Not even a Red Cross package?

An Australian POW, Sgt. Leonard Siffleet, captured in New Guinea, about to be beheaded by a Japanese officer with a guntō, 1943. (Wikipedia)

The line between good and evil may as Solzhenitsyn said run through every human heart. But some systems do tend to encourage the former and others the latter. For instance what is one to make, even three quarters of a century later, of the fact that on August 29 of 1942 the Red Cross was obliged to reveal that the Japanese government had refused to allow free passage of food, medicine and other supplies for American POWs in its custody?

Even the Nazis allowed supplies in through Switzerland to POWs. And they were guilty of enormous evil of every sort. Yet after enormous local efforts by the American Red Cross to collect blood, food, bandages and so on, the Japanese flatly refused to allow neutral ships to bring it in.

The weird thing is you could just have killed POWs. The Japanese were certainly known to behead captives and worse. Yet in their treatment of, for instance, the Canadians seized when Hong Kong fell, or Filipinos, Americans and others on the “Bataan Death March” had an extra streak of malevolent cruelty.

The purpose clearly was not just to kill, but to inflict suffering. And not for any instrumental reason, to intimidate or to extort. Nor was it done reluctantly by most of the guards and others involved, at the behest of a small sinister group who would torture and kill their families if they did not cooperate.

As with the Holocaust, there was a surprising degree of popular enthusiasm. Yet such things do not, with rare and appalling exceptions, break out spontaneously. Somehow or other a system is created that exacerbates the tendency toward cruelty in such a way that superiors press it on subordinates who in turn eagerly engage in such practices and push superiors toward greater cruelty. And even if it begins with some sense of purpose, to create discipline, frighten enemies or punish opponents, it eventually gains a kind of momentum of its own that is staggering in its wanton cruelty, and often baffling in retrospect even to those who were enthusiastically part of it at the time.

For the Japanese to accept Red Cross contributions to POWs would even have helped their own war effort by reducing the already limited diversion of food and medicine to POWs that were at least temporarily being kept alive. And so even as we examine our own conduct and thoughts carefully at all times and in all situations, so we must also keep a wary eye on our own institutions and those elsewhere that can, indeed, exacerbate the problem of evil in the human heart.