WASHINGTON — START WITH a personal memory. In the six months after atomic bombs ended the war with Japan, I was a rookie seaman on a U.S. Navy ship stationed in Tokyo harbor.
To a kid out of high school, it was a devastating picture of what war can do to a country.
I saw bombed-out shipyards, leveled towns, and, looking down from a PBY gun turret, the blasted desert of Hiroshima.
But my most vivid impression was of the fire-seared, shattered landscape between Yokohama and Tokyo.
Mile on mile, it was a charred, flattened hell.
Nightly firebomb raids had delivered a terrible holocaust to the mostly wooden Tokyo suburbs. Picture everything between Washington and Baltimore flattened by firestorm.
With that secondhand image of war burned into my mind's eye, I understood why Japanese said, "Never again."
So, OK, they keep a token home force while we protect them with 50,000 U.S. troops. And while we blow trillions producing M-1 tanks and Stealth bonbers, they pile up yen selling us TV sets and Toyotas.
Like most Americans, I winced and shrugged when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. It seemed hypocritical to bash Japan while listening to a Nakimichi tape deck or driving a Honda.
But Japan's behavior in the Persian Gulf crisis is inexcusably self-serving. They call it pacifism. I call it parsimony.
When Saddam Hussein began his oil gobble, the Japanese grumbled but pledged to ante up $2 billion to the U.S. military effort. That's chump change compared to the $6 billion Matsushita paid for MGM.
Now, according to the Pentagon, Japan has coughed up only $376 million -- plus 40,000 Sony Walkmen and a few Toyota trucks.
Call it Slow Pay Inc.
Remember, Japan gets 70 percent of its oil from the gulf. So the Japanese send Walkmen while the United States sends 430,000 troops to fight a desert war for its oil? Something's out of whack.
The Japanese, of course, aren't the only deadbeats playing the United States for Uncle Sucker.
No wonder the loudest complaints senators and congressfolk hear about the gulf buildup is: "Why are we doing this alone?"
"My constituents are hopping mad," said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.
They have a right to be angry. Europeans, except the British, have a ho-hum, let-Uncle-Sucker-do-it attitude. Germany promised $1 billion and paid $337 million. Kuwait wrote a check ** for $2.5 billion -- not an overwhelming payoff to be "liberated" when the emirs have $100 billion.
And Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., fumes that Saudi Arabia is grabbing enormous oil profits while paying merely $987 million of a promised $3 billion to save its oil fields from Saddam's hordes.
Burden sharing? That's ducking the tab.
George Bush doesn't want to irritate his so-called allies by rattling the tin cup. So an administration spokesman said "we're satisfied" with the $9 billion in Desert Shield pledges, as if pledges meant anything to these international welchers.
Sure, money is abstract compared to an estimated 3,000 to 30,000 U.S. casualties in a Desert Oil Rumble. But you can bet this stiff job by oil-burning countries will have aftershocks. First, there'll be an uproar by U.S. citizens if they have to pay a surtax -- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's proposal -- for the $30 billion cost of the Arabian expedition.
Second, Congress will apply heat to Japan to assume costs of U.S. troops stationed there. And 40,000 Walkmen won't be enough.
Third, there could be growing resentment here against the U.S. playing Superpower Superman in every crisis. Neo-isolationism? Maybe. But when Japan and Germany -- and they need the oil more than we do -- get a free ride, the U.S. may be reluctant to answer the next fire bell.
"We can't be our allies' 911 number," said Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo.
Sure, I saw the fiery ruins of Tokyo that affected a Japanese generation.
But body bags coming home from a Great Oil War may produce a similar U.S. epiphany.
It may be our time to say, "Never again."