War Without Mercy

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John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War. List: 20th Century.
Subjects: World War II, Race, Popular Culture.

John Dower's War Without Mercy describes the ugly racial dimensions of the conflict in the Asian theater of World War II and their consequences on both military and reconstruction policy in the Pacific. "In the United States and Britain," Dower reminds us, "the Japanese were more hated than the Germans before as well as after Pearl Harbor. On this, there was no dispute among contemporary observers. They were perceived as a race apart, even a species apart -- and an overpoweringly monolithic one at that. There was no Japanese counterpart to the 'good German' in the popular consciousness of the Western Allies." (8) Conservative readers, don't fret - Dower isn't making this argument to exonerate the Japanese for their own racism or war crimes -- after all, "atrocious behavior occurred on all sides in the Pacific War." (12-13) Rather, Dower is exploring the propaganda of the US-Japanese conflict to delineate the "patterns of a race war," the cultural mechanisms of "othering," and the portability of racial/racist stereotypes. For "as the war years themselves changed over into into an era of peace between Japan and the Allied powers, the shrill racial rhetoric of the early 1940s revealed itself to be surprisingly adaptable. Idioms that formerly had denoted the unbridgeable gap between oneself and the enemy proved capable of serving the goals of accommodation as well." (13)

Dower begins by examining the propaganda churned out by both war machines (including a Frank Capra documentary, Know Your Enemy - Japan) and discovers two underlying patterns of stereotyping. "In everyday words," he writes, the "first kind of stereotyping could be summed up in the statement: you are the opposite of what you say you are and the opposite of us, not peaceful but warlike, not good but bad...In the second form of stereotyping, the formula ran more like this: you are what you say you are, but that itself is reprehensible." (30) In this case, American's commitment to individualism became rapacious self-interest in the eyes of Japan, while the Japanese commitment to collectivity became herd thinking to Americans.

Speaking of "the herd," much of Dower's book focuses on the public images of the Japanese in American culture during World War II. These images are easily summarized by the titles of Dower's chapters:

"Apes and Others" notes how often Japanese became identified with animals, most notably apes and vermin. "Japanese were perceived as animals, reptiles, or insects (monkeys, baboons, gorillas, dogs, mice and rats, vipers and rattlesnakes, cockroaches, vermin -- or, more indirectly, 'the Japanese herd' and the like...At the simplest level, they dehumanized the Japanese and enlarged the chasm between 'us' and 'them' to the point where it was perceived to be virtually unbridgeable." In contrast, the German enemy was almost always referred to only as Nazis, and "cruder epithets for the Germans (heinies, Huns, Jerrys, Krauts" were used sparingly by comparison." (81-82) "Lesser Men and Supermen" outlines a fascinating pattern whereby Japanese men were considered obsequious and inferior in American culture, until after Pearl Harbor, when the polarity switched and the Japanese became superhuman. As Dower remarks, "these transitions and juxtapositions in the Western image of the Japanese were abrupt and jarring: from subhuman to superhuman, lesser men to supermen. There was a common point throughout, in that the Japanese were rarely perceived as being human beings of a generally comparable and equal sort." (99) In "Primitives, Children, Madmen," Dower discusses the propensity in American culture for characterizations of the Japanese that relied on notions of stunted civilization or development. As he puts it, "the Japanese as a collectivity were diagnosed as...
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