Crouched in their caves; well armed though ragged and hungry, and determined to kill an American before dying in combat; al-Qaeda terrorists today or an Imperialist Japanese soldier of 1945? The latter were fanatical, cruel, tenacious and very brave. They also died in droves.
The Japanese soldiers that the Western Allies confronted in WW-II in Asia were indoctrinated in a belief that willpower could compensate for material shortcomings. The Japanese insisted that self-sacrifice implied a moral strength superior to that of Western soldiers. They also believed that the Allies were soft, decadent and unable to face the sternest tests of war.
There was probably no battle in the Pacific War as fierce as that on Okinawa in April to June of 1945. The Japanese hoped to break America’s will to fight by imposing unacceptable casualty rates and tailored their defences accordingly. Suicide tactics, thousands of Kamikaze aircraft, and cunningly designed defences filled with soldiers prepared to fight to the end — these killed over 12,500 American airmen, sailors and troops. Over 100,000 Japanese servicemen died, as did a similar number of hapless Okinawans caught in the fighting.
In the fighting on Okinawa, the Americans used their enormous material superiority, and deluged much of the island in shells and bombs (causing many civilian deaths). Yet riflemen still had to push forward in a search for a hidden enemy, be shot at from ambush, and then claw forward to knock out sniper-nests and pillboxes one by one.
Men prepared to fight to the death normally have to be obliged, which is exactly what the Americans had to do — as did the Australian, African, British, Indian and other Allied troops engaged elsewhere in the Pacific War at that time.
There are a lot of parallels between the Al-Qaeda and the thoroughly militarized Japanese of 1945. Even the attacks of September 11th could be characterized as the use of Kamikaze suicide pilots. The same cruelty, determination and disdain for Western material superiority are there. So is the same miscalculation about Westerners’ determination.
When encouraging the Somali Warlord Muhammed Farrah Aidid to lay a trap for American troops in Mogadishu in October 1993; Osama Bin Laden calculated that the characteristic Western determination to recover their wounded could be used against them to inflict even more casualties.
The tactic worked more or less as planned (and is more or less faithfully depicted in the current movie “Black Hawk Down”). The net effect was that one Malaysian and 18 American soldiers were killed — as were hundreds of Somali gunmen. Politically, the tactic worked because President Clinton pulled US troops out, but the fighting spirit of the troops who endured the savage 18-hour battle was undiminished at the time.
The situation in Afghanistan is different, not least because the resolve of American political leaders shows no signs of diminishing any time soon. It will be a long time before the anger generated by September 11th will abate. On the ground, things are also a little different.
The special forces and elite troops from the nine nations (including Canada) currently involved in the fighting enjoy a technological edge far greater than that which existed between the US and Imperial Japan in 1945. A Coalition soldier has secure communications, high quality sensor equipment and better weapons than an aspiring al-Qaeda martyr. He is also a professional who has received years of carefully crafted training and physical conditioning. While both sides have to endure winter conditions at a high altitude, the Coalition soldier is better supplied with food and equipment to withstand the environment.
In the Okinawa campaign, approximately eight Japanese soldiers and eight Okinawan civilians were killed for every dead American. While hundreds of civilian fatalities have occurred in Afghanistan because of errors by the Coalition; thousands and thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban members have been killed in combat so far — in return for a scant handful of deaths inflicted on American servicemen and their Coalition partners. This imbalance will continue; but it might continue indefinitely.
Japanese resolve showed no clear signs of cracking after the carnage of Okinawa. Their public and much of their military believed that the war was still going their way (despite all evidence to the contrary) right up until the Emperor’s surrender broadcast immediately after the Atomic Bombings. Besides killing them in their thousands, how do we eventually convince Al-Qaeda fanatics that the game is over without having to kill every single one of them?