Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Trial of Generals

A Trial of Generals is the title of a book I just finished.  Written by Lawrence Taylor and published in 1981,  it tells the story of two Japanese generals who were tried for war crimes due to their alleged conduct in the Philippine Islands, one in 1942, as the Japanese took control of Luzon, the main island, and one in 1944, as American forces retook it.  

The author argues, persuasively, that these two trials, both of which ended with guilty verdicts and death sentences, were travesties of justice, for several reasons.  At the root of it all is General Douglas MacArthur, Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines.  MacArthur was viewed both in Manila and in Washington as nearly a demigod; policy for the Islands was left largely up to him.  For nearly forty years the Philippines served as a (very) forward base for the United States, establishing a military presence in the Asian Pacific and facilitating commerce between the U.S. and (mostly) China. 

As the global economic depression of the 1930s persisted, several countries sought to solve their national problems by raiding resource-rich areas nearby.  Japan was one of these countries.  They invaded Manchuria in 1937 and by 1939 they were looking hungrily at Southeast Asia and Indonesia.  Two countries stood in their way: England, which had colonies in Burma, India, Hong Kong and the Malay Peninsula (Singapore), and the U.S., which controlled the Philippines. 

MacArthur was charged with the defense of the islands.  Against the advice of many he scrapped long-standing plans and insisted that he had the islands ready to repel any Japanese invasion.  He badly overestimated his army's readiness and he was too slow to move once Japan launched its initial attack, costing him virtually his whole Air Force and Navy, which he had most likely overrated anyway.

Consequently he abandoned the Islands and withdrew to Australia.  During the successful assault the Japanese General in charge, Masaharu Homma, underestimated the size of the combined American/Filipino forces, preparing for up to 35,000 prisoners which he planned to transport by truck and train north to internment camps.  There were actually 100,000 men, nearly all of whom were already half-starved to death, poorly clothed and suffering from a variety of tropical diseases.  Complicating matters further was the Japanese high command's unrealistic expectations for the conquest (they allowed fifty days in their planning, for Homma to dislodge and conquer a numerically superior force) and Tojo's personal dislike for Homma.  Homma was twice given new orders which required him to develop a new strategy on the fly and was unable to do anything regarding the prisoners other than delegate the task of moving three times as many as expected to the internment camps.  His subordinates engaged in (or failed to prevent their subordinates from engaging in) some isolated atrocities, beatings and the like, as well as some outright murders, often by bayonet.  Most of the attrition was due to starvation and topical diseases, beri beri and the like.

Homma was recalled to Japan shortly after accepting the surrender of the U.S./Filipino forces, unaware of the Bataan Death March, as it would come to be known, and most certainly not the perpetrator of it.

Two and a half years later the U.S. had turned things around almost completely and was about to retake the islands, when General Tomoyuki Yamashita, another general who was in disfavor with the Tojo faction because of his pro-western views and non-aggressive attitude, was sent to Manila to defend it.  Yamashita had won acclaim by forcing the British surrender of Malaya.  He also had defeated a numerically superior force with a combination of cunning and audacity.  He was brought home to a hero's welcome but Tojo banished him to a remote outpost in China, 'training' the dregs of the Japanese army.  By 1944 Tojo was running out of options and he sent Yamashita in to defend Manila against the inevitable.  Yamashita was hamstrung by impossible orders and was eventually told to go ahead and withdraw to the mountains, barely ahead of the advancing Americans.  A naval force assigned to temporary land duty and ostensibly under Yamashita's command ignored orders to return to their ships and instead, under the actual command of one of Tojo's spies, spent four days drinking, raping and committing various atrocities, including slaughtering women and children as if they were vermin.  When Yamashita finally surrendered his mountain force, a month later, he was told he was being arrested and charged with war crimes he not only had not ordered or participated in but was not even aware of.

The author points out that there was no good reason to charge these two generals with those horrible crimes other than that they had won victories over MacArthur and one of his buddies in the early days of the war.  The 'trials,' then, were to be by tribunal, five American generals selected by MacArthur, a prosecution team selected by MacArthur, and poorly prepared defense attorneys (selected by MacArthur) who were given their charge just thirty days before the trial was to commence.  MacArthur created the rules for entering evidence, which would include hearsay and innuendo, and the standard for determining guilt, which would revolve not around whether or not the generals ordered or even knew about the crimes, but only if they 'should have known.'   In short order they were found guilty, condemned to death, and had those sentences executed upon them.

Throughout the book Taylor presents the two generals as models of military comportment, honorable men who would have been assets to any army in the world, as well as both being brilliant strategists and natural leaders.  (Homma was a bit aloof, at times.)  MacArthur we see as the vain bastard that he apparently was.  I'm glad I read it.  ;  )


  1. History is littered with innocents taking the wrap, and of political and personal retribution cloaked as something else. To the victors go the spoils, and control of the court.
    Sounds like an informative book.

    1. A quick read, too. I recommend it. ; )