Not being a scholar of the Talmud, I was a bit puzzled by a half-joking question I received about the propriety of someone descended from the Aaronic priesthood going to the Khun Yuam airfield, where there are (apparently) a lot of graves of Japanese dead from World War II. There are no grave markers shown in the airfield itself (and it is hard to tell, given the very clayey soil, what lies beneath the airfield. Nonetheless, the question is a fair one, for at least a couple of reasons.
I am aware that in Jewish history such a situation happened before. The Herodian family (if I remember correctly it was Herod Antipas who was specifically responsible) built a city on the Sea of Galilee (where I have stayed during my own visits to Israel) and named it Tiberias in honor of that reprobate and moral pygmy who served as the second Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The Herodians were fond of flattering the Romans and they were less than scrupulous in their observance of biblical law. To wit, the city of Tiberias had been built over graves, and as a result Jews were reluctant to live there, in the belief that it would make them ceremonially unclean by virtue of their close contact with graves. Apparently some rabbis or priests were sent to do something that would help the Jews there preserve their ceremonial purity, but I’m not quite sure what exactly that was. The Bible does not explicitly say what needs to be done for a priest or a Levite to avoid ceremonial impurity from being around graves (though priest and Levites in general had a high standard of ceremonial purity that would make many of us ceremonially impure on many days). Again, this is a recognized problem, but I’m not quite sure how it was resolved in Tiberias, and as a consequence how it could be resolved in Khun Yuam. As it stands, the museum is entirely closed while it is under construction, so no evidence exists as to how the Japanese will honor their own dead, though I have a pretty good guess their account of WWII events will be strongly pro-Japanese, perhaps even emphasizing the partnership between Japan and Thailand in World War II while downgrading any sort of oppression on the part of the Japanese (I suspect Americans in particular would find the partnership between Japan and Thailand to be at least unsettling).
There is another reason, which I have discussed briefly before, why this situation is particularly relevant to Khun Yuam. Unlike the Jews, who have a taboo when it comes to dead bodies and graves, the Japanese turn their graves into shrines. Notably, the Shinto religion enjoins a large degree of respect for ancestors and tends to lead to the graves of “honored war dead” becoming memorial shrines to departed ancestor spirits. Such a shrine, a very fancy one, is being constructed currently in Khun Yuam. These shrines can end up being very politically controversial, as what the Japanese may consider the honored war dead of World War II can be seen (without very much difficulty) as war criminals and barbarians by others. When one’s nation or cause is seen as the highest good, it is easy for one man’s hero to be another man’s scoundrel. In the absence of a universally recognized common moral standard applicable to all people at all times, efforts to honor those respected by one group of people cause great offense to those who suffered from the sins of those same people.
Such is the case in Khun Yuam. Tomorrow I would like to poke around in the small museum while others play soccer, so that I can see with my own eyes how the Japanese present their own military history during World War II. I know, as a result from some excellent research a high school friend of mine made, that the Japanese experience in World War II America was less than pleasant, with the internment camps and property confiscation of American-born Japanese Nisei. War does not show the best nature of anyone’s character—we all behave better when we are at peace than when our survival and dignity is at stake, and where we (and I speak of myself and my own people as much as anyone else) tend to seek to win by any means possible. To glorify war is, in some sense, to glorify the moral chaos and horrors that warfare often involves. I have therefore always sought to present a balanced portrayal of war that neither whitewashed criminals nor condemned the innocent to suffer again. There are no martyrs to evil causes, like that of Nazi Germany or the pro-slavery Southern rebellion of the American Civil War. Nonetheless, even those who defend better causes often behave abominably in war. Was it right to drop the atomic bombs on Japan? Was saving millions of American and Japanese lives through doing so morally preferable to invading Japan by land? I believe so, but that doesn’t make me any less horrified by the prospect of civilians being nuked to death to pursue military goals, or any less glad that such actions have never been done again. Do I consider Bomber Harris, who deliberately attacked civilians through firebombing campaigns in Europe, a war criminal? Yes, I do.
So, my thoughts on honoring war dead and the problem of graves (especially the graves of soldiers who I consider fought for an evil and unjust cause of exploiting other peoples) is a matter of some severity. I am not quite sure how to resolve the problem. It is possible (and desirable) to present the honest truth of the unjust cause without unnecessarily demonizing the young men who often become the casualties in such campaigns. I am inclined to view the deceived foot soldiers of evil armies less harshly than those deceivers responsible for the political and military planning who consciously plan death and destruction and injustice. Nonetheless, the tip of the spear is tainted by the evil of those who wield it, even if that evil can be gotten rid of without leading to a permanent taint on the people who have engaged in the past in unjust wars. After all, those whose peoples do not have clean hands (I am an American after all, a patriotic citizen of a particularly militarisitc people) is inclined to be merciful to others in the same boat that I am. No one’s hands are clean in this world. We all are defiled by the graves of our ancestors or of our enemies whom we have unjustly slain. May God have mercy on us all.