The Greatest Degeneration

“After six months of intense firebombing of 67 other Japanese cities, the nuclear weapon ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on… August 6, 1945, followed on August 9 by the detonation of the ‘Fat Man’ nuclear bomb over Nagasaki. These are the only attacks with nuclear weapons in the history of warfare.”


As I write this, it’s 63 years to the day since my Homeland sent “Little Boy” to render maimed and lifeless 140,000 Japanese men, women, and children we never met. That’s the way things were and are done by a nation addicted to theft and serial war-making. It was an earlier, robust version of Shock and Awe, with a heavy dose of “collateral damage.”

The more we’ve done it, the easier it’s gotten. We bomb and blast, and torture and strafe. And we call it seeking peace and freedom. And nobody who matters laughs.


A nation that can rationalize repeated fire-bombing of cities and dropping nuclear weapons on women and children can rationalize almost anything. We did and we can. We teach the Official Truth to our wide-eyed young: The Indian savages and Filipinos “pacified,” The Hun, The Japs defeated and saved from themselves, the Vietnamese finally bending to their higher calling — gluing NIKE footwear together; “Just do it,” we told them. And they did.

What we say goes.

Cultural managers understand how important it is to get the official cover story straight — disciplining or brushing aside the occasional miscreant. Still, there is occasional leakage; insurgent bits of historical evidence rudely expelled. Like the malodorous wind of a flatulent rogue party-goer, the bad smell is simply ignored.

It’s soon forgotten.

Earlier this week for instance, the AP reported on some preliminary findings of the two and half year-old South Korean government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Based on hundreds of testimonies, and newly declassified US documents, AP noted apparent “bombing and strafing runs on South Korean refugee gatherings and unsuspecting villages in 1950-51.” In the case of east Wolmi Island (9/10/50), where at least 100 civilians were killed, the commission found the slaughter indiscriminate.

“Unjustified,” it said.

“In clear weather from low altitude, ‘U.S. forces napalmed numerous small buildings (and) strafed children, women, and old people in an open area,’ the commission reported.” (AP, 8/4/08)

The account pictured South Korean villager Cho Byung-woo standing at the mouth of Gokgyegul ( “Cave of the Crying Stream”) as he remembered how over 200 huddled refugees died in 1951 when US warplanes dropped napalm on them. It was common for Koreans to dress in white and, based on American military records, the commission found that, “The U.S. Air Force regarded all people in white as possible enemy.”

The Boston Globe’s AP – based story duly noted Cho Byung-woo’s testimony: “People moaned and screamed and shouted in the darkness… It was hell. How could they not tell civilians from North Korean troops?” It quoted the Commission: “The U.S. military hardly took into consideration that its massive bombing and incineration operations could take heavy tolls on civilians.”

After several USAF F-51 Mustangs dropped their napalm bombs on the “crying cave” at 9:50 AM, January 20, 1951, Cho described how the “fire incinerated everything and spread” into the cavern. His father rescued the 9 year-old boy, placing him in a ditch beyond the inferno. There “he witnessed more carnage as U.S. jets strafed fleeing villagers with .50-caliber machine guns. He saw a bullet slit open a young friend’s belly; ‘His bowels spilled out. His mother fell down and cried over his body in the shower of bullets,’ [Cho said].”

The old Korean survivor recalled that, “For years when it rained, water flooding out of the cave carried the bones away.”

About 10 years later the US began killing millions in Vietnam. Some objected, though as William Blum points out in his invaluable Killing Hope, “Everything … about [the war against] Vietnam had its forerunner in Korea: The support of a corrupt tyranny, the atrocities, the napalm, the mass slaughter of civilians, the cities and villages laid to waste, the calculated management of the news, the sabotaging of peace talks.” But the Korean bloodbath, like World War II was rather ruthlessly supported domestically, then and now.

At the Tokyo Tribunal assessing the “war guilt” of the Japanese, Indian justice Radhabinod Pal dissented. His opinion quoted Kaiser Wilhelm II’s poignant defense of mass butchery: “My soul is torn, but everything must be put to fire and sword; men, women, and children and old men must be slaughtered and not a tree or house be left standing. With these methods of terrorism, which are alone capable of affecting a people as degenerate as the French, the war will be over in two months…” Then Pal turned to the case before him and weighed justice: “…If any indiscriminate destruction of life and property is still illegitimate in warfare, then, in the Pacific war, this decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives of the German Emperor during the first World War and of the Nazi leaders during the second World War. Nothing like this could be traced to the credit of the present accused.”

From Hiroshima to Nagasaki, from the villages of Korea to the hamlets of Vietnam, to the jungles of Latin America, to the villages and cities of Yugoslavia/Afghanistan/Iraq, terror-bombing civilians is American as apple pie.

We just don’t think about it all that much.

Sometimes though, the anniversaries of our massacres or passing coverage of truth commissions somewhere act as little cloudbursts. As at Gokgyegul, some of history’s bones sluice out of the dark cave of our willful forgetting.

But just as quickly, they’re carried off in the freshet; buried in the satisfying sediments of the gone-away.

And we soldier on.

RICHARD RHAMES lives in Biddeford, Maine. He can be reached at:




Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: