Yamashita’s Ghost Inspires PBS Special

Allan Ryan had no plans to write a book about Japanese General Yamashita.

“I was planning on writing about the Nuremberg Trials,” Ryan says. “The more I researched the trials, however, the more I realized there was little new to say.”

While on vacation in Vermont, Ryan had an idea.

“I was on a bike ride on a particularly challenging hill and for some reason I thought of General Yamashita” Ryan says. “I did some research and realized that , other than a 1947 book by his lawyer, there had been no thorough analysis of his case. So I started to dig in.”

UPK published Ryan’s Yamashita’s Ghost; War Crimes, MacArthur’s Justice, and Command Accountability in 2014.

In 1946 General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Japan’s most accomplished military commander, was tried, convicted and executed for war crimes.

The atrocities of 1944 and 1945 in the Philippines—rape, murder, torture, beheadings, and starvation, the victims often women and children—were horrific. They were committed by Japanese troops as General Douglas MacArthur’s army tried to recapture the islands. Yamashita commanded Japan’s dispersed and besieged Philippine forces in that final year of the war. But the prosecution conceded that he had neither ordered nor committed these crimes. MacArthur charged him, instead, with the crime—if it was one—of having “failed to control” his troops, and convened a military commission of five American generals, none of them trained in the law. It was the first prosecution in history of a military commander on such a charge.

In a turbulent and disturbing trial marked by disregard of the Army’s own rules, the generals delivered the verdict they knew MacArthur wanted. Yamashita’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose controversial decision upheld the conviction over the passionate dissents of two justices who invoked, for the first time in U.S. legal history, the concept of international human rights.

“I think the 2 dissenting opinions are fascinating,” Ryan says. “They both address the efforts of Yamashita to control his soldiers while attacks from US forces made it nearly impossible.”

Ryan’s 2014 book, Yamashita’s Ghost, draws from the tribunal’s transcripts and Ryan vividly chronicles this tragic tale and its personalities. His trenchant analysis of the case’s lingering question—should a commander be held accountable for the crimes of his troops, even if he has no knowledge of them—has profound implications for all military commanders.

“I was struck by how atypical Yamashita was,” Ryan says. “He was a poet and he had a very strong understanding of the Laws of War. In fact, he punished soldiers under his command who had committed crimes against civilians or prisoners of war. That was unheard of in the Japanese military.”

Yamashita’s Ghost serves as the basis for the first hour of PBS’s new three-hour special Dead Reckoning: War, Crime, and Justice from WWII to The War on Terror, which premiers March 28. The program follows war crimes investigators and prosecutors as they pursue some of the world’s most notorious war criminals. The principles, legal doctrine and tactics that emerged from those pursuits now inform the effort to expose, prosecute, and punish present day human rights violators.

The film begins with vengeance: U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s 1945 military trial of Japan’s General Tomoyuki Yamashita for horrific atrocities in the Philippines. Despite the lack of any evidence that Yamashita ordered or even knew about the atrocities, he was condemned to death, raising the question: Are commanders responsible for crimes their troops commit?

“I had worked with Emmy-award winning writer and director Jonathan Silvers previously on a PBS documentary about Nazi war criminals in the post-war years,” says Ryan, who is credited as a co-producer on Dead Reckoning. “When we finished that project he asked ‘What’s next?’ I said “How about General Yamashita?” and that got the ball rolling. Jonathan has a profound commitment to examining war crimes and atrocities and asking, ‘why?’ and ‘how” and ‘who is responsible?”” So it’s  exciting to see the work we put into this finally come to bear. It’s disturbing, but these questions are disturbing. We’ve just tried to bring some clarity to them.”

Allan A. Ryan was Director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice, responsible for the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the United States. He has also served as an advisor on war crimes prosecutions to the Government of Rwanda, and has taught the law of war and genocide at Boston College Law School since 1990 and at Harvard University since 1997.

His books include Yamashita’s Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur’s Justice and Command Accountability, (University Press of Kansas 2012); The 9/11 Terror Cases: Constitutional Challenges in the War Against al-Qaeda, (University Press of Kansas 2015) and Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1984)