My Response to a Reader’s Thought-Provoking Rebutal of My Essay on HBO’S “The Pacific”

Soon after I published a rambling critique of the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” I was pleased to receive the following very well-written and carefully-reasoned response to several of the issues that I had raised in my post: ‘And Now for Something Completely Different, Part 3’. The commentator presents a number of interesting arguments in rebuttal to several of the points that I had brought forward in my wide-ranging essay about Tom Hanks, ‘historical revisionism’, and the HBO series that Hanks and Spielberg produced. Originally, as I usually do, I had planned on dashing off a reply in the ‘comments section’ to my anonymous critic, but upon reflection, I have decided to expand my remarks and to post them as a regular blog entry. These remarks are presented in very much the same form as if they were in a direct email to this thoughtful commentator.

Here is the comment to which my response replies:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, PART 3...":

LeMay said it best: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal."

What was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions in early 1940 (a British Admiral refused to shell a German position in Norway due to the great potential of civilian casualties) became de-riguer in 1944-45.

(FWIW like you I see nothing wrong with this and a utilitarian analysis tells me the USAAF's area bombing, including the two nukes, were in all likelihood necessary if not sufficient to getting Japan to surrender to our terms cleanly, as opposed to the grinding mess we had to go through in Germany).

A lot of blood flowed under the bridge to get the national psyche there. The brutal bombing of The Blitz -- as Germany's ally and partner in crime, Japan received our enmity in transference.

The suicidal resistance we encountered every step of the way. The brutal mistreatment of our POWs and our Philippine friends we fully discovered in late 1944.

The payback we wanted to exact for Japan's brutal prosecution of their attacks on China.

A lot of our killing of Japanese civilians was done not regretfully but rather eagerly.

I think you have a comic-book view of the reality of WW2.

There was great racism directed against Japanese in the US prior to WW2. California and the US had passed an exclusion act against Japanese immigrants in the 1920s, something the 1941 diplomacy was looking at repealing as part of the reaching a modus vivendi.

The Japanese farmer's boy who did the bulk of the fighting and dying didn't know bushido from Bluto. His officers were inculcated in this tradition, they beat this into the NCOs, which in turn beat the idea of total obedience to the divine chain of command into their charges.

My grandfather was born in 1911 in rural Washington and he didn't rush out on Dec 8 to enlist. He finally did in 1943 as the Marines were getting pretty beat up.

FWIW, I think everyone was a victim in WW2. The Japanese pro-war militants, for being pigheaded fools trapped in their glory-seeking such that they failed to fully weigh the attendant risks of their actions, and everyone forced to fight and die for their country, and the millions of civilian dead from Burma to Peiping.

It was a crazy time, a time when revisionists thought they could bring back the 19th century norms of truculent politics into the mid-20th.

I don't think the current friction we have with the islamic world is anything close to this, any more than the Irish question was like WW2.

There may be a billion muslims, but this makes the situation more stable I think, over the long run.

Posted by Anonymous to Map and Counters at March 22, 2010 1:00 AM

Greetings Anonymous:

Thank your for your interesting, if challenging comments; it is always reassuring to a blogger like me to know that someone out there in the ‘internet ether’ — whether they agree or disagree with my occasionally eccentric musings — actually makes the effort both to read and then to respond to something that I have written. I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to share your views.

Based on your thoughtful and serious response to my post on the Spielberg-Hank’s production, “The Pacific,” I suspect that — at least, insofar as both the historical context and the major events of World War II are concerned — we probably agree about more than we disagree. In fact, it is possible that the majority of the questions that you raise are as much a product of my imperfect choice of language as of anything else. In any case, let me clarify a few points that, had this essay been more artfully written, might not have been quite so open to criticism.

Mixed in with your earlier remarks, you suggest that my sense of the national mood just after America’s entry into the war may be a little overblown. Perhaps, but I really don’t think so. I do acknowledge that once the initial wave of national shock and anger in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor dissipated in the months following the bombing of the Pacific Fleet, the vast majority of Americans gradually settled into a grudging, rather than enthusiastic, acceptance of the many changes that the war imposed on everyday life. However, it is also incontrovertible that prior to the Japanese attack, the vast majority of the population was certainly not clamoring to fight on behalf of the captive peoples in Europe or the Far East. Even Edward R. Morrow’s reportage on the German’ Blitz’ of London, and the photo essays on the victorious march of the Wehrmacht through Europe or the Japanese depredations against the Chinese in popular publications of the day like ‘LOOK’ and ‘LIFE’ magazines had been unable to significantly gin-up American public opinion. In fact, according to Gallup, just prior to the Japanese attack, well over 60% of Americans were strongly opposed to going to war with anyone; more interesting still, even after Pearl Harbor, perhaps as much as 17% of the population still opposed going to war against Germany and Japan. Thus, Pearl Harbor, if it did nothing else, dramatically changed popular attitudes, even if it did not completely expunge natural concerns about what entry into the war would mean. And popular worries were certainly justified, even for those who fought the war on the ‘Home Front’.

To begin with, things changed almost immediately, and not always for the better. Well-paying jobs, of course, became plentiful for the first time in over a decade. However, while the typical civilian worker may have been happy to have steady employment at a defense plant, he or she was also probably unhappy about the very real inconveniences imposed by rationing, chronic shortages in hitherto common goods, blackout regulations, and conscription. And certainly after the first wave of enlistments following America’s entry into the war, millions of young men — rather than rushing to sign up — were content to wait until they were called up in the draft. Nonetheless, I would argue that the war still affected the national psyche like no conflict since the Civil War. Was there a massive effort by both the government and the national media to propagate and promote patriotic themes? Of course, there was. And did war-weariness gradually begin to seep into the national consciousness as first the months, and then the years passed, and more and more ‘Blue Star’ mothers became ‘Gold Star’ mothers? Most certainly; it could hardly have been otherwise. Yet, World War II still represented a monumental and even transformative national experience. People picked-up and moved, oftentimes across country, in order to find jobs in the rapidly expanding war industry and they never went back to their original homes once the war was over. In short, the entire country changed, and changed forever.

We appear to differ as to degree, but not in terms of actual substance, on another issue. You point out, quite correctly, that the ordinary Japanese soldier would have had little real understanding of the traditional teachings of Bushido. This is a valid point. Japanese martial conduct was inculcated through rigorous training and constant indoctrination and was not a product of informed study on the part of the lower ranks. So, I grant you that the actual text of Miyamoto Musashi’s Seventeenth Century martial masterpiece, ‘The Book of the Five Rings’ would have been, I am sure, quite unfamiliar except by reputation to most of the men who fought for the Emperor during World War II; yet I would nonetheless argue that these precepts and the ancient warrior traditions of Bushido still shaped the conduct of Japan’s military in important and unfortunate ways. It was not, after all, Japanese officers and NCO’s, but ordinary soldiers, who went through military hospitals in Singapore — following the British surrender of the island fortress — bayoneting the wounded soldiers and medical staff that they found there. Moreover, this was not a regrettable, undisciplined aberration, but a continuation of the same types of military conduct that had been seen time and time again in Japan’s war with China. The ordinary Japanese soldier might not have known the subtleties of the creed that animated his leaders, but he certainly understood what was expected of him.

It was, by the way, interesting to see that you opened your commentary with a quote from the architect of the World War II American bombing campaign against Japan, USAAF General Curtis LeMay. His “war crimes” comment, discomforting though it may be, is simply a confirmation of the inarguable truth that the histories of all wars are largely written by the winners. Moreover, he was in a position to know about that of which he spoke: there is little doubt that LeMay’s strategy of area bombing Japanese cities was a calculated attempt to destroy the will of the Japanese people to continue the war. That it was seen as ruthless and controversial even by some within the US Government is inarguable. On the other hand, given the fact that — by the time of the battle for Okinawa — the Imperial high command had already begun extensive preparations for a last-ditch defense of the Japanese Home Islands against an Allied invasion that envisaged sacrificing their own civilian population in what was certain to be an act of national suicide, it is hard to see that LeMay really had many acceptable alternatives. It is, by the way, ironic that the cigar-chomping LeMay is today associated with the devastating and much-criticized air campaign against Japan, and almost no one remembers that the blunt-talking general was also the organizer and moving force behind the Berlin Airlift.

On one issue we do seem to differ. When it comes to the destructiveness and sheer ferocity of the war in the Pacific versus that in Europe, unlike you, I can really see no appreciable difference. The British may have been, as you point out, a little squeamish about the conduct of the war in its early stages, but once the survival of England was at stake, virtually all such considerations went ‘over the side’. The Vichy French Fleet, for example, was attacked by the British Mediterranean Fleet on 3 July 1940 while anchored at Mers el Kébir in Algeria; this patently illegal bombardment of a neutral country’s naval forces resulted in the sinking of three French battleships and the deaths of over 1,000 French seamen. Given the threat of a German controlled French fleet, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, showed no hesitation at all in ordering this attack against sailors who only a few months before had been England’s allies. Moreover, the air war between England and Germany showed little inclination by either side to avoid or even to minimize civilian casualties. Sadly, very soon after the fall of France, both British and German air force planners switched their emphasis from military to civilian targets; thus, the change in the Allied attitude towards civilian casualties actually occurred long before the more intensive air campaigns against Germany in 1943-45. In fact, the British Air Marshal, “Bomber” Harris, wasted little time — once he had the government’s approval — in changing over to night area attacks against German cities so as to conserve the British bomber force and its desperately-needed flight crews. For better or for worse, in the eyes of the British high command, the indiscriminate bombing of population centers was virtually the only strategic tool that the English had with which to strike back at the Third Reich. If there was significantly more soul-searching among the leaders of the air campaign against Germany than among those who led the air war against Japan, I have not been able to find it. As a final thought on the air war, given the Allied emphasis on a “Germany First” strategy for World War II: I have every confidence that had Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive been wildly successful, then Berlin rather than Hiroshima would have been the primary target for the first American atomic bomb.

In another part of your commentary, you suggest that I at least partially ignore the wide-spread anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States both before and during World War II. Although that was not my intent, I can understand how my poor choice of language could lead a reader to that conclusion. Nonetheless, as I conceded in my original essay: there was certainly a racial dimension to the bitter fighting that raged across the Pacific. My only point was that, if anything, it was culturally even more ingrained in the ordinary Japanese soldier than in the young marine who faced him. Nonetheless, the fact remains that those Japanese dwelling in the United States, like any number of other ‘suspect’ ethnic groups, suffered as a result of prejudice before the war, and from a very real and wide-spread racial animus after Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans was a regrettable and unjust overreaction to events in the Pacific. However, this treatment was not unique to the Japanese: the US Government had previously demonstrated no qualms, whatsoever, about abusing the Constitutional rights of German-Americans or of any others, for that matter, that the Wilson Administration had deemed as either unreliable or insufficiently patriotic during World War I. Clearly, it was a different time; the America of the early and mid-Twentieth century was simply not the same place than it is today.

At one point, you allude to my “comic-book” attitude towards the events of World War II. From this comment I can only infer that you view my arguments a being too critical of the Japanese, too biased in favor of the American marines, and not particularly nuanced when it comes to a world cataclysm that, when it was finally over, had consumed some sixty to seventy million lives. It is, of course, possible that I am predisposed because of my personal history and background to see the wartime conduct of the ordinary American serviceman in a more favorable light than someone else looking at the same events or the same set of facts. Fair enough; honesty compels me to at least grant that possibility. On the other hand, everything that I have seen and read, as well as my own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam tell me that, in the wars of the “American Century,” there have usually been profound differences between the way in which we have treated our enemies and the way that they have treated us. And that those differences have almost always redounded to America’s credit. So, in keeping with the “comic-book” metaphor, I offer a link to two photographs each used for a different cover of “LIFE’ magazine as visual illustrations as to why my faith in the basic decency of the ordinary American serviceman or woman remains unshakeable. Both photographs were taken by W. Eugene Smith in the Pacific during World War II: one was taken in Saipan in 1943; the other during the battle for the Marianas, in 1944. (Life magazine cover photos show a US Marine rescuing a Japanese baby, Saipan June 1943 and navy corpsman treating wounded Japanese soldier, Marianas, 1944.)
Both show, I hope, that despite the harrowing carnage of these different battlefields, the essential spark of humanity and compassion still managed to survive in the hearts of these ordinary American servicemen. In over forty years of reviewing various photo archives, I have yet to locate any comparable photographs of similar acts of compassion by German soldiers toward their Russian enemies, or of Japanese soldiers toward any non-Japanese babies or enemy wounded.

As you observe, war is a tragic, terrible business; but it is also a business that we, as human beings, seem either unable or unwilling to abandon. The war in the Pacific was, for the most part, fought over patches of ground that the majority of soldiers on both sides had never heard of and about which they didn’t care; they simply went where they were told and did, in so far as each was capable, what they were there for. It is easy, looking back on long-past, distant battlefields to confuse the sordid ugliness of the means by which wars are fought with their outcomes. By this logic, everyone from the luckless civilians suddenly buried under the rubble of their collapsed house, to the SS officer who presided over the massacre of American POW’s at Malmédy, to the Japanese guards who bayoneted American and Philippino prisoners during the Bataan “Death March,” were all victims. This, I think, is a gross mistake; the outcome of the Second World War mattered profoundly for both sides; and because the Allies finally won, everyone, despite the extraordinary expenditures of blood and treasure, lives in a different and, I would argue, a better world because of it.

When I was growing up, virtually every male member of my family, except for two uncles who had been classified as ‘4 F’, had served in either the Pacific or in Europe. In those days, being a veteran was not an oddity; it was the rule. And, to a person: my father, my many uncles, and all of their friends still believed and were not hesitant in proclaiming — without a hint of self-consciousness — that theirs’ had been a righteous cause, and that they had played a small part in overthrowing the greatest existential menace of their age.


  • (I'm the same anonymous -- I've re-read your original to hopefully keep this on-point)

    Since we're both pretty well-read on WW2, we're going to agree more than disagree since I think it's safe to say that the history of the conflict can be put to bed (any idiocies from Alperovitz aside).

    As for wartime atrocities being part of the Japanese warrior spirit, I still disagree. The history of the Alexandra Hospital incident includes General Yamashita personally apologizing to the survivors the following day.

    Badly-led soldiers go nuts, from frustration (like at My Lai 4) or from victory disease (after taking Singapore everyone thought Japan had won the war). Apparently the troops that ran amok were from the 18th ID, a unit that, according to wikipedia at least, was raised in 1937 and shipped off to the fighting at Shanghai, Nanjing, and Canton before taking part in the Malaya campaign. Seems there might be some parallel to the Americal here.

    I don't want to be an apologist for the IJA since the world they were fighting for sucked, but I think it's a mistake to lose empathy. Nobody growing up or going into battle thinks they're on the bad or wrong side, and this conditioning survives even after the war is over.

    We as a nation have our skeletons in the closet wrt our 19th century (and early 20th century) expansion; while I don't want to draw any parallels the Japanese of 1937 was a revisionist power with aims of extending its continental empire through Manchuria into China proper. Then when its ally knocked over the Dutch and French governments, from all appearances a heaven-sent opportunity arrived to seize new colonial holdings in E Asia.

    From the Japanese perspective, this all made as much sense as the Monroe Doctrine, "chasing Pancho Villa", and the numerous landings of US Marines in Latin America made to us.

    Japan was fighting for its place in the sun, and by all appearances had won the war in February 1942. This is not to excuse or whitewash the Japanese willingness to engage in brutality. This brutality was commonplace within the Army, so it's no surprise that these methods were extended to where their Army was the occupying power.

    I cannot say I am proud of my grandfather's service in WW2; taking pride in someone else's deeds seems empty and self-serving. Peleliu itself was a rather pointless battle, but Okinawa was probably an important demonstration to the Japanese leadership that the US had the capability to project sufficient military power to take what we wanted, though that campaign was also a reasonably fair demonstration of the Japanese soldiery's discipline and also of the cost-effectiveness of the "Special Attack" forces still being assembled for the final deciding battle.

    As for "existential menaces", I'm reasonably sure Hitler's Germany wasn't an existential menace, though the question is certainly debatable. It becomes a question of the underlying humanity of Germans as the master race -- would their propaganda survive the 20th century, or would liberalism soften it?

    As for Japan, we shattered one empire in 1945 only to see the rise of a more truculent replacement with Mao's regime, and of course spent much of the 1950s and 60s and another 100,000 KIA to maintain our footholds on the continent against Communist expansionism.

    A different 20th century history was possible. Probably not any better for humanity, but who knows.

  • I found this last night:

    On 15 Aug 1945, newspaper Mainichi Shimbun published a story written by [former Prime Minister Adm] Suzuki on the Japanese surrender. In the article he wrote that it was his conviction to "trust the enemy commander." "The 'Bushido' is not a Japanese monopoly", he said. "It is an universal code." He believed that Allied commander Douglas MacArthur was a warrior who abided by the rules of Bushido, therefore he would "protect [his] adversary who has surrendered as one enlisted on [his] side".

    Bushido has some subtleties I guess. The Japanese infantryman was not instructed at all regarding the norms of the Geneva Conventions, that was considered a rich man's way of warfighting that Japan did not formally subscribe to.

    I'd guess it's easy, in the heat of battle and in the course of striking a historic wave of victories in early 1942, to see one's defeated enemy as disgraced and even subhuman. The Japanese man on the street certainly felt they'd been getting a raw deal from the white powers ever since what they felt they rightfully won in the Russian war was taken away by diplomacy.

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