War in the Pacific

I, like just about everyone, am looking forward to HBO’s new miniseries The Pacific. I mean like, really, really psyched; it’s been much too long in the making. But I’m really liking the Hanks-Spielberg team as of late.

Semperpapa at David Bellavia has taken Hanks to town, though, for the latter’s comments on the ‘true’ meaning of war in the Pacific. I responded at the source, but I also think the arguments deserve a full presentation, so here are his, followed by mine:

I was somewhat disappointed by Tom Hank’s simplistic look at what WWII represented for our Nation, when, during an interview, he stated that the reason America wanted to kill the Japanese was because they were different. They looked different, they believed different.
[…]
I could even understand that Tom, as a good Liberal, would hold America responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, because after all the American fleet was an “imperialistic” obstacle to the “legitimate” expansionist needs of Japan toward South Eat Asia.
[…]
In the interview, Hank points out his latest project wanted to honor the bravery of the American troops

“…but we also wanted to have people say, ‘we didn’t know our troops did that to Japanese people.’”…

I don’t know that Hanks’s opinions, overly simplistic as they are, can be blamed on his liberalism. There weren’t too many alternatives to what we did in either theater. Rather, his misinformation can be attributed to the general American ignorance about the Pacific theater.

Much of whatever vague impressions Americans get of the Pacific are from sources like Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda and the various posters attacking “yellow” “Japs.” Which if it’s all you’re getting, definitely paints a one-sided picture.

He’s also not entirely wrong. To a degree much more pronounced than in the ETO, the American war effort dehumanized the Japanese as both a race and a nationality. In Germany, we were fighting Hitler, but in the Pacific we were fighting the Japs. There was a distinct conflation of politics and racism there that was absent from Europe, or at least the western front in Europe. The Pacific shared a viciousness with that life-or-death struggle on the eastern front, where the choices were literally reduced to a binary: victory or death and enslavement.

But I don’t mean to condemn that brutality entirely. In most ways our response was a tit-for-tat regarding Japanese behavior. After enough incidents occurred when surrendering Japanese troops instead carried out the equivalent of a suicide bombing, we stopped taking prisoners. As a tactical solution it was entirely justified. We took no prisoners – but with good reason. See John Dower’s War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War for a fairly deep analysis of the course of the Pacific theater.

Basically, the dehumanization we carried out in the press and other media is being misattributed by Hanks to a cause of the war, rather than the fairly standard wartime practice and response to in-theater events that it was.

And of course, the Japanese behavior speaks for itself.

One thought on “War in the Pacific

  1. Your analysis of Japanese-U.S. relations during WWII is entirely accurate. Rather than a visceral, emotional, and perhaps irrational hatred towards the Japanese, anti-Japanese sentiment during wartime seemed to be fueled by political necessity. In addition, it is an unfortunate truth that Hollywood has seemingly failed to accurately depict Japanese in any time period. “The Last Samurai” simplified transitional Japan to such a one-dimensional extent that it is laughable. Even Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” relegated Tokyo and its inhabitants to colorful, strange backdrops for two Caucasians to sigh at.

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