Lt Col Sargis Sangari USArmy (Ret), guest writer
On 23 February 2015 while I was giving a talk at the Anti-Terrorism conference in Tokyo Japan ISIL forces were attacking the 37 Assyrian villages of the Khabour River Valley in Syria. Since that attack the Christian Assyrians have been virtually annihilated from Syria and will probably lose their footprint within those historical villages over the next two years.
The following day, I participated in a conference and a talk given by Mr. Michael Yon who spoke about the Comfort Women, which in itself is an information operation campaign, which China has used to influence world opinion about Japan.
The Chinese information operation campaign has been so strong that during Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the United States the first question that was asked of the Japanese PM was on the comfort women topic. An unbelievable question given that the last time an official Japanese delegation had visited the White House was 74 years ago when the Japanese delegation was summoned to the White House the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
The Middle East is no stranger to conflict–particularly conflicts based on historical issues. Memory is directly tied to current alliances, and the inflaming of passions from a real or perceived incident sometimes centuries before, is used as a propaganda tool to suspend common sense and keep the embers of resentment burning.
But historical memory does serve a very useful function in understanding how a people thinks and acts the way it does. How well will they work with their neighbors, how able are they to adjust to the geopolitical and social realities of today? In the Middle East the Assyrians have arguably one of the longest memory tapestries in the world. And one that was able to adapt to the geopolitics without letting the flames of passion over rule the reasoned meter of logical understanding of events. The issue of what was best for the community was the prime factor enabling the community to survive for millennia.
Other groups that hold historical memory over reasoned social responsibility are similar to ISIS/ISIL, or more accurately Da’esh. They employ historical injustice to shield their inability to adapt to modernity and to justify their barbaric desire to destroy. If the Israelis and Islamic community put passions aside, they would see that there is more in common than they realize. The Christian, Islamic and Jewish communities have in the past worked together, yet currently, you often see “the INEVITABLE HISTORY” of violence between the groups. To survive we must look at history, but never let it cloud today´s realities.
So too does this historical inevitability unfold in Asia, where Da’esh like groups in North and South Korea, China, and recently even America, are fixated on the “blood libel” like the tale of the Comfort Women. This issue is clouding (and perhaps that is the point) the geopolitical reality of today with respect to both South Korea and China and possibilities that the latter should transition to a more responsible and less expansionistic foreign policy in Asia. Even Wendy Sherman of the US State Department, after years of that institution trying to get South Korean officials to even shake hands and talk with their counterparts in Japan, said in frustration that she was exasperated with nations that inflame historical passions for cheap applause at home. Three days later the US Ambassador was stabbed by a South Korean Da’esh like figure who was prominent in the Comfort Women extremist organizations in that nation.
So what can Japan learn from the Middle East, and what more importantly, can the US understand about what is beginning in Asia? Simply put it is the fact that both South and North Korea and China are committed to the creation a tapestry of memories similar to those woven in the Middle East, to inflame passions and spark fights between peoples despite the geopolitical reality of today. Regardless of whether the alleged events happened or not (although most non activist researchers and historians actually demonstrate the Comfort Women were contracted sex workers and not kidnapped), what does matter is what actually impacts the lives of the millions of peoples in their nations now and in the near future. If Japan removes Article 9 from its´ constitution and finally joins the ranks of responsible liberal democracies that shoulder the burdens of regional security and stability does that mean she will unleash her armies in kidnapping and rape across Asia? Of course not! No more than the American Army will slaughter Indians nor make blacks slaves again. A case in point was that similar stories floated in the Middle East before Desert Shield/Storm about how the Crusaders were returning to set up a Christian Empire in the region again. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth.
Current geopolitics and not real or perceived past actions are what really matters (or what should matter) to leaders. And this is what separates, at present, the level of a leader like Prime Minister Abe from President Park, for example. PM Abe has moved forward with authentic political vision. His latest meetings in Washington DC demonstrate his commitment to the incorporation of Japan within the family of nations in the 21st century as a country that contributes rather than merely profits from its geopolitical relationships.
Like the song from the movie Frozen that children today are wont to sing urges: “Let it Go!” he knows the “past is in the past” and that it´s high time to focus on understanding the issues of the day, while maintaining a vision of the future. This seems the direction Japan will take with Prime Minister Abe at the lead.
Yet North and South Korea and China seem unwilling or incapable of taking actions that even a young child accepts as necessary for the sake of progress in his relationships with other people now and in the future. Stuck in the Da’esh mindset of nurturing real or perceived historical injustices to legitimize today´s irresponsible behavior, their vision for Asia´s future seems positively Middle-eastern.
This is the perspective Americans need to consider when contemplating their Asian foreign policy. If they wish Asia to resemble many parts of the Middle East today, then South Korea´s and China´s vision is the one they should support, and the Comfort Women memory they promote should be the one Americans preach from the political and “journalistic” pulpit. Should this not be the vision to encourage the maintenance of an economically prosperous and responsible region characterized by mutually supporting security agreements and development then one ought to learn from the Assyrian experience and “Let it go” and move forward.
The debunked narratives of the past belong in the ash heap. If one insists on retaining these historical narratives of alleged injustice, the best one can hope for is that it´s proponents learn to at least separate the urban legends from the facts of the story through research rather than falling for acceptance of the politically appealing talking points so cherished by political leaders and “journalists” who have fully embraced the Chinese Information Operation slogans and dis-information campaigns in Asia. In like manner, there exist some leaders and “journalists” who have bought into the notion that supporting and allying with the Christian Assyrians in the Mid-East will be regarded as an attack against Islam’s sensibilities if they should exist.