This newspaper appears on newsstands on June 6; like Dec. 7,
it is a date that some of us assume every fresh-faced school child associates
with the war from which there is no escape. Even if the schools believe that
this kind of knowledge is not helpful in the self-esteem-building process, the
kids could hardly not know something about both dates. After all, June 6 and
Dec. 7 are celebrated in movie blockbusters starring the grandchildren of that generation-you know the one. June
6 has its Saving Private Ryan ; Dec. 7
now has its Pearl Harbor. Somewhere
in the last 20 years, we forgot about V-E Day and V-J Day. Those days are for
fogies, young and old, who don’t necessarily learn history from Hollywood.
Memorial Day (a barbecue-and-beach holiday originally set
aside for the decorating of soldiers’ graves) brought the predictable plethora
of World War II programming on the tube, a staple of which was the shot of the
bowed and graying veteran revisiting the battlefields of his youth: Normandy
and Anzio; Iwo Jima and Okinawa-peaceful places now. Interspersed with these bittersweet
images were black-and-white clips of the fighting and the dying from so long
The message was pretty clear. Because of these bowed and
graying men, because of the horror they endured, children laugh as they run
along the sands of Northern France; couples share romantic dinners along the
Italian coast; and an economic colossus has risen along the Pacific Rim. That
is, of course, the moral of the World War II literature-America’s citizen
soldiers, and their allies (the wise-cracking tommy; the dour Russian; the
haughty Resistance fighter), fought, suffered and died to liberate humankind
Like most other Americans, I believe in and indeed cherish
that story, that legacy of sacrifice. And that may explain why I find the story
of Saipan so appalling-the antithesis o f the story of the good war and its
soldiers of liberation.
The Marines landed on Saipan on June 15, 1944. By the time
they secured the island, 22,000 of Saipan’s32,000 Japanese defenders were dead,
and about 4,000 were missing. Fewer than 2,000 were taken prisoner. About 3,000
Marines died and another 10,000 were wounded in some of the most desperate
fighting of the war. The Battle of Saipan was overshadowed by the gigantic
events underway in Normandy, but it was a pivotal moment in the Pacific war.
Americans saw what they would face for the remainder of the conflict-suicidal
Japanese defenders, sometimes charging Marine positions with handmade spears.
Admiral Nagumo, who directed the attack on Pearl Harbor, committed suicide to
inspire his troops to do the same; after the battle, Japanese Prime Minister
Saipan today is at peace, but perhaps next Memorial Day some
creative television producer will invite a Marine back to the battlefield. What
he will see will shock him, and perhaps inspire some decidedly unsentimental
reflections. Saipan is an island sweatshop, a place where, were it not for
liberators of another sort-those much-ridiculed anti-globalists-workers still
would be held in virtual slavery on behalf of some of America’s most famous
Until sweatshop monitors sued the island’s garment industry,
the liberated people of Saipan were among the most exploited workers in the
Pacific Rim. This may sound like a variation on a theme: tinpot South Pacific
dictator and crony capitalists colluding in the oppression of the citizenry,
while reaping enormous profits to be spent on golf courses, yachts and shoes.
The problem with this formula is that Saipan is an American territory, freed by
the blood of U.S. Marines, answerable to the Labor Department and various other
bureaucracies charged with the well-being of workers of the several states.
Among the conditions on Saipan cited in the anti-sweatshop
movement’s lawsuit were unsanitary company housing; 12-hour work days, seven
days a week; illegal union-busting; and recruitment contracts that made
employees virtual indentured servants of their employers. And because Saipan is
an American territory, garments made under these conditions carry a “Made in the
Since the lawsuits were filed and the public began paying
attention to Saipan, more than a dozen companies, including Calvin Klein Inc.,
Donna Karan International Inc., J. Crew Group Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A.
Inc., have settled without admitting wrongdoing. But other brand-name companies
have not, and sweatshop monitors continue to press their case.
The Marines of 1944 stormed the beaches of Saipan to
liberate the island from oppression, not to make it safe for unscrupulous
haberdashers. One wonders if a Marine returning to Saipan would get misty-eyed;
more likely, he would become enraged.
Not something we’re likely to see as part of the next
Greatest Generation celebration.