Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Cycle of War Hates and War Crimes in the Pacific Theatre of WWII

In times of war, a primary tool to promote national unity and legitimize the war efforts is the dehumanization of ones enemy. Throughout modern history, the media has served as a government tool of dehumanization. This phenomena persists today, with the way Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, Iran, Venezuela and North korea, among others, have been portrayed in the media, as well as the way the west is portrayed in these places. Such efforts create hatred for ones enemies, leading to a dangerous climate where war crimes become the norm as cycles of violence and government propaganda spin relentlesly beyond control. This study of war hates and war crimes in the WWII Pacific theatre will, I hope, demonstrate this viscious cycle.

In the WWII Pacific Theatre, as Japanese historian John Dower points out, many of the atrocities reported by both sides did occur, and the “horror, rage, and hatred this provoked on all sides was natural.”[1] The problem, Dower continues, is that:

such behavior was offered as confirmation of the innately inferior and immoral nature of the enemy–a reflection of national character–when, in fact, the pages of history everywhere are stained with cruelty and unbridled savagery.[2]

Understanding why atrocities, an inevitable consequence of war, were manifested as expressions of national character must be understood in a wider historical context. Dower concurs, arguing that the dehumanization which took place on both sides must be understood as having belonged to “webs of perception that had existed for centuries in Western and Japanese culture,” and he adds, “the atrocities were taken as simply confirming their validity.”[3]

Simply addressing the phenomenon through this lens, however, would be to ignore the tools utilized to fit these atrocities into the webs of perception: “selective reporting,” and “centralized propaganda.”[4] Returning to the question posed by Dower then, we may say that Japanese propaganda depictions of US atrocities were an attempt to take isolated, though at times recurrent, incidents and present them as consequences of the savagery inherent in the psyche of the military and population alike. This tool was utilized to convince the Japanese people and military to continue a war which, throughout the years, increasingly revealed itself as unwinnable. Likewise, the United States also used selective reporting and propagation of isolated incidences in constructing a universal American understanding of the Japanese national persona.

I would thus like to trace a path from the comparatively minor act of "collecting souvenirs" to the ultimate Allied atrocity of the atomic bombing of the civilian centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; illustrating, with examples from the Dower text, the role that selective reporting and centralized propaganda played in compounding atrocities. As Dower illustrates, in the Japanese war against the Anglo-Americans, atrocities and crimes of war were inherent in the webs of perceptions and fierce fighting. Selective reporting and propaganda on both sides, however, culminated in a vicious cycle where atrocities were committed on a far grander scale than seemingly anyone on either side could have imagined in 1941.

Let me begin with Dower’s contention that while the Japanese public was not completely unaware of Japanese atrocities, accounts of most massacres such as the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and the sack of Manila “appear to have been successfully censored, and even withheld from relatively well placed individuals.”[5] Thus, “to the majority of Japanese, as to the Anglo-Americans, atrocities committed by one’s own side were episodic, while the enemy’s brutal acts were systematic and revealed a fundamentally perverse national character.”[6] Let us then, conduct our examination through this crucial frame of reference.

The first example Dower gives of Japanese propaganda which portrays the allies as the “real barbarians of the modern age” is the “mutilation of Japanese corpses for ‘souvenirs.’”[7] These atrocities did take place and were, in fact, well documented. Dower includes accounts by several American servicemen of such practices including one particularly gruesome account of a “wounded Japanese thrashing on the ground as a Marine slit his cheeks open and carved his gold-crowned teeth out with a kabar.”[8] These practices were not entirely taboo in the West, although Dower notes “it is virtually inconceivable, however that teeth, ears and skulls could have been collected from German or Italian war dead and publicized in the Anglo-American countries without provoking an uproar.”[9] To illustrate, Life magazine published a photo of an attractive blonde posing with a Japanese skull she had been sent by her fiancé.[10] As Edgar L. Jones, a former American war correspondent in the Pacific noted, this and other atrocities certainly took place on all sides, but, he adds this atrocious behavior and others were “not condoned by all or even most fighting men.”[11] The Japanese propagandists, nevertheless, took the practice and “gave it wide publicity as a revelation of the American national character,”[12] much as the diary found on a fallen Japanese soldier depicting a “good story” of the decapitation of an Allied soldier was editorialized in the New York Times as having illuminated “the real nature of our Asiatic enemy.”[13]

While these ‘revelations’ no doubt fueled the dehumanization of each respective ‘other,’ a new trend had emerged which would have far graver implications in terms of the ferocity of fighting and war crimes committed, as well as unforeseeable destructive consequences for the future. The Allies had become increasingly reluctant to take prisoners. Propaganda and selective reporting on both sides played a significant role in this trend. The American web of perception, in which racism was a prominent aspect, played a role; so too did the “rage bordering on the genocidal,”[14] which followed in the aftermath of the “treacherous” attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese practices: “booby-trapping their dead and wounded, and using fake surrenders to ambush unwary foes,” the most notorious example being the “Goettge patrol” where over twenty marines responding to an apparent Japanese surrender were ambushed and shot or bayoneted to death, perpetuated this trend as well.[15] Nevertheless, Dower maintains that this is yet another example of “certain incidents elevated to symbolic status,” and that it was indeed a rare marine, who did not “know” the enemy through this particular encounter.[16] As a result, Allied soldiers became reluctant to take prisoners and engaged in massacres of helpless, wounded or captured Japanese, practices which were ignored, given tacit support or sometimes even ordered by allied officers;[17] behavior which, when practiced by their opponents was seen as “revealing the unique and inherent savagery of the Japanese.”[18]

Japanese propagandists utilized this Allied trend, combining incidents such as the “Slaughter on the Bismark Sea,” coupled with the Allies extreme exterminationist rhetoric like the Marine battle cry on Tarawa: “Kill the Jap bastards! Take no prisoners,”[19] and the proud title of the 41st Division under MacArthur, “the 41st didn’t take prisoners.”[20] Japanese propaganda such as Tokyo Rose’s broadcasts characterizing war in the Pacific as “no holds barred,”[21] effectively convinced the soldiers that surrender was not an option and thus served to perpetuate the very stereotypes which the allies were constructing. Although Dower gives surprisingly few concrete examples of Japanese propaganda depicting the Allies reluctance to take prisoners, he illustrates the effects in two telling examples. Dower cites a US Office of War Information report dated June, 1945 discussing a group of interrogated Japanese prisoners, 84 percent of whom claimed they expected to be tortured or killed if captured.[22] A second example is a summary OWI report citing documents pertaining to Japanese prisoners which were “full of ingenious schemes devised by POWs to avoid being shot while trying to give themselves up,” due to the fact of “surrender being made difficult by the unwillingness to take prisoners” on the part of the allies.[23]

Dower suggests that despite popular notions of loyalty to the emperor, mass frenzy and fear of ostracism at home being the purported reasons why the Japanese did not surrender, the
understanding that surrender was not an option, true in some cases, a manifestation of propaganda in others, was likely the pivotal reason. Allied propaganda utilized this stereotype of the Japanese “willingness to accept incredible casualties” and convinced their camp, planners, soldiers and civilians alike, that the Japanese were an enemy which “not only deserved to be killed, but had to be.”[24] The consequences are well known. Although the Allies had harshly condemned Japanese bombings of civilian targets in China, American and British planners had, in secret, discussed the prospect of bombing enemy cities months before Pearl Harbor, however they feared a public reaction “detrimental to the postwar development of the air forces.”[25] By the time Japan surrendered, sixty-six cities had been bombed, including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an estimated 400,000 civilians were killed, “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” and yet “there was scarcely a murmur of protest on the home front,” Japan had merely “reaped what it had sowed.”[26] The escalation from the inevitable atrocities of war, to some of the fiercest fighting the world has seen, and the culmination of “nuclear destruction against two virtually defenseless cities,”[27] was by and large a consequence of selective reporting and propaganda on both sides; atrocities took place, were propagated as universal and in turn, fueled further atrocious behavior to be utilized again, culminating in a vicious cycle. War hates and war crimes in the Pacific theater between the Allies and the Japanese can not be understood outside of this framework. As Professor Bix often deals with comparative history, I would like to close in saying that with the nature of tensions between the United States and the Islamic world today, these lessons on the effects of language in times of war may indeed prove pertinent.

End Notes:

[1]. Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York, NY:
Pantheon Books, 1986. 72
[2]. Dower, 72
[3]. Ibid.
[4]. Dower, 73
[5]. Dower, 61
[6]. Ibid.
[7]. Dower, 34
[8]. Dower, 65
[9]. Dower, 66
[10]. Dower, 65
[11] Dower, 64
[12]. Dower, 65
[13]. Dower, 51
[14]. Dower, 36
[15]. Dower, 64
[16]. Ibid.
[17]. Dower, 66-67
[18]. Dower, 66
[19]. Dower, 68
[20] Dower, 69
[21] Ibid.
[22] Dower, 68
[23] Ibid.
[24] Dower, 52
[25] Dower, 40-41
[26] Ibid.
[27] Dower, 34


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