KEVIN LEININGER: Is Donald Trump really ‘assassin-in-chief’? If so, he’s not the first

Were the American pilots who shot down the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack war heroes -- or "assassins"? (AP photo)
Isoroku Yamamoto
Kevin Leininger

It was called “Operation Vengeance,” and its unapologetic mission was to kill the foreign military leader responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans.

A description of last week’s U.S. air strike that resulted in the death of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, leader of the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Quds Force? Hardly, although you might think so given the number of people who seem to believe President Trump’s “assassination” of Soleimani marked an unprecedented departure from the accepted strategies and morality of warfare.

In fact, Operation Vengeance was carried out on April 18, 1943 in response to a reputed order by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — patron saint of modern American liberalism — to “get Yamamoto.”

Given the nation’s general lack of historic knowledge, it’s likely most Americans of a certain age have never heard of Yamamoto, FDR or perhaps even World War II. But it was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who planned the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and guided the Japanese Navy from one victory to the next in the early days of the conflict.

That all came crashing down — literally — when American code breakers learned he would be visiting the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and alerted the Army Air Corps, which dispatched the 18 long-range P-38 Lightnings that intercepted his medium bomber above Bougainville Island. Flying in radio silence just 50 feet above the ocean to avoid detection, the 1,000-mile round-trip is widely accepted as one of the most challenging but productive aerial missions of World War II. Yamamoto’s death was a loss from which the Japanese military never recovered, the war ended two years later and America rejoiced.

But that was then; this is now:

Former professional football Colin Kaepernick, previously known mostly for taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest America’s treatment of minorities, responded to the death of Soleimani by saying “There’s nothing new about American attacks against black and brown people for the expansion of American imperialism.” Presumably he would feel similarly about an attack on a Japanese admiral, even if they did start the war.

After Iran reportedly responded to Soleimani’s death by putting an $80 million bounty on Trump’s head, “comedian” George Lopez offered to “do it for half.” Lopez claimed it was a joke, but the Secret Service wasn’t amused.

In response to the crash of a Ukrainian jetliner that may or may not have been caused by an Iranian missile, both would-be commander-in-chief Pete Buttigieg and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — 63 Canadians died in the crash — indicated the United States shares at least some of the blame even if Iran did fire on the civilian plane.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said the “argument would be made that, putting the shoe on the other foot, if the United States had a high level — maybe the second most important person in the country — assassinated wherever, the United States might consider that an assault on our country.” Watch out, Vice President Pence!

The American media weighed in on Soleimani’s death too, of course.

The New York Times reported that “Many saw him as a larger-than-life hero . . . Anecdotes about his asceticism and quiet charisma joined to create an image of a warrior-philosopher.”

“A flamboyant former construction worker and bodybuilder with snowy white hair, a dapper beard and arching salt-and-pepper eyebrows,” is how the New Yorker described the man no one doubts was responsible for countless deaths.

CNN compared him to Charles de Gaulle, hero of the French resistance to Hitler.

None of this is to suggest that the decision to target Soleimani was without risk or will promote America’s national interests in the long run. The Middle East is nothing if not unpredictable, and no one truly knows how this all will turn out, even if plenty of people pretend otherwise. For now, at least, the absence of a feared escalation and the elimination of an acknowledged threat works in Trump’s favor. This is a time for sober thought, not politics or gloating.

There can and should be, in other words, legitimate debate over America’s tactical and strategic military decisions and actions. But the war on terror is real, thrust upon America just as surely as Yamamoto’s brilliant attack at Pearl Harbor made conflict with Japan unavoidable.

Killing Yamamoto was seen by the military as an act of justified revenge, yes, but also a step toward victory and peace, and accepted by the public as such. Eighty-seven years later, how would that mission be judged today — or do we already know? It’s been said that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but in this case that might be an improvement.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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