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Reassessing Japan and the Iraq War

Ross Caputi

Ross Caputi gives his presentation (Rei Shiva)

By Kimberly Hughes

SNA (Tokyo) — When Ross Caputi was sent to fight in the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, with the US Marines in 2004, he believed unquestioningly in the mission that he was told his unit was fighting for: liberation and justice for the Iraqi people.

Now, ten years later, Caputi has become a tireless champion for restoring sovereignty to the nation he says his country is responsible for destroying.

Caputi has dedicated his life to uncovering the true story of what actually transpired during the war from the perspective of Fallujans and other Iraqis themselves—while also educating himself on how the entire history of the US military is similarly one of brutalization, vested interests, and solidification of imperial power rather than benevolence.

In a voice that is both solid and principled, Caputi has continued to share his message globally via speaking engagements; articles in various newspapers and journals; an advocacy group and online resource clearinghouse for which he is the founding director, called the “Justice for Falluja Project”; and a documentary film titled Fear Not the Path to Truth, which explores his personal journey along with appearances by speakers such as Noam Chomsky.

Last month Caputi embarked on a week-long, six-city speaking tour in Japan that was aimed at collaborating with seasoned peace activists, as well as bringing his message to the Japanese public. Among his audience were numerous university students and other youth, who are increasingly being subjected to recruitment messages from the Japan Self Defense Forces (SDF)—a quasi-military organization which may be headed down the road toward eventual full militarized battle, if the presumed preferences of the Shinzo Abe administration take hold.

Speaking to some 350 people around the country during the speaking sessions—each of which was followed by lively Q&A sessions—Caputi’s final event, held in Tokyo on November 26, was a symposium that also featured additional speakers. including Iraqi aid worker (and former hostage) Nahoko Takato as well as Kyoji Yanagisawa, who was a senior Defense Ministry official at the time of the war in Iraq.

Takato began the symposium with opening remarks, noting that the bloodshed presently taking place in Iraq at the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters could have been avoided by an international outcry against the damage inflicted upon the country by the US-supported Maliki administration, which has been responsible for bombing that has resulted in several hundreds of thousands of internal refugees.

“We don’t hear about this in the international news, although it is an extremely serious problem,” Takato pointed out. “Sunnis have been imprisoned and killed by horrific torture inflicted by the Iraq government, and their bodies thrown out into the street—and it is still continuing.”

Caputi next shared his story of having participated in the second siege of Fallujah, which he explained included subsequently facing up to what he called “moral injury”; that is, guilt, shame, and self-loathing among soldiers resulting from having participated in a war that caused killing, displacement, and destruction among people who were doing nothing other than aiming to defend their land and lives—something that Americans would surely have done similarly had the tables been turned.

“On top of having their city destroyed and having to live under US martial law for years after the operation, Fallujans have experienced extreme increases in the rates of birth defects and cancers as a result of the pollution from the weapons we used in their city,” Caputi told the audience.

He added, “We were treated as heroes when we returned to the United States, which was very confusing for the men in my unit, because on one hand they believed everything that was being told about how heroic we had been, but I could also see that there was something very sad and broken in everyone.”

Caputi explained that moral injury is a new concept, although it certainly must have always been around, but that veteran hospitals in the United States refuse to admit that such a problem even exists, since it would require admitting that an unjust war had been waged.

Caputi went on to say in conclusion that if Japan continued to ally itself with the United States through collective self-defense, it would make Japanese citizens complicit in the “aggressive, immoral foreign policy” of the United States. He also said he feared that SDF members could consequently face the same problems as those currently plaguing US veterans, such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury—along with similar social repercussions in Japan as those that are now reverberating throughout the United States.

Yanagisawa, who spoke next, appeared to be deeply affected by Caputi’s words.

“Looking back over my forty-year career as a government official, I honestly never thought I would be invited to come listen to this kind of speech,” Yanagisawa said in heartfelt and somewhat emotional tones.

“During the Iraq War, I was very afraid that there would be deaths among the SDF members in our humanitarian mission. And as I told Prime Minister Koizumi at the time, one of the reasons why we came away with zero fatalities is because we did not pick up weapons and fight,” he explained.

He added, however, “I recently learned that 28 among the 10,000 SDF members sent to Iraq have subsequently committed suicide. This figure is far above the national average, so it is clear that the suicides must have been linked to PTSD from their experiences in Iraq.”

Yanagisawa went on to note that many people in Japan tend to focus upon the country’s victimization in World War II—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example—but that as the Japanese government now prepares to fight in wars alongside the United States, it is necessary to come to terms with the country’s history of aggression. “This history as an aggressor constitutes our own moral injury,” he said.

“Some people would say that Japan is cowardly for not having fought wars for the past seventy years, but in fact, I believe this is something we should be proud of,” he added. “Unfortunately, however, in Prime Minister Abe’s insistence to push for the right to exercise collective self-defense, he is not thinking at all about the negative repercussions that would result for the SDF members and for society as a whole.”

“The exclusive priority of Japanese defense policy seems to be that of protecting the US-Japan alliance,” Yanagisawa continued. “While conducting an inquiry into the war in Iraq, I discovered that the Japanese government never once opposed US military action. France—precisely because it was a US ally—clearly told the US that what it was doing was wrong. Japan, by contrast, has acted as an ally by simply going along with whatever the US proposes.”

“If we don’t change this situation, I am afraid that Japan’s future is going to become very problematic,” he added. “We need to seriously consider how Japan can engage in its own unique way of interfacing with the rest of the world from now on.”

“I will continue doing everything I can to speak out against this situation,” he said in closing.

The symposium’s final speaker was Hiroshi Taniyama, President of the Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC), who similarly joked that he never thought he would be speaking on a panel alongside a former defense official and an American soldier.

“Once a policy of aggression becomes instigated, things escalate very rapidly,” noted Taniyama, who was formerly based in Afghanistan. “There is a tendency to believe that militarism is the only answer to solving conflicts, and this perspective is exacerbated by the media, which usually does not begin reporting on problems until things have gotten completely out of control. However, there are numerous additional means for problem-solving that may in fact be employed prior to such a point being reached.”

“Japan therefore has an important role to play in helping to achieve conflict through peaceful means,” he concluded.

This point was echoed by freelance journalist Rei Shiva, who gave the symposium’s closing remarks. The director of a citizen-led movement titled the Iraq War Inquiry Network, which has continued to urge Japan to reflect upon its role in the Iraq War, Shiva circled back to Takato’s earlier point that the emergence of ISIS in West Asia was not a sudden development, but had rather expanded slowly as a result of the war in Iraq.

“And yet, here we are now, facing a situation whereby violence is again being put forth as the only method with which to counter violence,” Shiva said. “It’s sad.”

This view has also been discussed by Caputi who has noted, “[ISIS] is not an isolated phenomenon. Their campaign of terror is happening in parallel with a very legitimate uprising against an oppressive government. But to understand how these two movements can be happening simultaneously, one needs to understand the illegality of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the brutal nature of the occupation, and the crimes committed against the Sunni population since the third siege of Fallujah began.”

“Iraqis are in a very desperate situation and they need international solidarity on many levels,” Caputi has also said. “As members of the international community, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with Iraqis.”

The Islah Reparations Project, for which Caputi sits on the board of directors, is an organization that sends medicine and other supplies to internally displaced people in Iraq, and encourages people of conscience to become involved by making financial contributions and raising awareness.

“We are not powerless, and we do not have to sit back and watch this bloodbath in Iraq,” Caputi adds. “If we work together we can take real action to make a difference in Iraqis’ lives.”

Kimberly Hughes is a journalist, translator and community organizer based in Tokyo.