This book uncovers some unpalatable truths about Allied behaviour in the Pacific War, 1939-1945, in the context of an analysis of how both sides in the war (Japanese and Allied) used extreme racist language to fuel an orgy of violence and atrocities. The author, Professor John W. Dower from MIT, attempts to address the twin issues of how salient racist thought and propaganda was in the Pacific war, and how that racist fury managed to change so quickly to cooperation after the war finished. But this story relies fundamentally on a correct appraisal of the actions of both sides in the war, and particularly on an unvarnished view of Allied behaviour. Everyone knows how badly the Japanese behaved in the war, but I think very few people are aware that the Allies also engaged in a great many atrocities, including torture and wholesale slaughter of prisoners of war and surrendering soldiers. I certainly was ignorant of the scope and prevalence of the atrocities committed, and the acceptance of them (both open and tacit) in the media and higher echelons of the military at the time. Professor Dower’s argument is that these atrocities were unique to the Pacific theatre, and were inculcated through an intense campaign of racism and dehumanization of the Japanese in western media and propaganda that, although often using different imagery and style to Japanese wartime propaganda, essentially mirrored the techniques and purpose of that propaganda. The result was a war of unprecedented fury and ferocity – at least from the perspective of the US and commonwealth countries. Obviously for the Russians, Germans and Eastern Europeans the role of racial ideology in driving a war of extermination was well understood by 1943, but the conflict between Germans and the Western allies was largely free of racial hatred, and very few atrocities occurred on either side. So from the perspective of the Western Allies, the war in the Pacific theatre was conducted, propagandized and envisioned very differently to that against Germany.

This racist propaganda was both extreme and potentially catastrophic. By 1945, both the general public and policy-makers in the US were accepting of an exterminationist stream of thought, which led to speeches like this by Major George Fielding Eliot, who said that the Allies’ aim must be:

The complete and ruthless destruction of Japanese industry, so that not one brick of any Japanese factory shall be left upon another, so that there shall not be in Japan one electric motor or one steam or gasoline engine, nor a chemical laboratory, not so much as a book which tells how these things are made

Churchill suggested reducing all Japanese cities to ash, and one person assigned to planning Japan’s post-war construction called for their “almost total elimination” as a race. Fortunately for all involved, saner heads prevailed by the end of the war.

This book makes clear the tit-for-tat nature of some American atrocities and doesn’t attempt to compare savagery or indecency – it is interested in comparing the role of racist ideals in driving exterminationist behaviour. But it does not attempt to exonerate allied soldiers on the basis of their prior experiences – and makes clear, in any case, that much allied bad behaviour occurred before the full extent of Japanese atrocities was known or had been communicated to the troops. Indeed, some of the most basically racist western propaganda was conceived of before Pearl Harbour, and certainly before the general principles of a furious and merciless war were already germinating long before the Japanese atrocities had been well-understood. It makes for uncomfortable reading when the statements and behaviour of the allied soldiers are compared with those of the Nazis in the Eastern Front. For example, keeping body parts as trophies, throwing prisoners alive from aircraft, killing prisoners or survivors en masse, and cutting gold fillings from Japanese survivors while they were still alive, were common practice amongst US, British and Australian soldiers. Accounts from captured Japanese soldiers and their diaries indicate they went to ingenious lengths to find ways to surrender without being executed, because they knew this fate awaited them; and many soldiers were killed attempting to surrender.

This has led me to ponder a couple of questions that I will return to over the course of reading this book, some of which challenge my accepted understanding of how the war was conducted and what decisions were made. Here are a few:

  • George Fraser, author of the excellent Flashman series, has written an autobiographical account of his days in Burma under general Slim, the very thoughtful and interesting Quartered Safe Out Here, which I highly recommend. He routinely recounts the accepted notion that “the Japanese never surrender.” He was writing of 1945, by which time the Japanese must have known that surrender was, largely, a death sentence. Did he know this fact and chose not to include it? In fact, did he sanitize this aspect of the war from his account, and if so how much can his version of events in Burma be trusted?
  • We have clear and accurate accounts of the numbers of soldiers who died in Japanese captivity, but to the best of my knowledge no similar figures have been compiled for the Allies. Could it be that Japanese prisoners of war actually had similar (or worse!) survival rates in Allied captivity due to the practice of murdering them on capture? If so, how should modern western interpretation of our role in the war change to account for this – what kind of outrage can we level against our former enemies if we behaved the same way?
  • I have always accepted the western account of the nuclear attacks and fire-bombings in terms of the Japanese refusal to surrender, and even partially the claim that this approach saved lives because it avoided an invasion of the mainland. But how much should we trust those analyses when accounts of the Japanese martial character, the conduct of the war, and all assessments of the likelihood of surrender, were based on highly racially charged and often inaccurate assessments of Japanese motivations and behaviour? How truthful was the underlying information that led to these decisions? How is it that the country which sent notes to all its allies in 1940 asking them to refrain from urban bombing campaigns was happily broadcasting its joy at reducing cities to ash within 4 years? Was this change really purely or even partially driven by strategic necessity?
  • Given that this racist propaganda was being built up before the war and was unleashed in full force as soon as the war started, is it possible that the war itself was much more preventable than leaders and opinion-makers of the time were willing to believe? To what extent was the racist propaganda about the implacable Japanese enemy a self-fulfilling theory?

I’ll come back to some of these questions over the next few weeks as I read through this compelling and extremely unpleasant book. For now I’m on holiday in Beppu and with patchy computer access, so nothing more on this will happen for a week or so, but I certainly aim to return to this topic soon.