... lest we forget, for every Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is a firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden. It is not a question of the valiant, virtuous and spotless Allies against the unmitigated evil of the Axis as the comic book version of history written by the winners would tell us.
For as long as there has been war there have been war crimes. Of course they weren't always called "war crimes" and no international tribunals were convened to try the offenders, but make no mistake: there have always been war crimes.
After the Batavian revolt, Roman officers raped the young boys of the vanquished.
During the sacking of Béziers in 1209, French crusaders massacred 20,000 men, women and children in cold blood after Abbot Arnaud Amalric encouraged them to "kill them all and let God sort them out."
During the American Indian Wars, captives of the eastern woodlands tribes were executed by ritual torture, with victims being kept alive for days as they were cut, burnt, mutilated, made to eat their own flesh and otherwise defiled by the captors' whole village.
Sadly, it would be impossible to locate a time and place anywhere in world history where war was not accompanied by rape, pillage and massacres. But there's a strange phenomenon that applies to war crimes: most people think their own countrymen are immune. Yes, there may be a massacre here or a slaughter there, but there's always a good reason for it.
The average Briton refuses to this day to acknowledge that the British Empire ran on the blood of the victims at Jallianwala Bagh or the rape and torture of the Mau Mau or the suffering of the Boers in the first concentration camps.
What Japan teaches (or, more to the point, doesn't teach) about the war crimes committed by its own Imperial forces is a perennial source of controversy that continues to cause outrage throughout much of Asia.
Even the polite and unassuming Canadians smugly point to their part in the creation of the blue-helmeted UN Peacekeeping forces without acknowledging the horrors and depravity those forces have inflicted, Canadian troops included.
And of course during this age of Pax Americana there are many Americans who--in the immortal words of Col. Nathan Jessup--can't handle the truth about the way in which that Pax is maintained.
When it comes to American war crimes, there are no shortage of examples to choose from. For every well-known My Lai massacre there are a thousand lesser-known No Gun Ri massacres. For every Abu Ghraib that enters the lexicon there's a thousand Azizabads that barely made the news. For every Wounded Knee there's a thousand Camp Sumters.
There are always reasons. "They did it first." "They started it." "They deserved it." But the reasons are always just excuses. A war crime is a war crime is a war crime.
And then there's Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or should that be Fat Man and Little Boy? It has long been impossible to discuss the reality of these bombings, if it ever really was possible. It's not just that the US government censored newspapers, silenced individuals and covered up medical reports to keep the public from learning the full truth about what happened in August of 1945; that much is understandable. It's that when the Smithsonian tried to put those bombings in their context fifty years later there was such a public backlash against the idea that the museum scrapped the exhibit, saying they "made a basic error." The public couldn't handle the truth.
And so the vast majority of Americans still unswervingly parrot what their high school football-coach-cum-history-teacher taught them: that the bombings were indisputably essential to ending the war in the Pacific and saved the death of 500 gorillion Allied soldiers.
It doesn't matter how many facts are piled high to counteract this narrative:
That Japanese Foreign Minister Togo had confessed (in a message decoded and read by the Americans a month before the bombing): "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace."
That Secretary of War Stimson himself observed that: "the true question was not whether surrender could have been achieved without the use of the bomb but whether a different diplomatic and military course would have led to an earlier surrender."
That Admiral William Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his own memoir: "It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. My own feeling is that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."
That "every top presidential civilian and military advisor, with the exception of James Byrnes, along with Prime Minister Churchill and his top British military leadership, urged Truman to revise the unconditional surrender policy so as to allow the Japanese to surrender and keep their Emperor" before the Potsdam Proclamation on July 26, 1945, but that Truman demanded the unconditional surrender anyway.
Upton Sinclair famously observed that: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." In much the same way it is difficult to get a propagandized public to understand something when their flag-waving identity depends on them not understanding it.
It is into this whirlwind that Obama is set to step next week as he becomes the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. Although any hint of formal apology or recognition of guilt in the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been explicitly ruled out, the idea that the very trip itself may be construed as something resembling regret or apology has reignited the old debate. And for the 500 gorillionth time the American people will go in circles, chasing their tails for reasons to once again exonerate their government from the tens of thousands of lives that were incinerated in two instants and the hundreds of thousands that died a slow, painful death thereafter.
But lest we forget, for every Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is a firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden. It is not a question of the valiant, virtuous and spotless Allies against the unmitigated evil of the Axis as the comic book version of history written by the winners would tell us. It is that every side in every war has a dark side. Because humans have a dark side, and war is the excuse to let it loose. Soldiers rape, torture and massacre civilians. Governments incinerate entire cities. Military planners plot winnable nuclear wars. They always have, and for as long as warfare exists, they always will.
But sadly I don't think the public can handle that truth yet, either.