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What's Japan to Think of Our Wayward, Wanton Military?

February 19, 2001|CHALMERS JOHNSON | Chalmers Johnson's latest book is "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" (Holt "Owl" paperbacks, 2001)

Many view the tragic U.S. submarine sinking of a Japanese fisheries training vessel on Feb. 9 as an unfortunate accident, the inevitable accompaniment of our armed forces' global reach. But this and other recent cases suggest the U.S. military has passed beyond, at least in some senses of the term, "civilian" control.

In 1998, the goofing-off crew of a Marine EA-6B Prowler cut a ski-lift cable in northern Italy, plunging 20 civilian vacationers to their deaths. The United States acknowledged responsibility--according to U.S. rules the pilots should have maintained an altitude of at least 1,000 feet (2,000 feet according to the Italians); they cut the cable at 360 feet. The Marines were not court-martialed in Italy but at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where they were all exonerated and the incident was declared a "training accident." A few months later, in May 1999, an American B-2 bomber from an Air Force base in Missouri bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's air war against Yugoslavia, killing several Chinese officials and causing a major diplomatic incident.

Never before, even in the bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, had the United States attacked another country's embassy. The secretary of Defense offered the lame excuse that the pilots had used an "outdated map." And now comes the submarine incident.

The submarine Greeneville was not on patrol or a training mission but was giving a ride to 16 fat-cat civilians who might contribute to Navy causes. The incident did not occur a long distance out at sea but nine miles south of Waikiki Beach. Regardless of whether civilians were actually manning the controls, there is no question that they were a distraction in the control room. It is virtually unimaginable how the sub's officers, had they been pursuing normal procedures, could have failed to detect the presence of the 190-foot, fully ocean-going Japanese vessel.

Most Americans find the idea that their armed forces are out of control unthinkable. But try looking at it from the Japanese point of view. A recent series of events in Okinawa received scant coverage in the American press but has been front-page news in Japan for weeks and the subject of hard questions to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in parliament.

Ever since 1995, when two U.S. Marines and a sailor gang-raped a 12-year-old Okinawan elementary school girl, Okinawa has seethed with hostility over the presence of the 3rd Marine Division on its tiny island. Since then, there have been repeated hit-and-run killings by drunken servicemen; bar fights; environmental pollution; and serious cases of sexual violence, including on the eve of last July's economic summit in Okinawa when a Marine broke into a home and crawled into bed with a 14-year-old girl. This latter case led to a curfew on off-base late-night drinking that was only lifted last month.

And then, on Jan. 9, a Marine from Camp Hansen in Kin, the site of the 1995 rape, lifted the skirt of a 16-year-old girl and photographed her underwear with his digital camera. This incident led to the first unanimous vote in the prefectural assembly calling for a reduction of the number of U.S. Marines on Okinawa. The vote was significant because the governor and a majority of the assembly members are conservatives.

Ever since the previous anti-base governor, Masahide Ota, proved to be a thorn in its side, Tokyo has made national subsidies for Okinawa dependent on toleration of the Americans. Nonetheless, Okinawa's officials still like to think that they govern their own province. They were understandably outraged when the commanding U.S. general in Okinawa, Marine Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, sent an e-mail, subsequently leaked, to his subordinate officers calling the Japanese officials a "bunch of wimps" and "nuts."

The Japanese are also outraged that the officer who arranged for the civilians to joy ride on the Greeneville was none other than retired Adm. Richard C. Macke. At the time of the 1995 rape, Macke was commander in chief in the Pacific and commented to the press that the rapists might better have paid for a prostitute instead of renting a car in order to abduct their victim. Although Macke was allowed to retire comfortably into a civilian job in Hawaii, he conveyed to many Japanese and Okinawans that the problem was not just some exceptionally brutal and stupid enlisted men but that indifference to the interests of civilians went all the way to the top.

There is no doubt that we had a problem with the military during Bill Clinton's presidency. The top brass did not trust him and took advantage of his perceived political vulnerability in dealing with the Pentagon. The question now is whether the team of former secretaries of Defense and retired generals that President Bush has assembled can get the services back into line. The Greeneville will be an important test case.

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