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Soldier Slaves: Abandoned by the White House, Courts, and Congress.

Soldier Slaves: Abandoned by the White House, Courts, and Congress

James W. Parkinson Lee Benson Naval Institute Press www.usni.org 249 pp., $28.95

When I was growing up, one ritual in our small midwestern town was a Memorial Day parade, which ended at the cemetery. The schoolchildren placed flowers and small American flags on the graves of soldiers who had lost their lives in battle. I didn't know it then, but some veterans' sacrifices had gone unrecognized by our country, hidden behind this pageantry. Soldier Slaves tells the story of one such group.

War brings out the best and worst of human nature. Courage, heroism, and sacrifice are pitted against cruelty, hatred, and killing. Issues remain long after the shooting stops. The constant shuffle of military alliances throughout history is dizzying. Less than five years after the end of World War II, Germany and Japan, our former enemies, had become vital allies in the struggle to contain communism. This foreign policy U-turn is the backdrop of Soldier Slaves.

While means exist to address violations of the accepted rules of combat under the Geneva Conventions, a similar protocol is not readily available for other wartime wrongs. Legal issues in this "other" category from World War II have taken decades to come to light, including Japanese-Americans' confinement in the western United States, Swiss banks' confiscation of the assets of Holocaust victims, and insurance companies' failure to pay life insurance benefits to Holocaust victims' families.

Soldier Slaves raises yet another lingering injustice, suffered by the survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March of April 1942, where 10,000 to 12,000 American prisoners of war--who had surrendered after the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines--were forced to march from the place of surrender to a military camp 60 miles away. Thousands died along the way. Those who survived were shipped to Japan in the hulls of freighters known as "hell ships" and forced into slave labor for large Japanese companies for three and a half years, until the war ended.

While there was no question that Japan's conduct violated international law, the 1951 peace treaty between the United States and Japan cut off the claims of all U.S. nationals against that country and its nationals. In the upside-down postwar world, the focus of U.S. diplomacy quickly shifted to rebuilding Japan. The treaty called for a global settlement of all war-related claims. Compensation for the soldiers taken prisoner at Bataan and forced to work as slave laborers was limited to $1 per day for missed meals and $1.50 per day for lost wages--hardly enough to reflect the gravity of their suffering or Japan's wrongful conduct.

Soldier Slaves presents the story of a small group of Bataan Death March survivors who belatedly tried to get official recognition of their suffering. Represented by a dedicated group of attorneys, these veterans mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge to the sweeping language of the treaty. Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker concluded in his San Francisco courtroom in 2000 that the treaty language was unambiguous, cutting off any potential claims against the Japanese. An appeal of Walker's decision to the Ninth Circuit was unsuccessful, and the U.S. Supreme Court saw no compelling constitutional reason to hear the case.

After failing in the judicial branch, the veterans and their lawyers turned to Congress for relief. Obtaining the sponsorship of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), they were able to include a Justice for Veterans amendment in the Department of Defense appropriations bill in September 2003, but the bill failed to pass. These soldiers' suffering, swept under the rug in 1951, stubbornly remained there.

Soldier Slaves was cowritten by one of the lead counsel in the case, James Parkinson, and veteran journalist Lee Benson of Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News. Its chapters alternate between current attempts to get justice for these veterans and the history of the wartime suffering they endured. One consequence of cutting back and forth between the present and the past is that the book never builds much emotional momentum, despite the dramatic subject matter. While presented in a lean, user-friendly narrative, the journalistic writing style is somewhat detached and filtered, keeping the reader at arm's length.

While the prisoners of war suffered unimaginable deprivation, the book does not convey the extent of their pain in a compelling way. Any reader looking for a gripping, firsthand survivor account of the Bataan Death March and the years thereafter will be disappointed. While the U.S. government's sacrifice of these veterans' rights in the treaty could be experienced as a profound betrayal, the book never takes the reader to a level commensurate with the harm done.

The book's spare, journalistic style also prevents much of an appreciation of the lawyers' personalities or the creative process they undertook to build their legal team and the case. The book focuses more on the results than on the means employed, so it does not provide an insider view of the organic process of building the case.

For the subject matter alone--these veterans' tale of survival against all odds, as well as the legal team's efforts to hold accountable the Japanese companies that inflicted this suffering--Soldier Slaves is a worthwhile addition to legal and military history. While our country talked a good game of honoring our veterans' sacrifice, the reality for these soldier slaves was far different.

There is no happy ending, despite the merits of the case and the lawyers' dedicated advocacy. These soldiers' rights were yet another casualty of the Cold War's changing alliances. Had the story been approached another way, the reader could have had a much more profound emotional experience, because the book's theme is a troubling and powerful one--human rights sacrificed to the needs of international diplomacy.

WILLIAM S. BAILEY is a partner with Fury Bailey in Seattle.
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Author:Bailey, William S.
Publication:Trial
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Words:973
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