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for people who care about the West

Wartime does not always bring out our best

  It is quiet here at midweek, the silence of Owens Valley in California broken occasionally by the croak of ravens and the throb of a car or truck passing on Highway 395. Infrequently, one of those vehicles slows and follows the dirt driveway leading into this place of sorrow and remembrance.

There is little here to greet the visitor as yet: a pair of stone huts surrounded by wire fencing, a few signs pounded into the desert soil, a scattering of concrete building foundations half-submerged by a rising tide of weeds. Gnarled fruit trees signal long-abandoned orchards.

Follow the dirt road far enough and it reaches a white stone obelisk, which stands out dramatically against the two-mile-high wall of the Sierra Nevada just a few miles to the west. The monument's base is littered with brightly colored paper cranes and hundreds of coins and medallions; its face bears the Japanese characters for the phrase "soul consoling tower."

In November, the National Park Service will at last open a visitor center at this site, commemorating one of the darkest episodes in the nation's past. There is no reason to wait until then to journey to Manzanar, however, for the present offers sufficient parallels to that dismal time to make a visit instructive.

Known 60 years ago as the Manzanar War Relocation Camp, and today as Manzanar National Historic Site, this lonely patch of desert was once home to 11,061 men women and children, uprooted from their homes and forced by the American military into a concentration camp for the duration of World War II. Manzanar was one of 10 such camps established mostly in the Interior West (two were in Arkansas) to accommodate nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans -- more than 70,000 of them U.S. citizens -- relocated from coastal communities in California, Oregon and Washington.

Manzanar was not the largest of the camps. That distinction belonged to Tule Lake in far Northern California, which had a peak population of 18,789. Others included Poston and Gila River in Arizona (17,814 and 13,348, respectively), Topaz in Utah (8,130), Minidoka in Idaho (9,397), Heart Mountain in Wyoming (10,767), and Granada in Colorado (7,318).

Manzanar is, however, the only one of the camps to have been acquired by the National Park Service for restoration as a reminder of that moment in time when America deprived thousands of its citizens of their liberty for no better reason than wartime hysteria and racism.

There still are apologists for that event, who try to justify the relocation by citing acts of sabotage by Japanese-Americans, and who downplay the harsh and coercive nature of the camps themselves, preferring the official euphemism: relocation centers.

Calling them "concentration camps" is not merely an example of modern-day political correctness. It is what people at the time called them, too, although that was admittedly before the Nazi death camps had forever given the term new and horrifying connotations. In a January 1942 letter to the secretaries of War and Navy, Rep. Leland M. Ford of Santa Monica said his constituents were demanding Japanese removal. He provided a twisted rationale: "I submit that if an American-born Japanese, who is a citizen, is really patriotic and wishes to make his contribution to the safety and welfare of this country, right here is his opportunity to do so, namely, that by permitting himself to be placed in a concentration camp, he would be making his sacrifice and he should be willing to do it if he is patriotic and is working for us."

As for domestic sabotage by Japanese Americans, there was none. There were many reports of such things, but subsequent investigation proved them false. In a chilling example of doublespeak, however, innocence was regarded as proof of guilt: "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken," wrote Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command.

That statement is but one of many aspects of the Japanese relocation that resonated recently, when military and political leaders claimed the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was proof that they exist but were hidden; when terrorism suspects -- civilians, convicted of no crime -- are denied legal representation and incarcerated indefinitely; when pro-war protesters and newspaper letter writers demand that citizens stop criticizing U.S. policy because exercising that constitutional right "gives aid and comfort to the enemy."

Manzanar -- like the fading remnants of other relocation camps scattered across the West -- is a reminder that not all the things Americans do under the stress of war are heroic or even admirable. Sometimes they are despicable, and violate the very principles upon which the nation was founded.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is a senior reporter and columnist for the Ventura County Star in California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].