Bombing and Borders: Orientalism and American Empire from the Pacific War to ISIS
An Interview with David Williams

American hegemony over the past 70 years has been both lauded for its stabilizing influence in patrolling the global commons and deterring large scale wars, and also criticized for its overbearing influence, over-reach, and lack of understanding of the foreign civilizations within which it so often interjects itself. We asked David Williams his views on the limits of American power, justice, and influence in a world where fundamental ideological divides are increasingly manifesting itself in the political sphere.


Liberty: Do you think there’s justice on the American side which regards ISIS as evil?

DW: I am an Orientalist (Tōyōgakusha). I therefore belong to a European academic tradition more than eight hundred years old. The goal of this tradition is to help Westerners understand the entire geographic and cultural zone that stretches from Morocco to Japan. Composed of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and India, Southeast Asia and China, Japan and Korea, the Orient is home to a majority of mankind. The Orient is richer than ever today. And more important.

Given the global Pax Americana that was inaugurated with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is vital for US policymakers and Western area experts to grasp the realities of life in the Orient as it is (sono tori). The first rule of Orientalism as a rigorous science (genmitsu kagaku toshite) is to hesitate before making moral judgments by refusing to take sides too early in conflicts between East and West. So a Westerner must never begin the demanding task of understanding an Oriental society objectively with the words ‘justice’ or ‘evil’.

Why? Because when the makers of foreign and military policy, Western or Eastern, fail to understand ‘the enemy’, military confrontation may result. In confrontations with the Orient, Washington’s first and last impulse has too often been to crush its Asian or Middle Eastern opponent before the Oriental realities at issue have been properly understood. Certainly this was the case with the Pacific War. Recall the long list of Oriental victims of American bombing since 1944: the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Laotians, the Cambodians, the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Pakistanis and others.

For better or worse, such bombing campaigns are designed to punish opponents of America’s world order to make them conform to liberal values. When Tokyo was bombed in March 1945, the US Air Force targeted 10 square miles of the city’s most densely populated districts with 1,665 tons of napalm and other incendiaries. The resulting flames may have reached the height of The Empire State Building. Some 100,000 people may have died that night. In the next four months, a similar fate was inflicted on 60 more Japanese cities. Then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Pacific War Revisionism was born in the ashes of this Japanese Holocaust).

During the Vietnamese War of Independence, the United States may have dropped more incendiaries and other conventional bombs on North Vietnam than it did during the whole of the Second World War. During the same conflict, postwar surveys of bomb damage suggest that no village in eastern Cambodia escaped air attack. The earth-shaking vibrations caused by conventional B-52 bombing were unimaginable. Adults soiled themselves in terror; Cambodian and Laotian child risked the stings and bites of ant hills to hide because these were the only structures that could withstand the force of the bombs. Where is ‘justice’ in this?

One larger conclusion may be drawn. Whatever their cultural, historical or religious differences, all these Oriental nations have been targets of American bombing campaigns. The paradoxical result is that successive triumphs of US military technology, from the B-29 to today’s deadly drones, have affirmed the essential unity of the Orient as the collective victim of American punishment.

As a historian of America’s successive wars against Confucian Asia, from Pearl Harbor to the fall of Saigon, I fear that air power has been used too often because of Washington’s failure to understand the ‘moral grammar’ of Oriental life. It is my conviction that the worst possible way to begin trying to make sense of a very different culture or religion is to assume from the outset that the other culture is essentially evil.


Liberty: Do you think bombing and eliminating ISIS will lead to a solution of the fundamental problems of this area?

DW: Crushing ISIS will not solve the fundamental problems of the Middle East unless we grasp the double attractions of the idea of a Caliphate or the Nation of Islam. First, the Nation of Islam appeals to traditional Islamic doubts about the legitimacy of a secular state (this feeling influenced even Nasser’s Pan-Arabism). Second, the instable region that ISIS is fighting to control has never been stable or peaceful in recent centuries without an empire or other form of firm transnational governance: the Ottoman Empire or direct Anglo-French rule. America refuses to provide this; Israel cannot.

Maybe the basic limitation of American Empire is that it is too American and not much of an empire because it rejects the responsibilities of empire. By contrast, the concept of the modern nation-state with fixed inviolable borders is a recent Western invention and an American obsession. Before President Wilson inserted the Monroe Doctrine into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, borders shifted easily and frequently almost everywhere. The American critique of interwar Japan’s intrusion into Chinese affairs in the name of the Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere ignored the fundamental truth that regional political order is either created or imposed. In Iraq, the United States has achieved neither and the result is ISIS.


Other people’s Other: why no one should shoot Voltaire

Recently I travelled to Morocco, my favourite place to visit to North Africa. On my return to Europe, I stayed a few days in Paris. By chance, I arrived in the French capital in time to attend the great ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march. I thus participated in the largest ever demonstration of public opinion on the streets of France.

On that freezing winter’s day, the crowds assembled in the Place de la Republique, and then marched to the Place de la Nation. Many of them walked down the Boulevard Voltaire. And this was symbolically powerfully, because Voltaire, the great 18th century thinker, believed that the hold of religion on French life was so great and so retrograde that it could be broken by only relentless ridiculing criticism.

Voltaire provided the inspiration for Charlie Hebdo. This tradition of verbal assault insists that religion is an idea and therefore it is vulnerable to rational argument. Not bombing. Voltaire insisted that the religious believer is a human being. All human beings are susceptible to reason. Regardless of our differences of belief, we all share in a common humanity.

This idea of the spirit of humanity (un espirit humain) has inspired the best in French Orientalism. When I crossed the Seine from the Left Bank to the Right Bank to join the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march, I passed in front of the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World).This huge institute dominates the banks of the Seine where it stands. It is a French monument to the conviction that we must learn to live with ‘The Other’ (tasha).

It is precisely because another people, culture or religion may differ in fundamental ways from ourselves that they deserve our complete philosophic and scientific attention, and vice-versa. Rather than bomb them. Or murder them in the office of a French magazine. Or behead them in the desert.

Bombing and Borders: Orientalism and American Empire from the Pacific War to ISIS
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