Saturday, October 02, 2004

Op-Ed, Today/
October 4, 2004

So many good wars launched. So many wars-to-end-all-wars concluded. And yet.

When will respite come? Where will it come from? Difficult to say.

Dr. Shiro Ishii was born in 1892 to a wealthy family of landed aristocrats in Chiyoda Mura, a farming village near Tokyo. Charismatic and driven, Dr. Ishii towered over most people. He was five feet, ten inches tall, had a booming voice and possessed "soaring intelligence."

Ishii was the architect and leader of Imperial Japan's biological and germ warfare program. A program known to a few today as Unit 731 - the name of the nightmare's central headquarters near the city of Harbin in Manchuria.

Unit 731 was his government's "Secret of Secrets," as Ishii himself described the program - one under which many of the best and brightest doctors of Japan's medical and biological research community applied their considerable talents. Talents employed in running an assembly line of human experimentation "in the pursuit of scientific goals completely untethered to morality."

From 1932 to 1945, Japan carried out its biological warfare program with the same horrific efficiency that marked the work of German Nazi doctors. Unit 731 sought to determine the efficacy of the germ and biological arsenal that Japan was developing, using humans as lab rats.

Ishii and his doctors administered tainted vaccine injections to children in selected villages; poisoned food was handed out to hungry people by smiling Japanese soldiers and physicians. Different strains of pathogenic germs such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid were bred and tested on humans alongside the development of tools with which the disease microbes could be let loose.

Virulent strains of malaria "were injected into [captured] Americans suffering from beri-beri and tuberculosis patients were injected with strange concoctions of acid mixed with dextrose, ether, or blood plasma." The objective, recounts the scholar Daniel Barenblatt, in his soul-searing work, The Plague of Humanity, "was to develop medicinal treatments, using Americans as expendable guinea pigs." Australian and British prisoners of war were also subjected to unspeakable pain. Of course, many did not make it.

While Unit 731's ghastly experimentation smote as well the peoples of Russia, Mongolia and Korea, it was the Chinese who suffered the brunt of the madness. Millions of bubonic plague-infected fleas were raised and released aerially on unsuspecting Chinese villages. Feathers contaminated with anthrax were released over population centers by Japanese air squadrons while on the ground, disease-carrying horses, dogs, rats and birds were dispersed and made to mingle with livestock and humans.

And on the doctors of Unit 731 diligently worked, tallying the effects of their creations by performing vivisections on prisoners, recording deformities, and putting together a macabre roster of distress, torment and death.

Non-germ warfare tests were also performed on Unit 731's prisoners: animal-to-human blood transfusions, for instance. And frostbite experiments where limbs of live humans were exposed to extreme frost, struck with a stick and broken off and reattached to places where they were originally attached - and other places.

It is estimated by scholars that at least 20,000 people were killed inside Unit 731's human experiment prisons in China. And outside, well, it was the same hell.

May 1942: a cholera epidemic created by Unit 731 in Yunnan province kills over 200,000 people. Three months later, another 200,000 die in Shandong province as a result of Unit 731's germ warfare. In the Zhekiang province city of Quzhou alone, over 50,000 perish from bubonic plague and cholera. And so on and so on and so on.

How did it all end? As typical stories go, the good side eventually prevails over the butchers and the malevolent: Japan's imperial drive is defeated and Unit 731's designs are discovered and trounced - its army of ghoulish doctors and the infamous Shiro Ishii captured, tried and executed. That should be a nice story but reality is not typical and the story of Unit 731 is not a typical story. "Few," said Goethe, "have the imagination for reality."

Within months after World War II ended US army officials - acting upon the instructions of the very head of the Allied occupation forces in Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur - were already in Japan meeting - over dinner - with Shiro Ishii and other veterans of Unit 731. The Americans desired the knowledge possessed by Ishii and his colleagues. Ishii promised the Americans the full set of keys to his secret kingdom if ...

In return for immunity "for myself, my superiors, and subordinates," Ishii replied explicitly in one of the meetings, "I would like to be hired by the U.S. as a biological warfare expert. In the preparation for the war with Russia, I can give [America] the advantage of my 20 years research and experience."

In a radio message to Washington on May 6, 1947, MacArthur urged the combined US military and State Department group which supervised occupation policy in Japan to give - in writing - immunity to Ishii and all others involved the Japanese military's germ warfare and human experiments program.

"Additional data possibly including some statements from Ishii," said MacArthur, "probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as 'war crimes evidence' ... complete story to include plans and theories of Ishii and superiors, probably can be obtained by documentary immunity to Ishii and associate."

MacArthur advised Washington: "Request for exemption [from prosecution] of Unit 731 members. Information about vivisection useful."

On December 27, 1949 - against the mountain of evidence that American forces had gathered since the surrender of Japan - evidence in the form of reports, documents, photographs and testimonies from victims who lived through the ordeal and confessions of captured Japanese soldiers and physicians - MacArthur's headquarters announced to the world "that the Japanese had done some experimentation with animals but that there was no evidence they ever had used human beings."[1]

At the Tokyo war crimes trial, which the press had dubbed "the Nuremberg Trial of the East," the Americans suppressed evidence concerning the atrocities of Unit 731 and "not one individual was charged in the Japan hearings with biological or chemical warfare crimes." Thus did thousands of Unit 731 doctors enjoy the rest of their lives - some more prosperous than others, some heading Japan's leading universities; others leading Japanese conglomerates.

Crimes against humanity on top of genocidal deeds. Crimes that allowed the US government to use Ishii's secrets against its enemies, such as the "systematic spreading of smallpox, cholera and plague germs over North Korea" which, during the period in which it was unleashed, "shocked and horrified the entire world."[2]

Where else has the American government used Ishii's secrets? And who else has had access? Fifty years is a long time. Did not America invade Iraq to protect the world "from the potential horror of Saddam Hussein's supposed germ warfare capability?"[3] Stuff happens, said Donald Rumsfeld. Will Ishii's weapons ever be used again? Where? By who?

Hard to answer these things. Painful to contemplate. Yesterday may have already brought whatever it is that tomorrow was never meant to bring.

[1] A plague upon humanity: The Secret Genocide of Axis Japan's Germ warfare Operation, Daniel Barenblatt, 2004, HarperCollins.
[2] The quote is from US journalist John W. Powell who covered the Korean War and who was later charged with thirteen counts of sedition by the US government for publishing his reports of the American military's germ warfare us in Korea. In Barenblatt's Plague Upon Humanity.
[3] "Japan's Genocide: Review of Daniel Barenblatt's A Plague Upon Humanity," Richard Garrett, Asian Review of Books, March 3, 2004.

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