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Cornell Prof. Selden Discusses War Atrocities

Covering death and destruction from Nanjing to Abu Ghraib, Mark Selden, a senior fellow in Cornell University’s East Asia program, gave a presentation on war atrocities in Social Sciences Plaza B Room 5250 on Tuesday, March 25. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Asian Studies and the Department of Sociology.
Selden, who has written numerous books on Asian culture including “China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited” and “The Political Economy of Chinese Development,” spent the majority of his lecture discussing the Massacre of Nanjing. Selden then referenced the brutal suffering in Nanjing with other atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries in both a historical and thematic context.
“We’re living in a world of atrocities. … What I want to do today is to think about a couple of these and about what they reveal to us about the nature of modern warfare,” Selden said.
Selden traced the ways that atrocities have been allowed to occur in modern warfare, as partially rooted in World War II. According to Selden, though history books may paint a different picture, the Axis powers were not the only ones guilty of killing innocent civilians.
“I want to compose a comparative framework for understanding war atrocities and the ways in which they are remembered, forgotten and memorialized. … Japanese denial and refusal to provide compensation to victims has long been the subject of sharp domestic and international contention … while there has been relatively little analysis or even recognition of United States atrocities,” Selden said.
Selden noted that prior to World War II, the United States consistently targeted military forces in order to best deprive their enemies of their offense. Additionally, this strategy allowed American forces to take the moral high ground as they did not seek to kill innocent men, women and children.
However, United States military strategy changed over the course of World War II when general populations were targeted in which soldiers were not separated from civilians. Among the examples Selden used were the bombings of Casa Blanca, Dresden and Tokyo.
While at one point in the presentation Selden commented that air-bombing atrocities may occur because of how depersonalized these attacks are, this is not the sole cause of such excessive violence. In regards to the Japanese attack on Nanjing, Selden referenced the poor planning the assault had, which fueled the aggression of Japanese soldiers.
“There were no provisions for troops provided. The way the troops had to feed themselves was by seizing food from villages along the way, creating a situation that was guaranteed to produce slaughter of civilian inhabitants. … We’re looking at a massacre that’s rooted in a structural problem, no food for the troops, no supplies,” Selden said.
A similar war atrocity that occurred due to troop discontentment was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib by United States soldiers. While Selden only made brief references to Abu Ghraib throughout the course of the event, he spent a significant amount of time discussing the current situation in Iraq.
“The planned permanent occupancy of Iraq in military bases and … unchallenged military in the air … is a strategy that has almost endless capacity for exacting a civilian toll, but a strategy that has a very difficult time in securing victory,” Selden said.
Karl Kruse, a second-year graduate student in political science, noted that he found the lecture intriguing, but thought that Selden’s points could have been clearer.
“Overall it was an interesting lecture; however, his links between United States atrocities and atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II were tenuous. He needs to somehow make more clear that any civilian deaths in wartime are atrocities or war crimes regardless of the nature of the attacks in which those casualties were sustained,” Kruse said.
Following his lecture, Selden answered questions from the audience. Questions ranged from the influence of poverty on war atrocities to American hypocrisy concerning unjust warfare strategies.
A lengthy response from Selden focused on a question asked about the American military’s ability to accept casualities in order to prevent war atrocities.
“As we look at the record it’s now harder and harder to make the case for this is how you win. … We were prepared to accept casualties in World War II, I think that’s the last time,” Selden said.
The next event held by the Center for Asian Studies will include an exhibition and discussion of traditional Korean culture and take place in Humanities Instructional Building 135 on Wednesday, April 9.