War Without Mercy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

A virtue of John Dower’s study of the wartime attitudes of Japanese and Americans toward one another is that it forces American readers to question their own opinions about the war. As with the war against Nazi Germany, the war against imperial Japan seemed to have clear-cut, black-and-white issues. Americans are still ill at ease when discussing the war in Vietnam, which divided society—the same can be said about the Civil War and other, lesser wars in American history. World War II, however, stands out in popular consciousness as a source of legitimate pride. It was a war that had to be fought, as the peaceful policies of the United States were challenged by the aggressive actions of Germany and Italy and their ally, Japan; as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States fought a war that merits the epithet “defensive” more than any other in American history since the Revolutionary War of 1776 to 1783. Dower is a specialist in twentieth century Japanese history, and he subjects this assumption to detailed analysis.

There was a unique ferocity displayed in the battles of the Pacific during World War II, and this is Dower’s point of departure. The correspondent Ernie Pyle, transferred from Europe to the Pacific in February, 1945, noted that the enemy in Asia was different: “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.” Charles Lindbergh, a civilian observer with United States forces based in New Guinea, expressed increasing concern in his diary about American atrocities committed against Japanese prisoners: “A Japanese soldier,” he wrote, “who cuts off an American soldier’s head is an Oriental barbarian, ’lower than a rat,’ whereas an American soldier who slits a Japanese throat ’did it only because he knew the Japs had done it to his buddies.’”

During the war, Pearl Buck and Lin Yutang repeatedly warned of the danger that hostilities could escalate into a more generalized race war, Japanese and Chinese becoming a solid, antiwhite racial bloc against the British and Americans. This danger was especially acute because of the British-American alliance and Asian memories of Great Britain’s earlier imperial conquests. In a speech in 1943, Pearl Buck said, “It is possible that we are already embarked upon the bitterest and longest of human wars, the war between the East and the West, and this means the war between the white man and his world and the colored man and his world.” Dower describes the progress of this “race war” from its imperialist beginnings to the denouement of the dropping of the atom bomb in August, 1945, the Japanese unconditional surrender, and the subsequent occupation.

Dower describes both the United States and Japan as motivated by racism: The assumption of the book is that both countries were equally at fault. Each indulged in comparable modes of thought, conceiving the other as a polarized, distorted “other” with inferior or inhuman characteristics. Instead of a clear black-and-white moral struggle, it was a war between two blind powers, each of which saw the adversary in a similarly distorted manner. Neither side enjoyed moral superiority, and the war was beset by misunderstandings from beginning to end. The Japanese believed that they had a mission to liberate the Asian mainland as well as the Pacific from unpopular imperial powers, and, as Dower points out, the initial reaction of some Asian countries was to welcome the Japanese armies. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, according to Dower, was a “daring attack” and had a plausible rationale in the Japanese mind.

Dower forces the reader to rethink many of the events of the war and to try to understand them from the Japanese as well as the American point of view—his project is undeniably a useful one. Many popular attitudes about Japan remain simplistic, uninformed, and prejudiced. As Dower points out, there has been an outbreak in the 1980’s of emotional “Japan bashings” caused by Japan’s great economic success and the record American trade deficit; this is irrational and dangerous. Here Dower’s book serves a real need.

On the other hand, the book has definite weaknesses as likely to damage the project of an objective, revisionist history as to help it. The greatest confusion is generated by the basic concept of race, which the author never quite adequately analyzes. The reader is informed that the Japanese—like the Germans—distinguished between a biologically oriented concept for race (Rasse in German, jinshu in Japanese) and a broader, more culturally influenced perception of race as a people or nationality (Volk in German, minzoku in Japanese). Japanese and American concepts of race, however, turn out to be very difficult to compare. While certainly Americans had racist attitudes toward the Japanese, partly based on differences of skin color, height, and facial traits, Japanese “racism” was based more on notions of collective purity, ethnic homogeneity, and belief in the inherent virtue of being Japanese. These particular attitudes are quite different; to compare them effectively would require rigorous distinctions—maintained throughout—between racist positions that are taken because of physical differences and those that are historically derived from social, cultural, or religious concepts.

Dower uses the term racism far too loosely, and it is doubtful that the word’s “-ism” suffix has any real conceptual utility. Objections to the term can be made that are similar to those raised against “fascism”; many political movements could be called fascist to varying degrees, especially during the 1930’s, when movements such as Nazism and Communism had many traits in common, but the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has correctly demonstrated that the term fascism has very limited use in this context—it easily assumes emotional content and becomes a vehicle for name-calling, obscuring issues rather than clarifying them. The same objections apply to Dower’s use of the term racism. In an area of intense emotions and unacknowledged prejudices—where writers and speakers frequently take leave of their senses—it is...

(The entire section is 2612 words.)