysis takes him and us as far as this - Japanese imperial culture was based on total loyalty to the Emperor. A faction in the army took a fanatical interpretation of this loyalty, not one that was amenable to reason, and saw or purported to see a divine destiny for Japan in dominating the far east and possibly more than just that. So absolute was this mission that no consideration of humanitarian values, and no laws that stood in the way of the mission's fulfilment, could be tolerated. Russell does not try to probe much deeper that this, and I would say rightly not. His book was first published in 1958 following the success of his earlier Scourge of the Swastika. The prime virtue of his writing is precisely that it recounts the events from a lawyer's perspective, not totally detached by any means, but having its focus on facts rather than on expressions of outrage, and steering clear of sensationalism. He does not try to account for the change in Japanese posture from its traditional isolationism to this new spirit of aggression, and he does not try to assess the extent to which the religious or quasi-religious element was genuine and to what extent a garb for something more secular, like the contemporary nationalism in Germany. Still less does he probe the basic question of what 'faith' may be said to be in the first place or ask (let alone try to answer) the question that should be asked of any believer in any religion, namely 'Why?' Why believe in the divinity of the Emperor rather than in, say, Zeus and Hera? Why indeed.
I support entirely the limitations he has accepted for himself. He had quite enough to do in following his agenda of factual accuracy, his lawyer's perspective is valuable furthermore in assessing matters of legal interpretation, and his unemotional tone helps the reader's focus too. Here and there we catch glimpses of theories that must have crossed his mind, such as in the mention of inferiority complex at one point, but he sticks to his last and does not pursue these. I found that my own interest was less in the grand political scenarios and strategies than in what little the book contains about the mentality of those perpetrating the atrocities. There are excerpts, for instance, from the training manual of the Kempei Tai, a kind of Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo though with some important differences. These leave no doubt that torture was considered legitimate on the basis of 'do what you have to do'. There is a statement from no less than Tojo himself at his trial that Japanese foreign commanders had wide latitude in their choice of methods and that questions about these were not asked. There are reported comments from certain local commanders that the prisoners were subhuman, and these, together with the strategic perception that supposed global dominance by the Anglo-Saxon powers had to be fought, seem to me to lend credence to the theory of inferiority complex. In particular there are a few snippets from letters written by the troops. These mainly give plain statements of what was done, but one or two actually evince an access of humanitarian conscience. Rightly, Russell knows better than to draw conclusions from unrepresentative sampling, and I for one was left with a picture common to scenes of undisciplined behaviour by soldiery down the ages, regardless of creed. No doubt it was on a bigger scale, but it was a familiar picture, Emperor or no Emperor. One squaddy puts his and his fellows' excesses down simply to 'excitement', and that is hardly new or specific to this divine mission as opposed to other divine missions or their secular counterparts.
Lord Russell's style is dry, clear and economical. As far as it's possible to read such stories without revulsion, it's possible in this book. The final chapter, as we might expect from a lawyer, is a summary of the trials of the major actors and the sentences they received. As usual, Russell permits himself a certain amount of comment but does not become emotive. One interesting detail is that there was a dissenting opinion from the Indian judge, who found that all the prisoners should be exonerated on all charges, on the ground that these trials were, or would be seen as, victors' justice - I'm not quite sure how to read this. There is no mention whatsoever of the fire-bombing of Tokyo, of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of General LeMay. As these topics are not mentioned, there is no discussion of the difference in principle from atrocities performed hand-to-hand at ground level. Issues at this depth are not explored in this book, so regarding this particular difference the question left with us once again is - what exactly was it?