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.
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.