In the wake of President Obama’s decision to not seek criminal prosecutions of U.S. officials who violated criminal statutes against torture, maybe this would be a good time to revisit the case of Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was a World War II Japanese army general in charge of troops in the Pacific. After the war, he was executed by U.S. military officials for being a “war criminal.”
Why did they consider Yamashita to be a war criminal? Not because he himself had committed any war crimes but because he had failed to prevent men under his command from committing war crimes.
Never mind that Yamashita had never authorized or condoned the commission of such war crimes. And never mind that as a military officer, he had stood in steadfast opposition to war crimes and had even executed some of his men for having committed them. And never mind that Allied bombing campaigns had destroyed his command and control over his troops. U.S. military officials said that as the commander, his failure to prevent his subordinates from committing such crimes rendered him subject to being prosecuted, convicted, and punished for being a war criminal.
Now, imagine if the Yamashita doctrine were to be applied to every single person in the chain of command in the Abu Ghraib torture, sex abuse, and murder scandal, starting from the commander-in-chief and going all the way down to the CIA agents and U.S. military personnel who actually committed the crimes.
Under the Yamashita doctrine, it would be difficult to see how those in the chain of command could escape criminal responsibility. After all, it’s undisputed that they failed to prevent the commission of the war crimes at Abu Ghraib.
In fact, it seems to me that U.S. officials are in a much worse position than Yamashita was, owing to the considerable evidence that what happened at Abu Ghraib was the logical outgrowth of the White House torture memos and the orders authorizing the use of “harsh interrogation methods.”
Of course, no one would expect U.S. officials to apply the same standards to themselves that they applied to Yamashita. But at least the Yamashita case can give us valuable insights into why foreigners resent so deeply the hypocrisy and double standards of the U.S. government.