The TASC List: Unintended targets

There is a term for describing human resources or material assets unintentionally destroyed in battle space struggles of wartime. Collateral damage. As a euphemism it can be misleading. As a descriptor it is often wholly inadequate.

A bombardier in World War II may have been able to peer through the broken clouds and billowing smoke from leveled ruins below. But few, however, left the scene of fire and explosion in a position to see close-up the detail that portrays horror, pain, and loss.

For some who may have had a chance during their careers to participate in after action damage assessment, there is some small recognition of what might have happened as the devastation unfolded – to the structures and facilities most likely. To the human casualties, the stories were necessarily incomplete.

For me, the horrific recognition happened quite by chance one rainy afternoon outside Tokyo in a small art gallery and museum. What seemed like a possible brief refuge from the weather turned out to be a theater space devoted to collateral damage images never seen before, from a period forty-four years earlier. Here’s the background.

Firebombing of Tokyo by American aircraft took place in March and April of 1945. Its intention was to break the will and spirit of the people and destroy those “cottage industries” that supported the Japanese war effort as campaigns in the Pacific were winding down. There was of course an underlying motivation to reply in a like-for-like manner to “the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor” in December of 1941. The dropping of 2,000 tons of napalm-like material on a city comprised of mostly wood and paper structures completely fulfilled the mission objectives.

Loss of life has been estimated in the 10 March 1945 low-level “Great Tokyo Air Raid” at 100,000 with a million left homeless and over sixteen square miles reduced to ashes. Those fatalities exceeded the number from Hiroshima’s aftermath. A Metropolitan Police Photographer, Ishikawa Koyo, was dispatched to record the conflagration, at enormous risk to his own person. What he captured on film was buried in a metal ammunition can in his backyard. Government propaganda policy prohibited the release of damage reports of any kind to the population. When finally exhumed, it first made its way to the gallery exhibition where I had dropped in, and to the authorities.

Since then, a 520 page collection of his work and that of two others recently uncovered, was published in January, 2015 as Tokyo Kushu Shashinishi (Photography of Tokyo Air Raids). Some of these materials are now available on the Internet. They comprise a stunning record of but one era of wartime destruction of a civilian community. More recently we have seen the results in Vietnam, the Middle East, and increasingly the widespread loss of life from terrorist organizations threatening innocent non-combatants with massive casualties.  The line between proportional response and war criminality has been blurred beyond recognition – just as the bodies themselves have been burned beyond recognition.

Nowhere, perhaps, more than in Ishikawa’s black and white images, can the results be seen more clearly. Water supplies were quickly exhausted that night, while even the telephone wires were bursting with flames. Families ran to the street canals to seek relief from the monstrous heat to find the waters literally boiling. The flames ahead of gale force winds spread with terrifying speed. Sparks and cinders engulfed the fleeing; they were suffocated or trampled. Hundreds at a time tried to cross the bridges, but the infernos consumed them as they leaped the waters from bank to bank.

Many expired in their own backyard shelters; others assumed the local elementary schools as designated places to assemble would provide safety; most schools were also consumed. Mothers and babies were incinerated on roadsides. This was a holocaust beyond belief. It gave new meaning to the term collateral damage.

When considering this new definition, enlarged today to encompass even more powerful devices, it would be useful to reflect on the very last pictures in the series. They depict the happy faces of school children after the Emperor had declared surrender in August. A new Tokyo community had begun the process of renewal. A new Japan was also to arise from its ashes.

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