This is my third installment of my series background for the new HBO series “The Pacific.” The producer of this series is actor and producer Tom Hanks. Hanks has also acted in “Saving Private Ryan” and produced “Band of Brothers” both of which have been critically acclaimed. Hanks recently ran afoul of his most loyal audience for these productions when he made a very inaccurate comment about the role of racism in the American-Japanese war in the Pacific which he repeated. Hanks is a great film maker and his work on “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” helped show a new generation the courage and sacrifice of the generation that fought World War Two.
Hanks comments had a bit of truth in them, as racism did play a role in the propaganda of both sides during the war and the manner in which some leaders and soldiers fought it. However Hanks demonstrated a true lack of objective historical balance as he skewed this into an overall condemnation of the way that the United States prosecuted the War against Japan. Hanks ignored Japanese conduct and responsibility in the conduct of the war and drew a straw man analogy to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes there was racism at work in the Pacific war; it did influence the conduct of the war and the actions of individual leaders and soldiers, but both the American and Japanese were both part of it, this was not a one way street as Hanks seems to indicate.
But what did Hanks say? Hanks first comment came in an interview with Time magazine:
“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods,” he told the magazine. “They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”
Hanks then followed this on MSNBC’s “Moring Joe” with Joe Scarborough where he said:
“‘The Pacific’ is coming out now, where it represents a war that was of racism and terror. And where it seemed as though the only way to complete one of these battles on one of these small specks of rock in the middle of nowhere was to – I’m sorry – kill them all. And, um, does that sound familiar to what we might be going through today? So it’s– is there anything new under the sun? It seems as if history keeps repeating itself.”
To be fair there was a significant amount of racism but involved but it was rampant on both sides and Japan’s racism not only included American and British but most of the rest of Asia and in many places they waged a war of extermination against the Chinese and others who resisted them. Much of the American attitude was based upon the widespread publicity of Japan’s brutal campaign against the Chinese, a people that many Americans harbored an affinity for at that time. Likewise the attack on Pearl Harbor influenced the way that Americans thought of Japan. The Japanese frequently appealed to anti-colonial feelings of territories that the conquered ignoring their own subjugation of local populations.
Since the subject of race has been broached I have re-posted a review of John Dower’s book “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” The book shows how much racism played a role in the conduct of the war on both sides. However it was not in the manner in which Hanks portrayed it in his interviews as it was a two way street. The war in the Pacific was one of the most brutal “no-quarter” conflicts ever fought and much of this was directly related to the Japanese concept of honor which considered personal surrender cowardly and a loss of face, or believing that showing mercy or treating defeated enemies who surrendered with honor was undeserved.
The comparison of this war by Hanks to the current wars in undeserved. With few exceptions the American military has conducted itself with tremendous restraint often risking its own to ensure that non-combatants are not killed even during firefights and battles. There are some in the United States who advocate the type of war that we had with the Japanese against Moslems extremist or otherwise and they are among the loudest critics of the military’s prosecution of these wars. Depending on what happens racism has the potential to reemerge as a major factor in this conflict, but at the present Hanks remark can only be called ill-informed and prejudiced in its own right. By doing this Hanks sullies his reputation among the surviving veterans of the “Great Generation” who had to battle a tenacious and proud foe on the “little specks of sand and rock” in the Pacific.
This is a review of John Dower’s “War without Mercy” which I published on this site last year. It is a book that raises troubling questions about the Pacific war but one that is not one sided.
Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986.
Even Dr Seuss was used to paint the picture of Japanese Americans as traitors
The study of war cannot simply be confined to the study of battles, weapons and leaders. While all of these are important one must as Clausewitz understood examine the human element of policy, ideology and the motivations of nations as they wage war. Clausewitz understood that war could not be reduced to formulas and templates but involved what he called the “remarkable trinity” which he described in on war as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war’s element of subordination to rational policy. Clausewitz connects this with the people being connected to the primordial forces of war, the military with the non-rational elements of friction, chance and probability and the government.
Anti-British Japanese Propaganda leaflet
The Clausewitzian understanding of war is rooted in the Enlightenment and classic German Liberalism, born out of his experience in the Napoleonic Wars, which forever changed the face of warfare. From the defeat of Prussia and its liberation from Napoleonic rule under Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Clausewitz developed the understanding that war was more than simply tactics and weapons. Thus when we examine war today we deprive ourselves of properly understanding the dynamic of war if we fail to appreciate the human factor which is frequently not rational. Such is especially the case when one fights an enemy who wages war on religious, racial or ideological grounds as is the case in the current war against Al Qaida and other extremist Moslem groups. Such groups would like to turn this war into such a conflict as do certain figures in the American political milieu who repeatedly label all of Islam as the enemy. In such a climate it is imperative to look at history to show us the results of such primal passions.
The Japanese made a conscious but unsuccessful attempt to incite African Americans to rise against white America
It is in such conflict as we are engaged in today it is good to look at previous wars from the human experiential component and not simply military operations. If one wants to look at how inflamed passion driven by racial prejudice and hatred took war to a level of barbarity and totality that defy our comprehension we only need to look back to the Pacific war between Japan and the United States. In another post I dealt with the how racial ideology influenced Nazi Germany’s conduct of the war against Poland and the Soviet Union. https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/the-ideological-war-how-hitlers-racial-theories-influenced-german-operations-in-poland-and-russia/
To do this I will look at John Dower’s “War Without Mercy.” In this book Dower examines World War Two in the Pacific from the cultural and ideological viewpoints of the opposing sides. He looks at the war as a race war, which he says “remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two.”[i] Dower examines race hated and its influence on both the Japanese and the Allies, particularly in the way that each side viewed one another and conducted the war. He examines the nature of racial prejudice and hate in each society, including its religious, psychological, ideological, scientific and mythological components. He also examines the use of media and propaganda, and how racial attitudes not only influenced national and individual attitudes, but also the military and intelligence operations of both sides. This book is not about military campaigns, thus it is much more like “In the Name of War” by Jill Lepore[ii] than any history of the Pacific war.
Dower uses sources such as songs, movies, cartoons and various writings of the times to demonstrate the totality of the war. Dower admits many of these are difficult to handle and “not respectable sources in some academic sources.”[iii] Despite this he puts together a work that is sometimes chilling, especially when one looks at the current war that our country is engaged in. He also endeavors to explain how after a war where “extraordinarily fierce and Manichean”[iv] race hate predominated, it could “have dissipated so easily”[v] after the war was over.
Dower divides his work into three major sections. The first which examines how the aspect of race effected the fighting of the war, the second, the war through Western eyes and the third the war through Japanese eyes. The first section begins with how racial attitudes in Western and Japanese societies helped fuel the war and compares similar attitudes and concepts in Western and Japanese thought, including how “prejudice and racial stereotypes frequently distorted both Japanese and Allied evaluations of the enemy’s intentions and capabilities.”[vi] He looks at the language of the conflict; at how war words and race words came together “in a manner which did not reflect the savagery of the war, but truly contributed to it….”[vii] the result being “an obsession with extermination on both sides.”[viii] He comes back to this theme throughout the book comparing the two sides and occasionally contrasting these attitudes with corresponding attitudes of the Allies to their German and Italian foes in Europe.[ix]
In the first chapter Dower examines the role played by the propaganda used by both sides. In particular he explains how the “Know Your Enemy: Japan” movies commissioned by the War Department and directed by Frank Capra, and the Japanese works “Read this and the War is Won” and “The Way of the Subject” helped shape the view of each side. Propaganda developed the idea of the war in terms of good versus evil and the mortal threat posed to their respective cultures by the enemy.
From this he looks at the visceral emotions that the war engendered and how those emotions spilled over into the conduct of the war especially in regard to its ferocity and the war crimes that were spawned by the unbridled hatred of both sides. He notes the targeted terror bombings of civilians by both sides and how those actions were portrayed as “barbaric” by the other side when they were the victim.[x] He notes the viciousness of the war and how for the Americans the war brought forth “emotions forgotten since our most savage Indian wars.”[xi] He contrasts this with European war in particular how the Japanese and their actions were portrayed in Western media, and how similar actions by the Germans, such as the Holocaust, were ignored by Western media until the war was over.[xii] He traces some of this to the understanding of the psychological effects of the defeats and humiliations of the Allies at the hands of the Japanese, and the corresponding brutality toward Allied prisoners by the Japanese as compared to that of the Germans.[xiii] He uses this section to also examine the prevailing attitudes of the Japanese toward the Allies as being weak and “psychologically incapable of recovery” from blows such as the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Allied view of the Japanese as “treacherous.”[xiv]
Dower’s second major section describes the attitudes and actions of the Americans and British toward their Japanese enemy. He looks at the view that the Japanese were less than human and often portrayed as apes or other primates such as monkeys. To do this he examines cartoons and illustrations in popular magazines and military publications, and includes those cartoons in the book. The sheer vulgarity of these cartoons is easily contrasted with those promoted and published by Nazis such as Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer, something often overlooked or ignored in other histories.[xv] The early Western views of Japan as sub-human continued throughout the war, while at the same time, especially after the rapid series of Allied defeats and Japanese victories they were viewed as almost “super-human.” Paradoxically some allied leaders turned the Japanese from “the one time “little man” into a Goliath.”[xvi] They were now “tough, disciplined and well equipped.”[xvii] Ambassador Joseph Grew, reported on his return from Japan, that the Japanese were; “”sturdy,” “Spartan,” “clever and dangerous,” and that “his will to conquer was “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to the values that make up our civilization….””[xviii] The juxtaposition of such conflicting attitudes is curious, although understandable, especially in light of other Western wars against Asians or Arabs.[xix]
Dower then examines how some Americans and British explained the Japanese “National Character,” their approach to war, and actions during the war from Freudian psychiatry as well as Anthropology and other social and behavioral sciences. Beginning with the widespread Allied understanding that the Japanese were “dressed-up primitives-or “savages” in modern garb…”[xx] he notes that these interpretations of the Japanese national character stemmed from “child-rearing practices and early childhood experiences,”[xxi] including toilet training and Freudian interpretations that saw an arrested psychic development at the “infantile (anal or genital) stage of development.”[xxii] Dower deduces that it was not hard to see how “Japanese overseas aggression became explicable in terms of penis envy or a castration complex….”[xxiii] The views were widespread and emphasized that the “Japanese were collectively unstable.”[xxiv] Dower notes that the “very notion of “national character”-was the application to whole nations and cultures of an analytical language that had been developed through personal case studies…”[xxv] which he is rightly critical in suggesting that this premise “was itself questionable.”[xxvi] In addition to this was the understanding of Margaret Mead and others of the Japanese as “adolescents” and “bullies,”[xxvii] and notes that from “the diagnosis of the Japanese as problem children and juvenile delinquents, it was but a small step to see them as emotionally maladjusted adolescents and, finally as a deranged race in general.”[xxviii] Dower cites numerous other “experts” of the time and their interpretations of the Japanese national character, but the overwhelming message is that the application of these theories, regardless of their validity had a major impact on the Allied war against Japan.
He follows this chapter with one with much importance in explaining the similarities in how Americans and Westerners in general viewed the Japanese in relationship to other races that they had dealt with including Blacks, Chinese, Filipinos, and American Indians. Common themes include the views of each as primitives, children and madmen and the view of the Japanese as part of the “Yellow Peril.” Of particular note is his analysis of the work of Homer Lea’s 1909 book The Valor of Ignorance and the vision of Japanese supermen which enjoyed a revival after Pearl Harbor.[xxix] Dower examines depictions of Asians in general in the Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan series of films and other racial aspects hearkening back to the “specter of Genghis Khan and the prospect that the white races “may be liquidated.”[xxx] He notes how Japanese propagandists attempted to use Allied prejudice to influence the Chinese and other Asians against the Allies[xxxi] and American blacks against whites,[xxxii] while attempting to maintain their own racial superiority which is the subject of the next section.
The chapters dealing with the Japanese view of themselves and their opponents tie together neatly. These deal with the Japanese view of themselves as the leading race in Asia and the world. Dower talks about symbols and the understanding of racial purity that motivated the Japanese from the 1800s to the rejection of Japan’s request for a declaration of “racial equity” at the League of Nations.[xxxiii] He notes the “propagation of an elaborate mythohistory in Japan and the time spent “wrestling with the question of what it really meant to be “Japanese” and how the “Yamato race” was unique among races….”[xxxiv] He notes the relationship of Shinto with whiteness and purity and connotations of how the Japanese indulged in “Caucasianization” of themselves vis-à-vis other Asians during World War Two,”[xxxv] and their emphasis on a Japanese racial worldview.[xxxvi] He also tackles the way in which the Japanese wrestled with evolution and its relationship to other racial theories contrasting books such as A History of Changing Theories about the Japanese Race and Evolution of Life with Cardinal Principles of the National Polity published by the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education in1937. These declared that the Japanese were “intrinsically different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries.”[xxxvii] He also deals with the Kyoto school and the Taiwa concept.[xxxviii] In Chapter Nine Dower looks at how the Japanese viewed themselves and outsiders, in particular the characterization of Westerners as nanbanjin or barbarians and how this eventually train of thought carried through the war led to the “Anglo-American foe emerged full blown as the demonic other.”[xxxix] Dowers final chapter deals with how quickly the race hatred dissipated and genuine goodwill that developed between the Japanese and Americans after the war.[xl]
This book holds a unique place in the literature of the Pacific war. It is not a comfortable book, it is challenging. No other deals with these matters in any systemic way. If there is a weakness in Dower is that he does not, like Lepore in “In the Name of War” deal with the attitudes of soldiers and those who actually fought the war. His examples are good and go a long way in explaining the savagery with which the war was conducted, but could have been enhanced with reflections and accounts of those who fought the war and survived as well as the writings of those who did not, and the way those attitudes were reflected in different services, times and theaters during the war, including adjustments that commanders made during the war.[xli] His description of how Japanese “reluctance to surrender had meshed horrifically with Allied disinterest …in contemplating anything short of Japan’s “thoroughgoing defeat.”[xlii]
The lessons of the book are also contemporary in light of the cultural and religious differences between the West and its Moslem opponents in the current war. Possibly even more so than the war between the United States and Japan which was fought by nation states that still were signatories to international conventions, not nation states against terrorists unbound by any Western code or law or indigenous forces engaged in revolutionary war against the west such as the Taliban.[xliii] The temptation is for both sides to demonize one’s opponent while exalting one’s own way of life through official propaganda and popular media, with a result of increased viciousness and inhumanity in pursuit of ultimate victory. In today’s world with the exponential rise in the radicalization of whole people groups and the availability of weapons of mass destruction, it is possibility that the war could develop into one that is a racial as well as religious and ideological war that would make the War in the Pacific look like a schoolyard brawl.
Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995
Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986.
Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996
Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998
Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000.
[i] Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House, New York, NY 1986. p.4
[ii] Lepore, Jill The Name of War Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, NY 1998. Lepore’s book deals with King Phillip’s War and how that war shaped the future of American war and how it shaped the views of Indians and the English Colonists and their later American descendants both in the language used to describe it, the histories written of it and the viciousness of the war.
[iii] Ibid. p.x
[iv] Ibid. p.ix
[v] Ibid. p.x
[vi] Ibid. p.11
[viii] Ibid. Also see Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1995 Alexander notes an incident that shows a practical application of the Japanese views and the ruthlessness inflicted on their enemies, in this case prisoners in response to an American bombing raid. In 1942 the commander of the Japanese Garrison of Makin Island ordered 22 prisoners beheaded after one cheered following a bombing raid. (p.32)
[ix] An interesting point which Dower does not mention but is interesting for this study is how the Germans referred to the British and Americans as “Die gegener” (opponents) and the Soviets as “Die Feinde” (the enemy), the implication being that one die gegener was a common foe, much like an opposing team in a sport, and the other a mortal enemy, the implication of Feinde being evil, or demonic.
[x] In particular he makes note of the Japanese actions during the “Rape of Nanking,” and the 1945 sack of Manila, as well as the fire bombing of Japanese cities by the US Army Air Corps in 1945.
[xi] Ibid. Dower. p.33
[xii] Ibid. p.35
[xiii] Ibid. This is important in the fact that the Allies tended not to make much of German brutality to the Jews, Russians and other Eastern Europeans.
[xiv] Ibid. p.36.
[xv] Dower does not make this implicit comparison, but having seen both and studied the Nazi propaganda directed toward the Jews, Russians and other Slavic peoples considered to be Untermenschen (sub-humans) by the Nazis the similarities are striking.
[xvi] Ibid. pp.112-113.
[xvii] Ibid. p.113
[xix] In the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Israeli soldiers who previously showed no respect to any Arab fighter described their Hezbollah opponents as “soldiers and warriors.” Similar attitudes were voiced by American soldiers in Vietnam when they fought NVA regulars.
[xx] Ibid. p.123
[xxiv] Ibid. p.124
[xxvii] Ibid. p.129
[xxviii] Ibid. p.143
[xxix] Ibid. P.157. Lea is interesting because he predicts a decline in the stature of the British Empire and softness of both the Americans and British as peoples. Also see John Costello in The Pacific War 1941-1945 Quill Books, New York, NY 1982 pp.31-32 notes Lea’s concerns and how they drove the American Pacific strategy until the outbreak of World War Two.
[xxx] Ibid. p.161
[xxxi] Ibid. p.169
[xxxii] Ibid. pp.174-180. This is an interesting section. One of the most interesting topics being the reaction of the NAACP’s Walter White’s book A Rising Wind published which “suggested a sense of kinship with other colored-and also oppressed-peoples of the world….he senses that the struggle of the Negro in the United States is part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India, China, Burma….” (p.177-178)
[xxxiii] Ibid. p.204
[xxxiv] Ibid. p.205
[xxxv] Ibid. p.209 This is interesting when one compares the Japanese emphasis on “Pan-Asianism” and the inherent contradiction between the two.
[xxxvi] Ibid. p.211 Dower notes that the article Establishing a Japanese Racial Worldview in the monthly Bungei Shunju “clarified the Japanese character, whose basic traits were brightness, strength and uprightness. These qualities made the Japanese “the most superior race in the world.”
[xxxvii] Ibid. p.221
[xxxviii] Ibid. p.227 This was the theory of Zen Buddhism’s Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki) in his teaching of the struggle for the Great Harmony “Taiwa” which attempted to identify “an intuitive sense of harmony and oneness that he declared to be characteristic of Oriental thought.”
[xxxix] Ibid. p.247. Descriptions of the Allies as Barbarians, Gangsters and Demons permeated Japanese propaganda.
[xl] Ibid. Dower makes a number of observations relating to how the Japanese were able to use their own self concept to adapt to their defeat. He also notes that the Japanese were able to transfer their self concept to a peaceful orientation.
[xli] See Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. Penguin Books USA, New York NY, 1996 p.35. Leckie quotes General Ushijima “You cannot regard the enemy as on par with you,” he told his men. “You must realize that material power usually overcomes spiritual power in the present war. The enemy is clearly our superior in machines. Do not depend on your spirits overcoming this enemy. Devise combat method [sic] based on mathematical precision-then think about displaying your spiritual power.” Leckie comments: “Ushijima’s order was perhaps the most honest issued by a Japanese commander during the war. It was Bushido revised, turned upside down and inside out-but the revision had been made too late.”
[xlii] Ibid. Dower. p.37
[xliii] See Tregaskis, Richard Guadalcanal Diary Random House, New York NY 1943, Modern Library Edition, 2000. p.95. Tregaskis notes when commenting on Japanese POWs on Guadalcanal “We stared at them and they stared back at us. There was no doubt what we or they would have liked to do at that moment-if we had not remembered our code of civilization or if they had not been unarmed.”