HY4207 Special Paper in Military History – Re-examining war crime trials in history

In this interview, Prof Brian Farrell tells us about HY4207 Special Paper in Military History, a module offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

The module title is a very old title that even predates me. I’ve been here since 1993, and it comes from a time when it used to mean that professors could vary the specific topic from year to year, without having to go back and get specific permission from the faculty as long as you stayed within the broad description. 

As the description shows, I can deal with pretty much anything I like that has some relevance to military history relating to Asia in the modern era. The keystone of the course is an overseas field trip, as has usually been my approach.

Last year, I stretched the limits of Asia to the breaking point, for example, when we focused on the great siege and conquest of Constantinople in 1453 – you could argue that that’s the end of Asia and the beginning of modernity. But because of COVID-19, it wasn’t what I envisaged it to be, because we couldn’t travel there. 

The same thing is going to happen this year. Even if we get to do it face to face, I’m not going to be able to go anywhere, and nobody can go with me. Therefore, I would have to pick a topic that makes the notion of a field trip irrelevant, right? I’ve always had a few in my back pocket – I’m getting older, and I knew one day I would have to do something like this. 

Many years ago, I did an iteration of this course surrounding the Nuremberg war crime trials. This was in the 1990s, and I’d always intended to further that and cover the Tokyo war crimes trials. I guess the time has come. The capstone exercise, instead of a field trip, is going to be a simulation exercise of the war trial, which is something that I’ve been doing for many years now and I pioneered it in the department. What we will do is a bit of make-believe; we will put Emperor Hirohito on trial as a sort of finale exercise for everyone who participates in the course.

It’ll be extrapolated from the historical records of the war crimes trial of the so-called “Class A” major war crimes. We’ll try to understand the workings of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, which refers to a trial that focused on the 28 senior-ranking individuals who were indicted for the “Class A” offences because they were the directors of the Japanese national policy and military operations. There were many trials, involving more than 5.5 thousand Japanese statesman, government officials and military personnel, and they took place all over Asia including here in Singapore. 

In this series of trials, we’ll be focusing on the specific trial of the leaders of Imperial Japan, which unfolded in Tokyo from Spring 1946 to the end of 1948. We wish to understand why these trials were organized, how they were conducted, and what impact they had on our understanding of the Second World War, the relationship between law and war, and the reordering of a postwar Asia Pacific. These trials were seen as a cornerstone of that process of remaking a new Asia without an Imperial Japan, and it was believed by many that a process like these trials, with the application of codified law to those who had made the highest decisions of state, was a step forward in the evolution of the harnessing of war. 

Questions we will ask are, why not just shoot them all out of hand, for example? Why not put Hirohito on trial? Were these trials fair? Were the verdicts just? How did they affect everybody’s perceptions of each other?

The evidence is abundant. I mean, there are 50,000 pages of transcripts from the trials, and they’re all digitized online, and there’s an abundance of sources. It’s been written about a great deal and much of that is digitized. So there won’t be any difficulty in finding things to read. It’s a subject that’s got an obvious dramatic focus, which is very different from my GEH course. The event is the focal point in and of itself, and it’s certainly got compelling drama, human interest, and all the rest of it. But it too, has a context. 

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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