Ethics Quote Of The Week: Secretary of State John Kerry

Kerry Hiroshima

“It is a stunning display. It is a gut-wrenching display. It is a reminder of the depth of the obligation every one of us in public life carries … to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons.”

—-Secretary of State John Kerry in Japan, as he toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum this week before meeting foreign ministers at the G-7 Summit.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to call this an unethical quote, though it is an infuriating one. It is certainly a stupid quote, but we all know John Kerry’s verbal and intellectual deficiencies, and he was indeed in a tough spot. What would have been an appropriate statement to make in this setting, that would not risk insulting his hosts and setting off yet another debate about Hiroshima that would be a distraction from the G-7 Summit’s objectives?

While I agree philosophically with the editors of the Federalist that it would have been more satisfying if Kerry had said that the display was “a reminder of the depth of the obligation every one of us in public life carries to stop extremist regimes like Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons” or perhaps that it was “a reminder of the depth of the obligation every one of us in public life carries to ensure that we are well prepared for the next force that threatens peace,” each carried its own diplomatic and political risks. So would “Sorry you made us do this, but we didn’t bomb ourselves at Pearl Harbor,” which is what I would have been tempted to say. I’m no diplomat, however, as you may have noticed.

Kerry just isn’t very bright, and threading this ethics needle was predictably too much for him. To blame Hiroshima on the bomb, as if Japan was just an innocent victim, is idiotic and offensive. Quite accurately, the Federalist notes that

Japan aligned itself with one of the great murderers of the 20th century (though it needed no help initiating genocide) and launched numerous invasions and a war that cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of lives and billions in treasure, both fighting Japan and helping it create a stable, liberal state after the war.It’s not like the Japanese have ever truly apologized for the butchery, mass rape, destruction, and aggression that made Hiroshima a reality. Has any Japanese foreign or prime minister strolled through the gut-wrenching exhibit about the Nanking massacre? The first time any Japanese official apologized for the Bataan Death March was 2009 — and then only an ambassador.

Still, Kerry’s statement was not an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and while Obama’s leadership learning curve is still flat, I cannot believe, as the Federalist editors seem to, that he would deliberately set off a furor among veterans and more by making one of his trademark apologies when the President visits Japan next month for the G-7.  He has shocked me before, however.

So what would have been the most diplomatic, appropriate, innocuous and historically reasonable statement for John Kerry to utter as he viewed “haunting displays [of] photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs,” all the consequences of a U.S. mission deemed essential to end the war without an invasion that might have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers?

The answer is:

Nothing at all.

32 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Secretary of State John Kerry

  1. I think Kerry should have just ended it like this.

    “It is a stunning display. It is a gut-wrenching display. It is a reminder of the depth of the obligation every one of us in public life carries.”


  2. He shouldn’t have been there to begin with. There is just no way of characterizing the Pacific War as anything other than an ugly, brutal war between defenders of democracy and a tyrannical, near-genocidal regime that played on delusions that its head was a god. It can’t be spun any other way and stay true to the historical record or faithful to the US fallen. I have known a few out-there peace folks who characterized Hiroshima and Nagasaki as evil and you’ve probably heard the rest, but anyone who doesn’t paint moral gloss over his eyes knows otherwise.

    The fact is that some conflicts are just too bitter to simply shake hands over and forget. For the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the German Bundeswehr band had no problem marching right alongside their RAF counterparts and vice versa, because fighter combat and so on was considered “gentleman’s” combat and the pilots who survived had no problem having a drink together once the fight was over. The British Navy marched alongside the USMC in Baltimore as they commemorated the bicentennial of the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, presumably because enough time has passed and we’ve since fought side by side half a dozen times. I wonder if the people of Bucksport and Bangor, which were much worse treated, are as forgiving.

    I will say this, this year also marks the centennial of the Easter Rising in Dublin, which sparked the independence of Ireland, and eventually the Troubles, and the Royal Family and high UK officials quite sensibly stayed away. 800 years of UK rule some of it not too nice is not easily forgotten nor forgiven, even though those who did the wrong (Cromwell, notably) and those who did the suffering are mostly dead. Ask the Turks if they are interested in apologizing for what they did in Armenia. If you are outside Turkey you’ll get a shrug and a “genocide? what genocide? I never heard of a genocide except the Nazi thing.” If you are in Turkey you’ll be thrown in jail a la Midnight Express (not sure if they still bastinade prisoners). Then of course there’s the question of early and developing European-Indian (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and the successor nations, nobody gets a pass, nor do the Indians get a pass on torture, human sacrifice, etc.) relations here, which no one ever wants to talk about.

    Sometimes history is just not pleasant to look at or discuss, and there are clear rights and wrongs if you look at it objectively. Unfortunately, history is written and interpreted by people. Facts don’t have agendas, but people do.

    • In my limited view and understanding (politically inexperienced) I have a sense that England and Britannic imperialism is an excellent model for study. To my mind the English are exceptional examples of high-mindedness in so many domains from literature and poetry through philosophy and religion. But the creation of an Empire is by its very nature the use of absolute violence. The exterior violence, which is brutal and hard, allows for an ‘internal’ creativity and creation which is very opposite.

      As things stand today, to make a defence of this imperialism, and the use of violence and the exercize of power to claim and dominate, is equated with Nazi-like actions. And quite accurately so it is in fact. It is a question of degree.

      Now, at least in our minds, we turn against the use of violence and the exertion of power if we cannot equate it with a ‘moral good’. Yet power does not function in this way, not really. There are 2 possible routes, or two possible outcomes, of this issue:

      1) That the use of power is surrendered and all use of power is seen as evil and condemned as such.

      2) That one restructure one’s entire moral view to understand that violence and terror, when directed ‘creatively’ and when in service to a higher idealism, is not only permissible but necessary.

      You have to be able to get to the point of saying, in essence, ‘We have the power and we are going to use it. We intend to create this particular structure and, if you want, you can join together with us in that project. But if you don’t and if you oppose us, you will be destroyed’.

      That is a statement of truth.

      • Alizia, I agree. The first route, condemning and surrendering all power, is a slippery slope to a hellish existence. Taking the second route (which, in actuality, is only stopping short or finding the appropriate position somewhere on the first route) can bring us closer to higher ideals. The trick, of course, is being correct about those higher ideals and when it is permissible and necessary to exercise power to reach those ideals.

  3. What he should have said was:

    “Let this monument and the death and destruction it represents along with the close friendship that Japan and the United States have today stand as a reminder to those who wish to do us harm of the what the legendary Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis said

    “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”

  4. I’ll lodge my vote for “Sorry you made us do this, but we didn’t bomb ourselves at Pearl Harbor.”

    Hiroshima is one of the monumental tragedies of the 20th Century, if not of all time. It’s analogous the the abortion debate.

    I agree with Steve in NJ. Moron Legacy Extraordinaire John should have just stayed away. As he should have stayed away from testifying before Congress about his playing soldier in Vietnam. Who shoots home movies of himself playing soldier in an honest to God, people killing, shooting war? Idiot. Yalie.

  5. My son lives in Japan and we recently spoke of how the Japanese people feel about the bombing. He said the general consensus he gets from friends and co-workers is that they feel Japan was headed down a dangerous path and they did need to be corrected. Although some may feel the bombing was “overkill” they do take responsibility in large part. One of the things he enjoys about Japan is the general lack of nationalism that he was so accustomed to in the US.

    • Nationalism gets a bad rap these days. Let’s all watch today’s Germans merrily see their culture evaporate in the name of enlightened humaneness. “Community” is okay. “Nationalism” is bad. Dumb.

      • In the UK nationalist groups are characterized as far-right whackos, even when they stand up against pro-Sharia, bearded Muzzies.

  6. I don’t think Japan is in danger of losing their culture or heritage or of being put asunder by Sharia law….and according to my son, it’s a pretty darn nice place to live (athough Tokyo is very expensive).

    They would like to spend a few more years traveling the world and living in many places, but think they will settle in Japan to raise children.

      • Why is it white, western people living and working in other countries are “expats” but other ethnicities from other places who do the same are called “immigrants”?

        • Because they’re usually only there for a period of time. A corporate assignment. Or they retire there.

          Go to Japan and experience first hand the soul numbing conformity and the rage bubbling beneath the surface and the xenophobia. They don’t really allow immigration. Ethnic purity, you know.

          • Perhaps Tokyo is a bit different? Although he has traveled all over Japan. He and his wife have lived there for 5 years. He is not there on corporate assignment or for retirement, they are in there 20’s. They first experienced it when he was assigned there in the military. They fell in love with it and when he got out of the service, they decided to stay and he took a civilian job. Both are California kids, born and raised. While he does notice some subtle racism, not as bad as in the US, but definitely there, he finds them generally a gentle, polite, peaceful people.

    • The Japanese aren’t in danger of losing their culture or heritage because their immigration policies would require us to clone 1000 Donald Trumps and fill all 3 branches of government with them to match. Just saying.

  7. The Pacific War had overtones of a really nasty race war. As in “when this war is over, Japanese is a language that will only be spoken in Hell”.

    But it was the peace, and the occupation, that dissolved those overtones.

    While millions of Japanese starved to death post-war, far more millions were saved, and by a nation that owed them nothing but hatred and contempt. They’d earned those.

    You guys did good.

    That, and the Marshall plan, I think were the USA’s finest hour, and will be viewed as such in coming centuries.

    There is just no way of characterizing the Pacific War as anything other than an ugly, brutal war between defenders of democracy and a tyrannical, near-genocidal regime that played on delusions that its head was a god.

    Yup. I’d delete “near-” though.

    • I was in Sydney during the Iraq war. I practiced on a piano at a community center and would grab a bite at a snack bar on the first floor. I chatted with the lady in the snack bar a few times after she asked me what I was playing and she asked me whether I was Canadian. I said, no, I was American. Her face darkened. “Not too wild about Americans because of the Iraq war, huh?” I said. She nodded. I said, “Don’t forget, if it weren’t for the U.S, we’d be having this conversation in Japanese.” She kind of grimaced and that was the end of the conversation.

      • Except the Japan never seriously considered invading Japan. Some in the Navy had proposed it but the Army knew it was impractical and would require moving their troops from Manchuria to do such an invasion. Plus Hideki Tojo was firm in his opposition to it. They didn’t have the manpower, the shipping or supplies to mount such an invasion.

  8. I find some of this difficult to sort through. A general conservative (or ‘conservative’, or neo-con) position, which seems to be expressed in numerous posts here, is that of an understanding of the US as the force that saved the world. So far so good. The interpretation makes sense.

    But with Other Bill’s comment above, I notice the direct moral linkage to the US invasion of Iraq. In Conservative discourse there is a general assumption, and one that you are not allowed to turn against, that what the US does is ipso facto a ‘good’ and if you question it, or if you care to look at it and analyze it with moral lenses, you get the rejoinded: “If it weren’t for America you’d be speaking Japanese” (or German or what-have-you).

    This weird demand that ‘apologies’ have to be given in some solemn circumstance but always by the other side is confusing to me. But what stands behind an ‘apology’ if it isn’t moral work and the capacity to self-criticize? Yet if our outlook is one that does not allow moral analysis, and if all we have done and all we are doing and will do is ‘good’ simply because we do it, there cannot occur moral analysis.

    I find it interesting and hard to sort through that Trump has outrightly stated that the Iraq war was a catastrophic error: “We shold never have been in Iraq. We have destabalized the Middle East” … ‘They lied. They said there were WMD and there were none. And they knew there were none”.

    But one does not EVER and one will NEVER hear an apology for the hundreds and thousands of Iraq dead as a result of what by some tables of analysis was a moral mistake, a moral calamity. It was ill-advised not for the death or destruction but because of the loss of treasure, that it destabilized (perhaps fatally) the US itself, and has led to situations where ‘interests’ are threatened. Who makes the apology and in solemn, ritualized circumstances?

    ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.

    My issue is that it all revolves not around ‘righteousness’ and declarations of moral superiority (though the superior ethical outcomes of post-war American-led liberalism has many notable advantages), but more or less strictly around power. To have a conversation about power in the strict and mathematical sense only happens among statesmen and in policy documents or behind doors (or in books like those of Z. Brzezinski). You cannot question the assumptions of American power and – this is an interesting but non-conversable point – those assumptions are fundamental to the religious structure of Americans: the tenets of American civil religiosity. These are deeply ingrained assumptions that – is this possible? – lead and have led to moral calamities. (Yet to every and to all Conservatives of our present there is no ‘moral calamity’ even as a possibility).

    What I tend to see is that it is not really either a ‘moral’ or an ‘ethical’ issue, and that to be a patriot requires putting both to one side. If I decide to become a ‘patriot’ I must accept the tenets of convention and ‘American assumptionism’.

  9. It does seem many people think as you have described – that America has the power (or won a particular war), so nothing America does can be wrong. I also think you have to really narrow your focus to believe all Americans or all conservatives think in this manner. A broader perception reveals that conservatives (and Americans generally) find plenty of fault with the policies and actions of their (our) country. The inconsistency implies that one or more beliefs is incorrect. IN the end, you can be a patriot without abandoning ethics and morality, but you do have to be smart about it.

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