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Images of a common brutality

by Jeff Kingston

HELL IN THE PACIFIC: From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and Beyond, by Jonathan Lewis and Ben Steele. London: Channel 4 Books, 2001, 288 pp. $30 (cloth)
TALES BY JAPANESE SOLDIERS OF THE BURMA CAMPAIGN. Edited by Kazuo Tamayama and John Nunneley. London: Cassell, 2000, 252 pp., $24 (paper)

If you’ve ever wondered what the “Greatest Generation” did in the Pacific Theater during World War II, the first volume under review offers some insight into their experiences. The race war between Japan and the United States and its allies brought out the worst in most participants, and in this compendium of horror little is left to the imagination. From the Rape of Nanjing, the comfort women, biological experiments and mistreatment of POWs to the Rape of Manila, the full catalog of Japanese war crimes is surveyed here. The Allied record is also cited, including massacres of Japanese soldiers trying to surrender, the fire bombing of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and other nightmares of war.

“Hell in the Pacific” should not be confused with the classic 1968 antiwar film (starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune) of the same name, about an American and a Japanese soldier marooned on a remote island in the Pacific, although both the movie and the book share a common agenda. The latter is the companion volume to a television series based on interviews with survivors of the conflict and British archival footage depicting the brutality and inhumanity that are intrinsic to war. Controversially, Allied soldiers are shown to be guilty of the very sort of cruelties and callous disregard for civilized norms that Japanese soldiers have been charged with being uniquely capable of. This book is a useful corrective to the racism implicit in the victor’s narrative of the past, in which only the defeated committed atrocities.

Drawing on extensive interviews with surviving participants from Allied and Japanese forces, the book “attempts to meld eyewitness account with the conventional narrative, to record and value the lives lived and lost within the history of the Pacific War.” Usefully, “Hell in the Pacific” argues that “the impression of the war as a history of Japanese savagery alone has been eroded by the growing body of evidence of Allied brutality. The issue here is less whether the two sides were as bad as each other, but whether they had more in common than was ever thought at the time . . .” After reading this account, one cannot help but agree that war makes savages of everyone.

Unfortunately, the book does not make explicit reference to the television program, so one is left in the dark as to what is actually portrayed on screen, and why it has taken so long to “discover” the controversial footage and come to terms with the less appealing realities of Allied conduct in the Pacific. It appears that the authors were concerned about how veterans would react to a “revisionist” account that might tarnish their accomplishments and the more glorious narrative that has prevailed since World War II. Thus, there is a more detailed and extensive focus on the savagery of the Japanese and the suffering of their victims in a manner that seems designed to make it more palatable to consider, if not condone, Allied excesses.

Perhaps this reflects the Smithsonian syndrome, the ill-fated attempt to come to grips with the complexities and controversies of the atomic bombings that was derailed by an orchestrated barrage of political pressure from veterans’ groups and conservative politicians. The museum exhibition that finally emerged from the fray in 1995 was a pale version of what had been planned, leaving the orthodox narrative unchallenged as the “correct” interpretation, at least inside the walls of the Smithsonian.

Of course the savagery of U.S. soldiers in the Pacific is nothing new — the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh wrote about gruesome trophies claimed from the bodies of dead enemy soldiers, while Norman Mailer, in “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), helped readers understand that the low percentage of Japanese surrenders was related to Allied reluctance to capture them. The recent film “Thin Red Line” (1999) also depicts the slaughter of Japanese soldiers seeking to surrender.

In debunking the contemporary view that the Japanese were hard-wired for barbarism, the authors seek to challenge stereotypes, but edge dangerously close to condescension. Framing current debate in the hoary norms of the day does not go far enough in liberating perceptions from such a blinkered view of the Japanese. Given that it is not much of a stretch to debunk wartime images of simian savages, a more sophisticated handling of the race issue would have been welcome. The gap between how racism is handled in John Dower’s award-winning work “War Without Mercy” (1986) and this “readers’ digest” version is telling.

As a television companion it might seem churlish to hold the authors to standard scholarly practice, but overly simplifying the complex debate among historians about this controversial history and how it can be understood and interpreted does not seem to serve their purpose of modifying orthodox views of the war. To their credit, they do use the words of veterans and draw extensively on some of the best scholarship to buttress their arguments, and in so doing effectively assert a more balanced version of the past. It still seems, however, overly slanted in favor of the victors.

“Tales by Japanese Soldiers” focuses on the Burma campaign, where 180,000 out of 305,000 Imperial Army soldiers lost their lives. Sixty-two tales from the memoirs of and interviews with ordinary Japanese soldiers convey with chilling honesty the utter hopelessness, despair and hardships endured during this ill-fated and misguided war. Reading these pages goes a long way toward dispelling racist stereotypes and makes one realize what a tragedy the war became for so many young Japanese men, doomed to suffer and die far from home under incompetent officers, with woeful preparations and no supplies. These are the voices of men who were not obedient killing machines sowing a path of wanton destruction. The high hopes sparked by initial conquest soon faded under the drudgery of soldiering and the toll of violence.

Both books succeed in helping contemporary readers understand, in numbing detail, how nasty and brutish life was as a soldier and how little the national reasons for war mattered to men caught up in the struggle to survive.