War Without Mercy, by John Dower (2/107)

(This book review is long and rather rambling, because I have many things to say about postwar Japan but no real thesis here.)

The first book I read by John Dower was Embracing Defeat, which is about the incredible diversity of ways in which the Japanese rebuilt and redefined their devastated country and national psyche after their defeat in WW2. As I recall, a chapter had been assigned reading in one of my classes, and the professor kindly photocopied it for us but upon finishing the chapter I immediately went out and bought the book itself.

It is a virtuoso piece of history writing — exhaustively researched, but leavened by Dower’s style which is compelling and incredibly humanizing to its subjects. Judging from my bookshelf, one might conclude that I have three interests: queer academia, prostitutes, and postwar Japan. Embracing Defeat was the book that sparked my interest in the third — specifically, in the period of the American occupation that immediately followed Japan’s surrender. There was so much that could have gone so badly, but it didn’t. It would have been so easy for America to flub Japan’s reconstruction the way we’re flubbing Iraq’s, and leave the region in a state that would only lead to more bloodshed and oppression, but we didn’t. For once, we got it right. The postwar occupation is one of the very few moments in history that you can look back on and be justifiably proud of how America acquitted itself.

Not so much during the war, however.

Dower’s premise for War Without Mercy is that it was racism, on both sides, that led to the Pacific theatre atrocities that outstripped even the carnage in Europe, not to mention the catastrophic intelligence failures, on both sides, that sprang from underestimating the enemy. If you doubt either premise (that the Pacific theatre was more brutal than the European, or that racism was the reason for it) then I do recommend reading Dower, because he might well convince you.

(Example: Pearl Harbor happened, among other reasons, because (A) Americans actualfax believed that the Japanese as a race were myopic and poor engineers, totally incapable of building or flying planes, even though the Mitsubishi Zero was already known to be the most advanced fighter plane in the world, and (B) the Japanese were convinced that Americans were effete degenerates who wouldn’t find the balls to fight back after their navy got sunk.)

Unexamined Racism

The beliefs that Dower identifies are interesting in how deeply entrenched they are, aren’t wholly dissipated even today, and that some of them are still considered facts, rather than “facts.”

Shortly before I moved out, I found myself in a rage-making conversation with my father about the atom bombs, which were a goddamned war crime, end of story, this is not a subject I stay civil on, but he was just as convinced that he was correct in asserting that they were justifiable. His reasoning — and he’s not the only one — was that the Japanese would have fought an invasion of the homeland to the bitter end (as indeed their militarist leaders exhorted them to do), with the same staggering losses on both sides that the fighting in the south Pacific had produced. Hence, the atom bombs were not only saving the lives of American soldiers (which America put an understandably higher price tag on), but ultimately fewer Japanese too would die from the atom bombs than they would from a full-scale invasion. (An argument which always struck me as invented on after the fact, not to mention condescending. I beg your pardon, “We nuked you for your own good“??)

It sounds like a flimsy argument, but it doesn’t sound like racism, until Dower starts to dissect exactly what the rhetoric around that rationale was saying — which is that the Japanese were fanatics, above and beyond the normal mobilization of the civilian populace in a state of full scale war, that they weren’t human beings to be reasoned with, that they were incapable of rational behavior, of knowing when they were beat, that they were frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics and there was no possible way to end the war except to kill every last one of them.

And since Dower isn’t one to make assertions without backing them up, he brings an absolutely staggering amount of primary sources to bear — in a particularly good chapter called “Primitives, Children, Madmen,” he identifies those as being the three distinct ways that not only the media but also official government policy characterized the Japanese. Example after numbing example — quoting everyone from random letters-to-the-editor to psychologists and social scientists to Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman — calling the Japanese savages, primitives, barbaric, tribal, feudal, aboriginal, fanatics, hoodlums, adolescents, children, babies, apes, rats, vermin, monkey-men, louses, neurotics, psychotics, schizophrenics, with penis envy, delusions of grandeur, stunted development, Napoleon complexes, Oedipus complexes, etc etc etc.

If these sound familiar, that’s because it’s the same rhetoric applied to any racial “other” when people are trying to dehumanize them.


When I was a child, I once asked my mother why we’d dropped the atom bombs on Japan. She explained (“explained”) that it was a warning, of sorts, that we’d flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the threat that “…and unless you surrender, we’ll do the same to Tokyo.”

I have no doubt that she was telling me the truth as she understood it, but she was incorrect. An atom bomb on Tokyo today would be a potent threat indeed, but Tokyo in 1945 had already been reduced to rubble by wave after wave of incendiary bombing — there was no Tokyo left to nuke. The truth is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and a few other cities) had been intentionally spared the worst of the incendiary bombing, the better to measure the precise damage inflicted by the atom bomb. This is not a secret.

The Japanese hadn’t failed to notice that Hiroshima was being left alone in a way that couldn’t be anything but deliberate; they thought it was because of Hiroshima’s reputation for having the highest concentration of Japanese Christians, and the city’s population had actually swelled in the months prior to the bomb, refugees who thought they would be safer there.

If you’re going to watch a movie about it, fuck Grave of the Fireflies and their emotional button-mashing — Barefoot Gen is a story that will break your heart, all the more for being true.

In a memorandum of January 1942, in the early moments of the war, we find Admiral Leahy quoting the common belief that “in fighting with Japanese savages all previously accepted rules of warfare must be abandoned.” Three-and-a-half years later, as the war neared its violent end, President Truman learned of the successful test of the atom bomb while at Potsdam and immediately decided to use it against Japan. This was regrettable but necessary, he wrote in a makeshift diary he was keeping at the time, because the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.”

p. 141-142


With seventy years of hindsight, such biases are ridiculously easy to recognize as the gross racism they were; harder to spot your biases when you’re living right in the middle of them. Dower’s bias leans very slightly in favor of Japan (as does mine), in that he seems to be just a hair quicker to refute American propaganda charges levelled at Japan than he does the reverse. (Which could also be a function of his target audience, English-speakers, who are likely to already lean pro-America and thus need more convincing of the opposite case.)

It’s a hard subject to treat with honesty and impartiality. Human nature is to take a side and then throw down the gauntlet on their behalf, to defend them against criticism, to mitigate or try to justify their bad behavior. It’s hard to look directly at the horrors committed by both sides and not try to argue that one was better or worse than the other, that one side had a good reason for it, that what they did wasn’t really ~so~ bad.

Because it was. Atom bombs notwithstanding, American soldiers routinely mutilated the dead and dying for gold teeth, or for trophies, or just for the hell of it. Japanese soldiers did, oh, CHINA. Neither side had any much use for POWs, because when you don’t see your enemy as fully human, you’re not much motivated to try to take them alive, or make an effort to keep them that way.

You can’t make excuses for that, and you shouldn’t try to. No matter how much you love America, or love Japan, you have to step back and look at what they did without flinching and acknowledge that the country you love did that. It’s fucking hard, cognitive dissonance like whoa.

On the whole though, Dower does a very good job keeping a balanced viewpoint on an explosively polarizing issue. And to paraphrase a line from the book: “It wasn’t that either side was lying about the atrocities committed by the other; the lie was pretending that they themselves behaved any differently.”

War Crimes, Inherited Guilt

How can anyone raised in American post-1945 be expected to understand and appreciate that war crimes are NOT ALRIGHT when the prevailing wisdom still maintains that the atom bombs were justified at the time, justifiable now, and that we as a culture aren’t obliged to carry any sort of collective guilt or regret about that?

Granted, I’m not sure that inflicting a burden of guilt for the sins of the fathers on the next generation is very effective in bringing about the needed social change. Contemporary Germans haven’t been allowed to forget their country’s actions during the Holocaust, but as far as I can tell, it hasn’t led to any real integration of Jews into the mainstream, and produced tolerance but not acceptance. (If you have better insight into this issue, please share.) Schoolkids in America are somberly taught about slavery and the civil rights movement and the most blatant forms of discrimination, but aren’t made to understand that racism is not a dead issue, and not always so obvious. (For my money, Ellis Cose’s Rage of a Privileged Class should be required reading.)

But Japan, curiously, has been allowed to forget. This was facilitated in large part by the Americans during the occupation, because they had a vested interest in getting the Japanese to renounce their actions of the war and redefine themselves as a peaceful people, as quickly as possible. If pretending those atrocities had never happened was what it took, then so be it.

(This is a subject of bitter contention with China, because many officially-sanctioned history textbooks omit or gloss over the atrocities in occupied China to an astonishing degree, and there are a number of high-ranking Japanese politicians who are the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers. Accordingly, a lot of the younger generation knows absolutely nothing about Japan’s conduct in the war, to the point where TV crews interviewing sidewalk traffic in Shibuya can find teenagers who thought that America and Japan were allies during the war.)

Redefining the Japanese as peaceful worked though, astoundingly well. Anecdotes are not evidence, but everything I saw and heard when I lived in Japan supported the belief that the Japanese have wholly embraced their new status. People telling me that Japan was “the Switzerland of Asia,” that they were unique in being the only modern nation to have completely renounced war. Never mind that their constitution was written entirely by the Americans, that Article 9, the no-war clause, was inflicted on them by their conquerors, not the result of any indigenous, grassroots movement. But it stuck, it’s become part of the national identity now, and any attempt to amend or nullify it is met with fierce resistance. A frequent sight in front of major train stations is petition takers with signs reading “Uphold Article 9.”

But that’s really more what Embracing Defeat is about.

9 thoughts on “War Without Mercy, by John Dower (2/107)

  1. As a German learning Japanese, this is Very Relevant To My Interests :D Forgive me if I get a little rambly.

    The thing about not being allowed to forget our guilt has sure turned out interesting. You grow up being told all the time that your country did this bad thing, and that loving your country means you are a bad person. There’s this whole elaborate sublimation of national pride through football, of all things. (Soccer, to you Americans.) On the whole we solve the cognitive dissonance by never thinking about it too hard; we kind of have a nebulous idea that Germany is not that great in general, but when it comes down to the particulars of course we’re better than those people over there! Look at them, that kind of thing could never happen here!

    I think on the aversion-to-military/war front it has worked reasonably well – we’re not quite as pacifist as what you describe about Japan, though. Off the top of my head, I remember two examples: The elections of 2002, where it was said that voicing support for Bush’s plan to invade Iraq cost Stoiber and his CDU the election. Everyone was very unhappy about socialist incumbent Schröder’s slashing of welfare benefits, and also about leading Germany into not only its first military campaign since WW2 (Kosovo) but also its second (Afghanistan) (ironically, Germany’s constitution doesn’t have anything against war), and his coalition was expected to lose. Then he said he would under no circumstances send forces into Iraq. That pushed his scores just over the majority.
    The second event was the 50th anniversary of the Bundeswehr, in 2005. They were having a ceremony under the motto “Decidedly for peace” and consisting of a mixed catholic/protestant service (Germany doesn’t have separation of church and state) and a speech by the chancellor about how the military helps secure peace; but there was some protest against the event because a lot of people acknowledged a military as a necessary evil but thought that honoring it, for any reason whatsoever, was going a bit too far and set a bad precedent.
    On the other hand, well, we did send soldiers to Kosovo and Afghanistan, however reluctantly, and we’re selling a lot of weapons to all kinds of unsavoury regimes.

    As to racism, well… there’s kind of a weird compartmentalization happening around it. It kinda feels like it’s only really bad when it happens to Jews; all those other people aren’t quite considered that important. The media outcry when someone draws swastikas on a jewish memorial is roughly equal to when a black person gets kicked to death by a roving band of neo-nazis (both happen with similar depressing regularity). I don’t have any idea of what it feels like to be jewish in Germany today, only how the relations play out in the media. Sometimes it feels like by ritually agreeing with everything the Jewish Spokesperson (the media only knows one Jew, the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany) says, we absolve ourselves of any charges of racism, which enables us to be blithely racist elsewhere (Islamophobia is quite mainstream; nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with blackface; Arizona-style “papers, please” where PoC are routinely controlled at every interaction with government officials has long been a reality here, and the official legal justification is “well we all know Germans don’t look like that.” I’m barely exaggerating.)
    On the other hand, that might just be the base level racism, and the constant reminders of What We Did made it slightly better for Jews and no difference to anybody else. It’s hard to tell.

  2. Thank you for weighing in on this, yours is a perspective I haven’t heard before. :)

    What you said about national pride, and feeling guilty for loving your country, is really interesting because America has basically the opposite — a grand excess of national pride, even when it’s not doing anything to be proud of.

    Modern Islamophobia is something I didn’t get around to talking about here, but was very much on my mind when I was reading this book, because the rank stereotyping in the anti-Japanese cartoons is almost identical to the acute Islamophobia (Islam-hating, really) that emerged after 9/11. It’s the same thing, and yet we can look back on WW2 cartoons and be righteously offended at the gross racism of the time, and then turn around and be totally oblivious that we’re doing the same thing again.

    This is why I don’t believe the adage about “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” — we’ll repeat it anyway.

    Funny you should mention the Arizona-style papers — Japan has the same thing, on the books anyway, which meant that my students never understood why it was an issue in America. I was, actually, stopped once. 11 in the morning, I was in my workout gear walking home after the gym, and a bicycle cop stopped me and wanted to see my gaijin card. I didn’t actually have my card with me (didn’t need it at the gym, didn’t want it getting stolen), and I even gave him some lip about it (“Hey why don’t you stop that lady over there, she might be KOREAN!”), but I still didn’t get in any trouble so the whole affair was rather toothless. He just told me to MAKE SURE I carried it in the future.

    So yeah, I don’t know how those laws are supposed to make us safer, but he could have made my day difficult if he’d wanted to. Which is, I suppose, the point.

  3. I’ve got a cover-less hardback copy of Embracing Defeat at my parents’ house. I can tell them to expect you and you can go pick it up.

    …And now that I think about it, I also happen to have a second copy of War Without Mercy, slightly highlighted, here in Cali. I can COD it to you if you like. o_O

  4. This comic is cute and hits the national pride thing pretty well. Except for two months in summer every two years, when it’s world cup or euro cup time and suddenly FLAGS EVERYWHERE. It’s pretty surreal.

    The issue with the papers thing is not so much on the street. You do have the group of cops at the main station just standing there for a few hours every day and systematically stopping only black people, and also the same thing on trains crossing national borders occasionally. But that’s the same in France (where it makes even less sense because they have a large black population); where the national character really shows is that Germans are sticklers for the rules and anyone will righteously berate you at length over rules violations that are none of their fucking business. (Try jaywalking, some kid will immediately shout “Mommy, mommy, look, that person is walking across the street even though the light is red!” in a smug “I was taught how to behave correctly” voice. And the parents will then yell at you for being a bad role model for their kids.) And this means that when I go to the post office to get a packet, I will witness the person behind the counter loudly telling off the black lady who just wanted to get her packet because the address to which the packet was sent is not the one on her registration card, and the post office was outside her allowed radius of movement around her residence. I’m sure that post office worker felt really magnanimous for not calling the police.

    The German government’s strict anti-immigration stance is even more silly because they keep whining that the population is shrinking, and passing all kinds of ridiculous laws that make it a net loss for married women to work in the hopes that chained to the kitchen stove we’ll have kids out of sheer boredom. I guess that helps with the unemployment crisis too.

  5. (Poor Germany! you can be proud of your country, really, it’s okay!) I remember after 9/11 when there was a HUGE surge of patriotism, flags EVERYWHERE. The rest of the time, you only see that concentration of Americana in political campaigns where the candidates go to ridiculous lengths in a loves-America-more-than-thou contest to impress the idiots who don’t think Obama is an American citizen.

    When you hear the phrase “shrinking population” in America, what they actually mean is “shrinking white population.” >_>

    Radius of movement around one’s residence? Now THAT is just crazy talk. I thought it was annoying and restrictive enough to be limited in the type of jobs my visa let me work.

    It’s really interesting how racism is practiced differently in different places. It’s certainly just as prevalent in Japan as in America (or anywhere, I suppose) but it manifests very differently. It’s not dangerous to be different there — blacks don’t get lynched, middle eastern taxi drivers don’t get stabbed, gays don’t get bashed — but there’s also no national dialogue about racism, so things are even less likely to change there than they are here.

  6. I think she must have been an asylum applicant, they get the most ridiculous restrictions. To the point where the supreme court has ruled them as a severe attempt on human rights, but still the interior minister refuses to change them because “If we treat them like humans it’ll create unwanted incentives!”

    I guess Germany is like the worst of both worlds – we have lynchings and stabbings, and probably bashings though I hear about those a little less often; and because the extermination of Jews was the only specific institutional racism, no meaningful debate about racism beyond that. (And what is it with people glossing over anything less than a law that explicitly says “Black people are not allowed to do X” as “not really racism”!? *headdesk*)

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