War Without Mercy

by John W. Dower

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

War Without Mercy is backgrounded by a bitter war between the United States and Japan during World War II. However, it frames the war largely as a race war perpetuated by the former, arguing that the US strategically utilized national support of the war effort to reassert Western primacy, particularly the primacy of American nationalist identity, over US-Japanese relations. Similarly, the Japanese side during the war sought to solidify public perception of the United States as a domineering Western evil.

The book uses a variety of sources spanning different mediums to illustrate the complex ways in which each country leveraged mass media and racial biases to rationalize committing atrocities against other humans. It arrives at the insight that war will probably always be the most crude and depraved tool humanity can fashion for absolving itself of its intrinsic fears and biases.

War Without Mercy

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2612

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 important to maintain precise, careful distinctions.

In several places in his study, Dower states that the United States and Great Britain were fighting for “white supremacy” in the Pacific. This is partly borne out by the larger historical context of World War II—earlier, in the nineteenth century, Great Britain was an imperial power in Asia, the United States following suit in the Philippines in the century’s last decade. After World War II ended, many national and racial liberation movements sprang up in Asia. The battle between Japan and the United States, however, can also be seen as a direct rivalry for political and economic dominance—a competition between two “imperialist” countries—with race playing a subordinate role. Concepts of self-interest and of race might overlap, and they might not. Dower’s distinctions between the two are not rigorous.

The pages on Japanese awareness of race are among the best in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Dower makes it clear that race was an issue of the utmost importance to the official Japanese planners of the war and also to Japanese society as a whole. According to the major “racial blueprint” of the war, published in 1943, Greater Asia was to be divided into a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” of inferior nations subordinate to Japan, providing Japan with raw materials and slave labor, or rmusha. Asia was to be a Japanese colony; Japan was to export 14 percent of its population to administer the inferior peoples. These Japanese would live in special “Japan towns,” avoiding any assimilation or miscegenation with the natives. This area was to include Australia and New Zealand. All maps and calendars were to be changed to Japanese mythohistorical time—for example, 1942 became the year 2602, following the founding of the imperial (Yamato) state in 660 b.c.e.

Dower’s documentation of an analogous or symmetrical racism among Americans leads him to lean heavily on popular magazines. Instead of talking about official policy or government blueprints for the future, he quotes from a medley of popular sources: Yank, Leatherneck, the Hearst newspapers, songwriters, gun makers’ advertisements, speeches at the Kiwanis Club, The American Legionnaire, Reader’s Digest, Time and Life, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books. Dower’s American racism seems very much a product of wartime propaganda. This is a mine of racial slurs, from song titles such as “We’re Gonna Find a Fellow Who Is Yellow and Beat Him Red, White, and Blue” and “To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific” to derogatory references about skin color and facial traits. Unquestionably there was racial feeling and prejudice behind these works; it would be foolish for an American to deny it. On the other hand, it is clear that Dower is using very different kinds of sources here from those he used for Japan. He is not, according to the popular expression, comparing apples to apples; or, to use the logician’s vocabulary, he employs many fallacies, above all appealing to false analogy and to false cause.

There is great confusion in this study between the needs of wartime propaganda and real racial abuse. The two existed side by side in a very uneasy mixture, but it is absurd to deny the legitimate claims of propaganda and motivation—directed both at civilians and soldiers—in time of war. Propaganda is a necessary weapon of inestimable importance. A hundred years prior to World War II, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the particular difficulties of democracies in mobilizing for war, their unique social and psychological vulnerabilities. During World War II, the propaganda battle was savage. A Russian commentator, Dimitri Panin (the “Sologdin” in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle), claimed that the Germans could have easily defeated the Soviet Union if they had been more astute with their propaganda and, after the capture of Kiev in 1941, created a Russian provisional government of collaborators with Germany; Panin is certain that Russian citizens would have rushed to join it. The Germans were unresourceful and failed to make this crucial step. Dower makes no effort to distinguish between propaganda and genuine racism; many quotes from magazines such as Yank, Leatherneck, and others are crude and exaggerated and were meant to be so. They should obviously be taken with a grain of salt, but Dower fails to do this.

Another problem in the presentation of race is the difference between the attitudes of a racially homogeneous society—for example, Sweden, Japan, and, to a large extent, England—and a racially heterogeneous society such as the United States. The homogeneous society often seems relatively free of racial antagonisms for long periods of time, while the heterogeneous society may seem beset by constant racial friction. An analogy can be found closer to home: In a community in Louisiana, for example, white Protestants and Catholics, cajuns, hispanics, and blacks might mix imperfectly with a frequent exchange of a variety of derogatory racial epithets, while in a northern state, a community of ethnic Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians might mix easily with no occasion for racial epithets or anecdotes. Yet it would be entirely illusory to conclude that the second community is less racist than the first. The homogeneous community may have few occasions to express attitudes about other ethnic groups, but, given the opportunity, they might express prejudices surprisingly profound and violent.

There is no room in Dower’s schema, however, for distinctions such as these. He ranges back and forth among earlier centuries, following in the footsteps of the historians Richard Drinnan and Winthrop Jordan; he collects evidence for racism in the atrocities committed against blacks and American Indians, seeming to describe fixed Platonic essences of racism rather than products of historical circumstances. The raw evidence is incontrovertible, and America’s record is bad, even hair-raising. To claim that this bears on American wartime attitudes toward the Japanese, however, is a matter of pure speculation. It might well be false. To prove it would require finer logical instruments. Time and time again Dower commits the fallacies of false cause, of the undistributed middle (substitution of “all” or “any” for “some”), and there are simple anachronisms in his study as well.

Dower touches on other important issues, though only peripherally. Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy is treated as if it were almost accidental. Dower calls the alliance “expeditious” and “hollow,” yet in his discussions of the government-produced racial theories, of the program of the wartime Kyoto Philosophical School (Kyoto Gakuha), and of the notion of purity of blood—“the consanguineous unity of the nation”—it seems that the Japanese borrowed heavily from German writers. In addition, the Japanese borrowed much of the German repertory of anti-Semitism. Curiously, this was directed against the United States, which the Japanese frequently thought to be in the grip of Jewish “plutocrats.” It tied in with the concept of the United States as a “mongrel” nation, adulterated by its wave of immigration, an “impure,” decadent, weak nation.

Another important topic that receives only cursory examination is the last phase of the war—the period after Guadalcanal, the post-Saipan propaganda offensive of 1944 and 1945, and the final Japanese surrender. Japan’s conduct of the war changed qualitatively. The kamikaze, or suicide, mentality was glorified, and the entire nation was seen as a collective suicide force under the slogan “The Hundred Million as a Special Attack Force.” Another slogan advocated “the shattering of the hundred million like a beautiful jewel”; civilians and soldiers were to lay down their lives in repulsing the approaching invader. A transcendent bath of blood was advocated as the supreme form of spiritual cleansing. This last phase of the war was crueler than what had preceded. Dower states ironically that “Japan’s defeat was already secured,” yet he has no insights into how the defeat might have been negotiated. He rightly says that at this stage there was little distinction made between combatants and noncombatants: The entire Japanese population was mobilized and indoctrinated. Dower indicates no elements of moderation or resistance that might have been used in negotiations. He deplores the Allied insistence on an unconditional surrender as well as the use of atom bombs, but he makes no specific recommendations on how these might have been avoided. In Japan, the omnipresent organization of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association controlled all political activity. Unconditional surrender was a Japanese demand; the Japanese required it of the British in Singapore and of the Americans in the Philippines in 1942, and the mythical leader Momotar demanded either unconditional surrender or continued slaughter. Casualty rates were increasing on both sides; many Americans considered the popular phrase “See you at the Golden Gate in ’forty-eight” to be optimistic. Much of Dower’s analysis contradicts the arguments of revisionist historians such as Gar Alperovitz, who believe that a cease-fire or truce could have been negotiated by diplomacy.

War Without Mercy, which won the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, contains much original research, especially into Japanese sources. In many ways it is a brave undertaking. Dower’s assumption of symmetry between Japanese and American racial attitudes, however, is far from proven. Probably it was not even necessary to make it. There was another area of prejudice, just as potent, based on ignorance, crude binary ontological concepts, self-interest, and power. Dower’s confusion of these two areas not only weakens his case, but it also partly justifies the positions of the American policymakers in 1945. Objective evaluation of this policy must wait for a study with argumentation more refined than Dower’s.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Booklist. LXXXII, May 15, 1986, p. 1354.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, April 1, 1986, p. 518.

Library Journal. CXI, April 1, 1986, p. 149.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 25, 1986, p. 8.

The Nation. CCXLII, May 24, 1986, p. 719.

The New Republic. CXCV, August 4, 1986, p. 41.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, August 14, 1986, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, June 29, 1986, p. 19.

Newsweek. CVII, June 30, 1986, p. 65.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, March 28, 1986, p. 44.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access