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Sorry, Paul Begala -- You’re Still Wrong


Over at Huffington Post, Paul Begala has responded to my post from a few days ago questioning his claim the the U.S. executed Japanese war criminals for waterboarding — “Yes, National Review, We Did Execute Japanese for Waterboarding.

Given that a number of the responses I’ve received have been less than fair, Begala’s response is a model of civilized debate and I appreciate that he mounted a factual response.

Alas, he’s still wrong.

But first, a necessary clarification. I had assumed that Begala had sourced his claim that the U.S. executed Japanese war criminals to Ted Kennedy, since that was the only popular mention I could find of someone citing a Japanese war criminal by name being punished for the specific crime of waterboarding. Begala says that his claim stems from this statement from John McCain:

Following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.

What McCain is saying is accurate. However, McCain’s third sentence here doesn’t necessarily follow the second. Japanese war criminals were convicted for crimes against U.S. POWs — including waterboarding. But, unlike Begala, McCain doesn’t go so far as to say they were executed for waterboarding. Here’s what Begala actually said:

Our country executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs. We executed them for the same for the same crime we are now committing ourselves.

At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, a.k.a. Tokyo Trials, that Begala says McCain is referring to, only seven Japanese war criminals were executed. Every one of them was convicted of either being complicit in or directly comitting atrocities and murder on a grand scale.

Koki Hirota:

During Hirota’s second tenure as foreign minister, late in 1937, Japanese forces marched into Nanking. Thousands of innocent civilians were buried alive, used as targets for bayonet practice, shot in large groups and thrown into the Yangtze River. Rampant rapes (and gang rapes) of women ranging from age seven to over seventy were reported. The international community estimated that within the six weeks of the Massacre, 20,000 women were raped, many of them subsequently murdered or mutilated; and over 300,000 people were killed, often with the most inhumane brutality.

While Hirota was not in charge of the army units that invaded Nanjing, he was well informed about the massacre. The international community had filed many protests to the Japanese Embassy. Bates, an American professor of history at the University of Nanking during the Japanese occupation, provided evidence that the protests were forwarded to Tokyo and were discussed in great detail between Japanese officials and the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo.

Seishiro Itagaki:

Itagaki was moreover responsible for the supply of food and medical care to prisoners of war and civilian internees, in particular on various Indonesian islands during the last months of the war. It has been established that, over that period, thousands of people died due to lack of food or adequate care, while the camp guards suffered no undue hardship.

Kenji Dohihara:

Kenji Dohihara voted in favour of the attack on Pearl Harbour … He commanded the Army of the 7th Region, which includes parts of Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo in Indonesia. In this capacity, he was responsible for supplying food and medicines to not only the Japanese troops, but also to prisoners of war.

Heitaro Kimura:

It is alleged that in carrying out his functions, Kimura allegedly violated the laws and customs of war in approving the use of prisoners of war for hazardous work, from which they are usually prohibited. They were forced to work in very dangerous conditions and several thousands died. Heitaro Kimura allegedly gave the order and approved the use of prisoners of war for the construction of the railway between Burma and the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). In addition, he did not take the necessary disciplinary measures to prevent or to punish the commission of atrocities by his troops.

Iwane Matsui:

His troops took Nanking on 13 December 1937. The Chinese army had evacuated the city just before it was taken. The ensuing occupation was therefore that of a defenceless city. The Japanese troops nevertheless carried out unspeakable atrocities: massacre, rape, pillaging and destruction were routinely committed. During a six to seven week period, more than 100’000 civilians were killed and thousands of women raped. Against this backdrop, Matsui marched triumphantly into Nanking on 17 December 1937 and remained there for several days.

Akira Muto:

Moreover, as an officer serving under General Matsui between November 1937 and July 1938, he was charged with war crimes for his participation in the atrocities committed at Nanking.

The seventh Japanese war criminal to be hanged was Hideki Tojo, and I presume his reputation precedes him. But it seems pretty clear we executed these men for charges that far surpass concerns about waterboarding.

Now it does appear that various forms of torture were a consideration in some of these cases that resulted in death sentences at the Tokyo Trials. Media Matters marshals some evidence to that effect, but again waterboarding was presented as just one of several types of torture, many of which appear to be more severe. (Media Matters also appears to cavalierly lump all forms of Japanese water torture together and, say, forced ingestion of water — an execution method centuries ago — is obviously very different from waterboarding.) This is why McCain appears to be accurate when he says waterboarding is “among the charges” and Begala is wrong to suggest it’s the reason why the death sentences were handed down. There are examples of war criminals convicted of waterboarding, even alongside convictions for a number of harsh forms of torture, who were not put to death.

In no way, shape or form could waterboarding be said to have been the predominate reason any one of these people were hanged. Begala suggesting people at the Tokyo Trials were hanged for waterboarding is akin to noting that Charles Manson is guilty of trespassing on Roman Polanski’s home and then insisting that’s the reason he got a death sentence. (Not that I’m suggesting trespassing and waterboarding are equivalent crimes; I’m just making a logical point.)

Ultimately, even evidence Begala cites to defend himself doesn’t validate his charge. It does validate McCain’s statement, which Begala doesn’t seem to recognize as materially different the one he made. Then again, while the PolitiFact article Begala references doesn’t prove his claim — it’s otherwise clear as mud on the distinctions and specific crimes involved.

Again, to be clear: I am not trying to suggest that waterboarding isn’t torture. Those opposed to waterboarding should be content to argue the indisputable fact that it was considered a crime as practiced by the Japanese. But Begala’s insistence that Japanese war criminals were executed for waterboarding just does not appear to be true.

Now shifting gears a bit, let me add one final bit about waterboarding. In my discussion of waterboarding from a few days ago, I wrote:

In waterboarding as it is practiced by the U.S., cellophane or cloth is placed over the subject’s mouth to keep water out of nose and mouth. Asano was pouring water directly into the mouths and noses of subjects which is considerably more harsh and dangerous.

A reader notes that a cloth barrier, doesn’t necessarily prevent water from going into the mouth and nose as described in the Stephen J. Bradbury memo:

Either in the normal application, or where countermeasures are used, we understand that water may enter — and may accumulate in — the detainee’s mouth and nasal cavity, preventing him from breathing. In addition, you have indicated that the detainee as a countermeasure may swallow water, possibly in significant quantities.

Obviously, a cellophane barrier would keep water out altogether and I think a cloth barrier is probably still better than none. But the reader makes a fair point about a cloth not necessarily keeping water out of the nose and mouth, and is certainly a distinction worth noting if you’re trying to decide how severe the practice is.