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John Dower: Terror Is in the Eye of the Beholder
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Our lives are, of course, our histories, which makes us all, however inadvertently, historians. Part of my own history, my other life — not the TomDispatch one that’s consumed me for the last 14 years — has been editing books. I have no idea how many books I’ve edited since I was in my twenties, but undoubtedly hundreds. Recently, I began rereading War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, perhaps 33 years after I first put pen to paper (in the days before personal computers were commonplace) and started marking up a draft of it for Pantheon Books, where I then worked, and where I later ushered it into the world.

As it happens, however, my history with the author of that book dips significantly deeper into time than that. I first met Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower in perhaps 1968, almost half a century ago. We were both graduate students in Asian studies then, nothing eminent or prize-winning about either of us in an era when so much of our time was swept away by opposition to the Vietnam War. Our lives, our stories, have crossed many times since, and so it was with a little rush of emotion that I opened his book all over again and began reading its very first paragraphs:

“World War Two meant many things to many people.

“To over fifty million men, women, and children, it meant death. To hundreds of millions more in the occupied areas and theaters of combat, the war meant hell on earth: suffering and grief, often with little if any awareness of a cause or reason beyond the terrifying events of the moment…”

That book — on World War II in the Pacific as a brew of almost unbearable racial hatreds, stereotypes, and savagery — would have a real impact in its moment (as, in fact, it still does) and would be followed by other award-winning books on war and violence and how, occasionally, we humans even manage to change and heal after such terrible, obliterating events. John’s work has regularly offered stunning vistas of both horror and implicit hope. He’s an author (and friend) who, to my mind, will always be award-winning. So it was, I have to admit, with a certain strange nostalgia that, at age 72, so many decades after I first touched a manuscript of his, I found myself editing a new one. It proved to be a small, action- and shock-packed volume on American global violence and war-making in these last 75 years. In doing so, I met on the page both my old friend who had once stood with me in opposition to the horror that was America’s war in Indochina and the award-winning historian who has a unique perspective on our past that is deeply needed on this war- and violence-plagued planet of ours.

ORDER IT NOW

So many years later, it felt like a personal honor to be editing and then publishing his new work, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, at Dispatch Books. If it’s a capstone work for him, it seemed like something of a capstone for me as well, both as an editor and, like all of us, as a historian of myself.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. First, a confession. I have not read Dower’s book so what I say may be, and probably is, wrong. I welcome constructive comments. I did read several reviews on the book and one thing each review said is that Dower believes that WWII in the Pacific was uncommonly violent because of racism on the part of both combatants. Dower’s claim of racism being based, in part, in review of wartime propaganda films.
    For me, that is a rather dubious resource to use to come to such a conclusion. After all, it was propaganda; wartime propaganda is designed to make the public on the home front and the soldiers and sailors on the line accept both the sacrifices they are going to have to endure as well as accept the horrors that have to be inflicted on the enemy. War is, after all, hell. And nice guys don’t come in last, they end up dead.
    In addition, you don’t need to look to racism as a reason for violence. The extent of violence between the Germans and the Russians/USSR was just as bad or worse than in the Pacific Theater. Does racism explain that level of violence?
    What about the violence in Asia perpetrated by the Japanese? How many millions of Chinese were brutalized and murdered? Was racism the cause?
    I recently took a vacation in Germany and just loved visiting the quaint riverside towns and villages with their centuries old castles and cathedrals. The tour guides would show us pictures of the towns and cities as they were after the war. These lovely old 300, 400 year old castles and cathedrals, and just about everything else, were mere piles of rubble. Everything had to be rebuilt because of the Allied bombings. Was racism the reason why the Allies were so destructive?
    More recently, in Rwanda in 1994, within a 100 day period as many as 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by other Rwandans. That is a rate of killing that beggars the imagination, even after one considers the horrors of two world wars. Was racism an element?
    Claiming that racism causes, or is even a significant contributing factor in, large scale violence and war is not supported by the historical facts.

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  2. Anon says: • Disclaimer

    The extent of violence between the Germans and the Russians/USSR was just as bad or worse than in the Pacific Theater. Does racism explain that level of violence?

    Yes. It was a race war. Germans saw it that way. It was superior Aryans vs Slavic subhumans. After all, if German attitude might have been different, many Slavs would have welcomed them as liberators, especially in Ukraine. Indeed, many Ukrainians did welcome Germans as liberators. And some Slavs did likewise in other parts of Russia. But Nazi racial policy made things very clear. It was a war of enslavement and extermination. And Russians knew this. This wasn’t like WWI, a bloody mess to be sure, but a war between empires. This was a Race War, a struggle for existence and survival. And because Germans knew what they’d done, they were especially afraid of defeat cuz it would lead to massive retribution, and it did.

    What about the violence in Asia perpetrated by the Japanese? How many millions of Chinese were brutalized and murdered? Was racism the cause?

    Yes. Chinese were very nationalistic in their war against Japan. So much so that Chinese public opinion called for unity of Communists and KMT to fight Japan. Chinese saw the Japanese as dwarfish foreign devils.
    And Japan knew this. They knew that Chinese nationalism had to be crushed totally for Japan to prevail. Japan had to send a strong message. Also, Japanese kids were taught in Japanese schools to feel contempt for Chinese as ‘sick man of asia’.

    Rwandans were massacred by other Rwandans. That is a rate of killing that beggars the imagination, even after one considers the horrors of two world wars. Was racism an element?

    Totally. Hutus and Tutsis saw each other as the enemy race. It became a war of existence or extermination.

    All wars are terrible, and all wars demonize the other side. But when the other side is totally dehumanized, it gives license for both sides to go all out in horror.

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  3. OutWest says:

    Any discussion of the Pacific War has to consider the profound Japanese commitment to Bushido. The formal requirement of death rather than the dishonor of surrender made for a brutal Japanese military. This burden extended to Japanese civilians as evidenced by the pitiful suicides at Tinian and Okinawa. Thus the Japanese were brutally disdainful of the surrendering prisoners from Corregidor.

    The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were not the best operatives to establish an empire. Even worse than the Europeans on average.

    I’m old enough to remember Pearl Harbor. After the war the Pacific veterans didn’t talk much, but when they did there was still active trauma.

    Still, I would rather have been in the Pacific than either a captured Soviet or German officer on the Eastern Front.

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