I’m fascinated with finding elements of culture that have resisted the force of culture, because I think that many societies retain a socio-cultural core that is resistant to mere events, and drives the society through massive cultural changes with its fundamental structure intact. I have tried applying this idea to east Asian history, and now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and thinking I see some elements of British history that maybe show the same continuity. I’m quite happy to take Cornwell’s work as definitive historical content, because it’s a fun book. So what continuity do I find between modern British history and the ancient era?

The Essex Dog

In the Arthurian era depicted by Cornwell, the British are fighting the Saxons in Britain. The British occupy Wales, Wessex, and the West Country, while the Saxons have captured Kent, Essex, London and the Southeast. That is, the Saxons are the original Chavs, and the source of the cultural force that divides modern Britain[1]. Just like in modern Britain, on the weekend they teem westward and get into fights with the locals, who have to beat them off in scenes of violence that are just like those you might see in modern London: lines of men with spears locked fighting against chavs. Except in the ancient era, the chavs also had shields: in Arthur’s time soldiers fought in lines of shields locked close together and penetrated by shields, a tactic they picked up from the Romans, and success in battle depended on keeping your wall of shields locked together and disciplined, and beating your enemy on their mistakes.

So what did the Saxons bring to this battle to give them an edge? Huge, nasty dogs that they would unleash on the lines of British warriors, breaking the shield wall. Anyone who has lived in London for more than a week is familiar with the phenomenon of the chav with their nasty dog, a great big fucked up bulldog or some other nasty arse-faced wolf-fucker that they have beaten since childhood and can barely control when they walk it down the street (if they can be bothered putting it on a lead, the anti-social arseholes). These are the dogs whose shit you have to dance around whenever you walk anywhere in London, and woe betide the man or woman who asks the tracksuited “owner” to clean up after their nasty slobbering canine. Reading about a horde of saxons in stinking bear furs, pointing their massive dogs at the British lines and yelling “oi” is pretty much exactly like reading about a Sunday afternoon in Finsbury Park or Tottenham. That, my friends, is continuity in history.

King Arthur and the Scrum

The crucial part of your average Arthurian stoush is the shield wall. Bascially this involves a bunch of tanked-up blokes carrying shields and spears, pushing against each other and sweating and screaming and spitting while the men behind them push them forward and try to force them to break their opponents’ line. Reading this while also regularly watching Rugby World Cup matches I could only really conclude one thing: it’s exactly like a massive scrum, with spears. Every description Cornwell proffers for this battle tactic sounds like a huge scrum. Tonight, watching Ireland play rugby (against Italy) with a fire in their bellies, I found myself imagining the same men draped in wolf fur, carrying spears and shields, coming towards me in scrum-like formation with the intent of beating their way past me to get to my farm and my children, and it was a disturbing idea. Rugby (and all modern ball sports?) struck me then as a formalized version of an ancient and very nasty code … is this also continuity in history?

A Final Semi-Prediction

Like a good Briton, at this point I should stab a slave in the belly and read the splatterings of their blood as they die to get an augury for the coming battle. Alternatively, I could just say that after watching Italy today I have a premonition that Ireland could make the final and maybe, possibly, even win. Their performance against Italy was exemplary and although Italy are a second tier team, they aren’t pushovers, and Ireland have already beaten Australia … and that was not a one-off (I think they did the same thing earlier this year). Their path to the final will involve first Wales (a probable victory) and then England (in a world of off-pitch trouble) or France (who just fell to Tonga and seem to be suffering from severe internal tension). On the other side, NZ’s path to the final should be assured; first Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. But NZ are famous chokers and a semi-final against SA is the perfect opportunity for them to call on their famous curse, which would set up a SA vs. Ireland final. If Ireland get that far they will have beaten Wales, who almost beat South Africa … so it’s entirely possible.

Of course as an Australian I am supporting the All Blacks, but after they choke I’ll be supporting the underdog (even though I like South African rugby and I really really like Brian Habana). So I think there’s a chance I’ll be cheering Ireland in the final. Who’s with me?!!



fn1: You might say I’m drawing a long bow here, but Saxons didn’t really use missile weapons, so as the Saxons would say, “fuck off!”

Following my thoughts on post-scarcity fantasy, I found myself reading the Chronicles of the Black Company, which presented me with a range of examples of a world where the relationship between magic and culture is not static, and magic is not treated as a technology that fell from the sky. Where a lot of fantasy worlds seem to have been designed as straight depictions of a medieval world with magic unthinkingly bolted on, Cook treats it as a living part of the world, rare but subject to innovation and capable both of causing social change and being adapted and enhanced by it’s society, as well as interacting with undone technology. We are also presented with an idea that is often ignored or under-played in classic fantasy: the importance of research, literacy and the historical record.

There are many examples of innovative use of magic in this book, mostly in the military context. The simplest example is its use in spying and finding spies. The Black Company keeps its use of wizards very secret, like Guinness and its use of statistics, and as a result its enemies never understand how the Company can know so much about them, nor how they can catch spies and scouts so well. The Company exploits this by spreading misinformation and suspicion, giving the impression that it has spies everywhere and deliberately spreading a reputation for cunning and counter-espionage. Wizards in this world are rare, and the Company ruthlessly exploits the relative advantage they give it, as well as both protecting them and keeping them secret.

The wizards also fashion minor amulets and magic items when they are really essential, and though they aren’t powerful they serve to give Company members a slight edge at certain times. Their mighty leaders, the Taken, go further than this, however, employing magic liberally in battle to destroy, mislead and hamper the enemy. Storms, powerful chemical weapons, fireballs, illusions and all manner of enchantment tricks are employed, as well as magic to rally the troops. The Taken also have flying carpets, which early on in the war they use primarily for their own personal missions. Later on, as matters get more pressing, they use them to ferry key Company members about and later still for troop transport. Finally they start building larger carpets which are designed to glide, fitted with ballistas, and used as aerial attack platforms. Eventually simple bombs are designed, and they enter a kind of aerial warfare arms race with their enemy. This is the kind of thing that I expect magic to do in the world, but very rarely see described with any sense in the genre. Cook further backs this up with occasional references to other innovations: at one point, for example, Croaker is given a painkiller derived from a rare locally-sourced herb. He immediately seeks out it’s name and suggests stockpiling it for the Company, only to discover that the Taken are considering cultivating it after the war for civilian use. This is how I expect any rational person to react to a magic or medicinal herb, but in most fantasy stories this knowledge remains strangely sequestered, and is never converted into any benefit for the wider community. In this book, the eternal bad guys think about it as soon as they see the possibilities it contains.

The most refreshing aspect of Cook’s approach to fantasy in his world is his depiction of research. Croaker,being the Annalist, is literate and aware of the importance of documents, and his Company consider documents to be more important than loot. At one point they stumble on a cache of key rebel documents in a captured camp and as soon as they learn what they’ve got they become ruthless beyond compare. They kill every rebel captive who might identify that they were there, set a trap to delay reinforcements, and flee with the documents before the soldiers have had any time for pillage. Amongst these documents they find evidence that they may be able to learn the true names and history of the Taken, and possession of these documents becomes the most important consideration of the story. At later stages of the series Croaker and some of the Taken prioritize the safety of these documents over that of their men or their treasure, and exhaust themselves researching them. Even the knowledge that they possess them is a death sentence for anyone not of the Company. I don’t think I have ever read a fantasy story where research is so explicitly worked into the narrative and so key to military success, and it’s both refreshing and enlightening. Obviously other stories – e.g. The Lord of the Rings – have the success of research as a trigger in the narrative, but this story works the ideas of research, espionage and secrecy into the fabric of the story in a much more sophisticated way.

This book’s treatment of magic as an integral and living component of the world is a good example of what I was pining for in my discussion of post-scarcity fantasy. It shows how much richer and more interesting the fantasy genre can be when people think more deeply about the role magic plays in the world than just seeing it as the domain of pre-destined teenagers and bearded old men.

In my reading of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company I was, of course, confronted with scenes of violence and rapine such as one might expect of a company of mercenaries fighting on the side of an undead evil. However, I was also struck by the difference between the depiction of this aspect of the story and it’s depiction in, for example, the tv adaptation of A Game of Thrones, about which I have complained previously.

Taking A Game of Thrones as an example, we see a modern “gritty” fantasy writer’s view of the behavior we might expect of men and soldiers in a world where women have few rights, war has no laws, and the all moral decisions are supposedly painted in shades of grey. In Martin’s depiction, men are constantly spouting venomous, misogynist language, sex work is ubiquitous and glamorized, women are under constant threat of rape and rape culture is omnipresent and accepted. There is very little sense that men even see rape as wrong (except perhaps as a property crime), or that soldiers and victors should (or even could) be expected to act with any decency. We also don’t see any evidence that gender inequality might be differently constructed in a world of magic and dragons. Instead we have a vision of a world that you can’t help but think of as a misogynist teenager’s daydreams.

In Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company we see the same setting, of gender inequality and war with no laws, but instead of reading the tale of men who have to make hard moral decisions to win, we find ourselves squarely on the side of a bunch of famously bad-arsed mercenaries fighting on behalf of an ancient and powerful evil. This is an evil that takes no prisoners and allows it’s favorites to commit any crime. So how is this setting depicted?

First of all, we see that our soldiers take no prisoners – they often kill their captives, and torture is done wherever necessary. They also use rape as both a tool of war and a reward. But neither activity is dwelt on in the text at all, and there is not really any point in the story where the plot takes a turn such as to make these unsavoury activities necessary to the story or to bring them to the fore in the narrative. Furthermore, although we get the impression that some of the main characters may be capable of it or may have done it – certainly Croaker orders or condones the murder of both military and civilian prisoners, including the elderly – we don’t see it as necessarily pleasant for them, and we don’t get the impression they think it is not wrong. In general rape is seen as a crime that soldiers can get away with, those who don’t want to are respected for it, and men who commit acts of violence to protect e.g. children are even given extra leniency in considering their punishments. There is no revelling in rape culture here, but a kind of guilty acceptance of it as one of the many bad things that happen in war. The Black Company is composed of exiles and criminals and held together only by it’s own internal honor and allegiances, so it is generally expected that soldiers don’t turn on their own over external moral principles, but this doesn’t stop them from condemning the crimes their members commit, and it certainly doesn’t require that the author revel in them, or enable his readers to. This is rape culture with a context, not stripped of its historical and social meaning and presented to the reader as a kind of warporn.

We also see a very different depiction of female characters in this story. Being a story about a company of male soldiers, most characters are male, but two characters in particular are women, and some are of indeterminate gender for much of the story. The women come from both sides, and both wield great power. One is perhaps supernatural and both are magical. Both expect equality as a consequence of their temporal power and the men around them give it without question. These women, like most of the characters in the story, have human flaws, but their flaws are not the usual kind of gender-specific hysterics and weaknesses one expects of a fantasy story. Indeed, one of these women is a rape survivor, but it’s not particularly relevant to her character and she has no obvious weaknesses or flaws as a consequence of it. Certainly her character and narrative role remain largely unrelated to this, so she is not defined by the acts of men. Indeed, although both characters enter the story initially in relation to the evil acts of the men around them, they soon define their own place in the world and supplant the men whose shadow they might otherwise have been expected to remain within. And there is certainly no way you can claim, as some do in relation to Martin’s work, that only a terrible fate befalls powerful and successful women.

Another aspect of this story that I really liked was the ability of these women to form non-sexual relationships with men. There is one relationship particularly that would surely be expected to become sexual under the standard fantasy conventions, but in this story it remains a friendship, and neither member of the friendship seems challenged by this. These are real human relations as we might imagine them in a medieval world where gender inequality is commonplace.

This book offers us examples of how we should expect modern writers to provide us a realistic view of a dark and vicious fantasy world, without either sugar-coating the bad stuff or revelling in it. Cook manages to present a world of gender inequality where vile deeds are commonplace without making us think that he admires it or we should enjoy it. He also asks questions about how women’s role might change in the presence of magic, and assumes that essentially our relations would retain their fundamental humanity in such a world. This is very different from what I saw in A Game of Thrones, and, I submit, a far more mature approach to the sub-genre and to fantasy writer’s interpretation of misogyny and violence in the medieval world.

I am watching England being slowly ground into humiliation by an astounding Argentinian team On the second day of the biggest contest of the world’s most important sport. It’s a war of attrition out there but the Argentinians are proving once again that the future of sport lies in the southern hemisphere. Sadly I am neither in the south nor the east for the first two weeks of this titanic struggle: I am in scungy, embittered London for a (great!) course on mathematical modeling of disease[1]. This means I have to watch the games in the morning and will miss most, but I can at least enjoy this weekend’s.

I love watching rugby. It’s the perfect synthesis of physical contest, teamwork, bravery and skill, and it happens at a pace and intensity that other contact ball sports lack. I love also the special tactics that derive from the specialization of the players when they are forced to mix it up in a chaotic melee. It also lacks the posturing and false machismo of soccer, and the nationalism of rugby doesn’t come with the nasty violence or racism of that sport. It’s culturally a million miles away from the other British code… It’s the best side of sport.

In today’s other game in a remarkable upset, Japan stood up to France right up to the last 10 minutes, even looking like they might win at one point, until their fitness gave out and les bleus marched home. Fans all around the world were hoping for a miracle there, but it didn’t come. However, I have hopes that this time around they will be able to get some victories. In 2007 they got their first ever points in a cup; this time they can hope for victories.

And of course I am hoping for a NZ victory, but they are famous for choking at the last. Can they do it in their home country in 2011? And if they can’t should Australia annex them?

fn1: one of my fellow students is the Australian Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, who identified the cause of stomach ulcers[2]

Fn2: and thus proved that the future of science is also in the southern hemisphere

We continue our series on Tim Power’s War Without Mercy with a discussion of the role of social scientists in the construction of propaganda. We have already seen that Japan’s social scientists were working on the question of how to construct a new social order for the pacific under a Japanese empire, but their role by no means ended there, and nor was this kind of distasteful theorizing limited to Japanese scholars. In fact the work we saw in our previous post was largely conducted in secret,and served less to construct propaganda as it drew on existing racial ideology to develop practical plans. And in this we see the nub of a fascinating problem. By the time Japan had spent 10 or more years at war in the Pacific her propaganda had become so entrenched that the social scientists’ work had itself been infected by the kind of foolish ideologies that so much effort had previously been put into convincing the population to believe.

The same can be observed of allied war planers before the war. Based on the theories of racial and social scientists, Britain’s military planners really believed that Japanese would make bad pilots and couldn’t win aerial warfare – they had been told by their scientists that the way Japanese women carry their infants affects their inner ear and makes them unsuited for aerial manoeuvres. Also they believed the Japanese to be short-sighted and timid, and had been told that their lack of initiative would make them predictable and uncreative war planners. Even at Iwo Jima, when the Japanese defence used coordinated heavy artillery, they decided the Japanese must have German support; they assumed this after initial victories in the Pacific as well, because their racial theories didn’t allow non-white races to win.

These fallacies in the support of propaganda were not accidental, either. Sometimes considerable effort would be put into research and justifications for certain political views. Social scientists played a key role here, presenting both academic and popularized descriptions of Japanese culture that supported the views being presented by government propagandists. Extensive effort was put into proving that the Japanese as a race were trapped in a childlike mental state, with the preferred theory appearing to be that Japanese toilet training techniques were so horrific that they arrested the development of the Japanese psyche, rendering them also vicious-tempered and subservient to authority figures. That’s right, a whole race’s psychology traced to it’s choice of toilet paper, and entire theories of wartime conduct developed on this basis.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a whole bunch of social scientists spent a large amount of time working on a complex set of theories that ultimately ended up agreeing very closely with the base propaganda of the US government and Leatherneck magazine, any more than that a previous generation of scientists labored to prove that blacks were inferior to whites; or archaeologists managed to prove that the white race settled India. It’s a salient lesson to all of us – especially those of us in or near academia – that the much-vaunted intellectual freedom and independence of academia always ends up telling us what we want to hear. This shouldn’t seem so surprising, given human nature and the way society works, but the history of academia’s service to unpleasant ideas should stop us being too self congratulatory about how free-thinking we really are in our ivory towers. My own field of statistics prides itself, I think, on being quite independent and free-thinking[1], but it’s worth remembering the somewhat unpleasant eugenics of Fisher, and the role of demographers and population planners in the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe – all very good examples of academics supporting the status quo when, in retrospect, the status quo was obviously wrong and in many ways evil.

Maybe things have improved since world war 2, but maybe also they have just become more sophisticated, or the stakes have been lowered. We’ve seen plenty of social science in support of foreign intervention (e.g. The domino effect) and dictatorship (some of our more morally bankrupt economists on Chile, and a wide smattering of pre-70s leftists on Eastern Europe), and the history of population planning hasn’t been free of controversy in the post-war era. So it’s worth remembering that quite often scientists are working as hard to reflect perceived wisdom as they are to uncover genuinely new ideas. Where the propaganda is needed the academics seem to be able to find a basis for it; and where it has already taken hold they are as likely to perpetuate it (or just lend it a little nuanced sophistication) as they are to challenge it. And you certainly can’t rely on us to bear the load of intellectual honesty when the stakes are high. So next time a scientist tells you they have stunning proof of a commonly-held prejudice, you should probably just smile and back away politely. Who knows where their work will end – it could be a population planning document whose contents have long since passed into preposterous fantasy; or it could be a firestorm in Tokyo. But like as not, their work isn’t going to get you to any profound truths – or at least, that is the lesson we can learn from the involvement of academics in the development of the theory underlying propaganda and race hate in world war 2.

fn1: though maybe this field is better characterized as a bunch of ratbag leftists, at least in my experience

Japan's light puts all in their place...Continuing my series on War Without Mercy, Professor Dower’s analysis of race propaganda and its role in World War 2, we get to the last main section, on Japanese racist propaganda. This is a very different section to that on US propaganda, because the Japanese approached the problem of how to portray their enemies very differently to the Americans, and had a very different historical perspective on the bad guy. The section also includes a dissection of a fascinating piece of wartime Japanese research, a massive document setting out a vision for Asia and ultimately the world if Japan won the war. This document was written by an obscure section of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, was almost 4000 pages long, and was only discovered in 1981. It essentially sets out the racial policy of the future East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, so gives a meticulous insight into not only how the wartime authorities viewed race, but how they intended to enact their race policy in the future.

Dower portrays the Japanese as having their own race trap, deriving from their admiration of America and Britain during the Meiji era, and the fact that many of their achievements in the 50 years since the restoration were based on western industry, technology and ideas. So they couldn’t dismiss the source of these ideas as necessarily inherently inferior, and instead had to find an ideology which would enable them to strip the best out of the western way of life, while making it somehow appear undesirable. They did this through the application of ancient folklore and imagery that had a strong social acceptance in Japan: establishment of the Emperor as direct descendant of god; exaltation of the concept of purity, and its links to race, emperor and war (and death); and depiction of the enemy as demons and outsiders.

The Emperor

I don’t want to talk about this in too much detail, because it’s not the focus of the book and the Emperor remains a much-revered part of Japanese life; a lot of western interpretations of the Emperor’s role in world war 2 are wont to cast the institution as eternally bad, when it’s more a case of the position being forced into service to a militarized state. I have mentioned before that Basil Chamberlain identified the exaltation of Emperor to religion, and the uses this religion was going to be put to, in a famous essay in 1905, and Power’s book reiterates this point. To quote Chamberlain:

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship—for that is the new Japanese religion—is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon. Every manufacture presupposes a material out of which it is made, every present a past on which it rests. But the twentieth-century Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing ideas have been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses, and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new, it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the nation at large.

The purpose, of course, and “the interests of the nation at large” was war, military dictatorship, and the subjugation of the individual to the state. Indeed, in some ways Japanese racist propaganda served not so much to make the Japanese hate the enemy, as to bind them together against the enemy. As Chamberlain put it, in his foresightful essay:

On the one hand, it must make good to the outer world the new claim that Japan differs in no essential way from the nations of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of superiority. On the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home, where ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from an alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Professor Power observes too that Japanese wartime propaganda didn’t aim to make the Americans look lesser so much as it aimed to make the Japanese look better. And it did this through the Emperor and the notion of the Japanese as unique, of divine descent, and pure. These concepts were all embodied in the emperor, and the propaganda had it that they could be preserved through filial service to the emperor; indeed, the entire vision for the future was of the Emperor as father of the nation, and by extension as the guiding hand over all the races of the world, set into their proper place according to a theory of racial superiority that had Japanese as the only “pure” blooded people on earth, pre-destined to lead all the others.


Purity is an important and enduring concept in Shintoism, and was reconceived in political and nationalist terms by Japan’s propagandists. Foreign social ideas – especially those of individualism, freedom, and the self – were portrayed as impurities in the Japanese body politic, and Japan’s citizens encouraged to purge themselves of such filth. War, of course, would be the purifying fire into which this slag would be melted down. One powerful image in Power’s book shows a woman brushing the dandruff out of her hair, and the dandruff as it falls turns into American and British political ideals – selfishness, liberalism, etc.

Japanese racial theory also had Japan as the only “pure” race, untouched by significant immigration or miscegenation and thus retaining a unique set of characteristics. Maybe such an ideal doesn’t have to be prima facie racist, but the pretty clear understanding in racial theory in Japan was that this purity of heritage (which was almost certainly fictitious anyway) made them superior, and the picture in this post shows pretty clearly how they viewed the “impure” south East Asian races – as dark-skinned labourers beneath the light of Japan’s sun. And the report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare makes this goal clear, in the section entitled An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. The Japanese, pure through divine right and selective isolation, were best placed to “lead” the other races of Asia into the future, and the other races would have their future direction and role decided according to a racist doctrine based on foolish 1940s conceptions of what each race was good at. Largely, they were to be consigned to the role of labourers and suppliers of resources to the advanced Japanese economy.

There’s nothing of exterminationism in this propaganda, but a lot of material that skirts close to advocating slavery and colonialism. It doesn’t really differ from the views of many colonialists in Europe at that time, I suppose – I’ve even heard defenses of slavery on the “it’s for their own good” line – but this is the nature of the grubby racial politics of the west in the interwar era. A newcomer to the global scene could make up a fanciful political theory based on a silly superstition and a fabricated history, and elaborate a systematic process of enslavement and exploitation for half a hemisphere, and in their defense they would be able to say “it’s no different to what everyone else is doing!” And in fact a lot of Japanese propaganda presented the “purifying” light of the Japanese sun either driving out the colonialist westerners, or revealing their true form as demons, necromancers and evil interlopers.

Demons and Strangers

This brings us to the third and most prevalent part of Japanese propaganda, the representation of Americans, British and Dutch as demons and outsiders. Power describes the role these creatures play in Japanese folklore as two-sided: they can be forces for evil, or they can be helpful. This makes them the perfect double-sided image for the western powers, whose technology the Japanese imported (and in many cases improved), but whose ideals they wanted to cast out, along with their physical presence in Asia. In propaganda aimed at their Asian colonies they could portray the west as colonialist and outdated powers being driven out; but to their own people they portrayed them as demons with two faces, presenting a human or pure image to Japan while hiding an evil face. They could also present them as outsiders, a powerful concept in Japanese that can be both liberating and terrifying. Thus they can (literally) demonize their enemy without reverting to any of the forms of scientific racism that infected western depictions other nations, while at the same time excusing their enemies’ former teaching role. In some ways this image hasn’t changed – the ideas outsiders bring to Japan are often seen as simultaneously threatening and empowering, and Japanese people’s fascination with foreigners is often mixed with fear and trepidation. After the war ended, Power observes that this propaganda proved remarkably malleable – the demons and outsiders just changed their face, and went from being the terrible demonic other to the helpful, inspiring, slightly strange other – just as American propaganda turned the Japanese from petulant children who couldn’t be reasoned with to a young democracy in need of tutelage and guidance.

This demonization of the other also shows that you don’t need to construct directly exterminationist, vile racist propaganda to convince a people to fight bitterly to the very end. A complex synergism of religious imagery, faux history and carefully-adapted folklore ideals will do the job just fine, if you tune it correctly. In fact, I think this has many elements in common with a lot of the propaganda we see in support of the global war on terror. The better stuff (I am referring here to that which our more reasonable supporters of the war give us, not the loony American right) doesn’t tell us that muslims are animals who need to be put down; the village doesn’t have to be destroyed to be saved. Rather, we are presented with a (mythical) ideal of western liberal democracy as pure and perfect, built up through long trial and testing, yet fragile and vulnerable to the influence and impact of the other. If we attack them and overcome them in the correct way we can guide them to a society like ours, and lead them forward to a better tomorrow – which is what we’re trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and failing at in both cases (probably). On the way, of course, just as the Japanese did, we reveal ourselves to not be the pure and ideal society we pretend – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and regular wedding party slaughters in Afghanistan prove that our society is not quite what we say it is – but our propagandists overlook these small inconsistencies and the faux history (divorced of the native genocide, colonialism and extermination that made our societies rich in the first place) in order to present the greater myth. And, just as at some times and some places in Japan’s 15 year war in the Pacific, these images really did seem to present a better future, so too the simple story of liberal democracy shining a light into the darkness can present the same hope for a better world. But the Japanese experience perhaps shows us that better worlds aren’t made through war, or if they are it probably isn’t worth the suffering, and certainly isn’t the only way.

The Japanese propaganda of the war liked to present them as purer than Americans, driven by greater ideals and united by stronger bonds, and also depicted the Japanese as liberators casting colonialism out of the Pacific. Power points out that they really did serve this role in some ways, showing the people of the Pacific that the colonial powers weren’t invincible and that sufficiently energized Asians could turn the colonialists’ own tools and technology against them. At the same time their scorn for the moral inferiority of Americans led the Japanese to completely misunderstand America’s willingness to fight – just as American propaganda overestimated Japanese obstinacy in the last year of the war. Both sides’ propaganda may have worked against Japan, leading to a situation of frenzied violence where both sides refused to believe what the other side really wanted. But there’s a lesson in this that is particularly compelling – the propagandist really does believe their own work. Propaganda goals are set on high, and propagandists listen to a lot of material being written in their own and other countries about the enemy – they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum. In the pre-war era, and during the war, this material was facile, shallow and wrong, but it was incorporated into the propaganda and really seems to have been believed by the planners and policy-makers of the era. American and British military planners really did believe that Japanese pilots were inferior due to Japanese child-rearing practices; Japanese war planners really did believe that the Americans would give up after 6 months because they were morally weak and lazy. For my next post on this book, I’ll look at how propaganda serves to reinforce rather than reflect prevailing views, and can be a negative form of information in a war. Certainly in world war 2, it appears to have served the role of reinforcing a vicious spiral that was circling in towards genocide, and although fortunately for the Japanese cooler heads prevailed, the experience of that war shows that propaganda of this kind isn’t just a tool of war, but can become a driving force and, at its worst, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What does this tell us about the decision-making that led to the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and ultimately the use of nuclear weapons? What would the Japanese have done with nuclear weapons if they had them, given their use of images of purification through fire and death? This is also something I want to explore in a future post about this book.


Manifest Destiny

Returning to Hearts of Iron 2 after a long hiatus, I finally struck the motherlode and annexed the USA after months of trans-atlantic hide-and-seek. The forces of imperialism and racism refused to surrender, showing much more bravery and persistence than my top social researchers had credited them with, and after I captured all of mainland USA they moved their capital to their offshore imperial holdings: first some godforsaken place on the Atlantic coast of latin America, which of course I liberated; then Greenland, which is easy to invade because there is nowhere for US soldiers to hide; then their colonial possessions in Iceland. Getting to Iceland required that I declare war on Portugal and capture the Azores, sinking the Portuguese Atlantic fleet in the process. This was unfortunate, but ultimately my continental European campaign will be made easier by the availability of a second front – I am after all at war with Republican Spain, and a second leaping-off point for the invasion of Britain will be handy.

Once I had overrun Iceland the USA continued its flight, like Gaddafi or Hussein; they moved their capital step by step across the Aleutians and the Manchukuo 8th Division followed them, in concert with one of my more hardened units of marines; after the Aleutians had been entirely occupied they disappeared for a month or two, but I finally discovered them cowering on a slip of land in the Pacific called Tinian Island – right under my nose, in fact, because the neighbouring islands were garrisoned by my home guard. So, in went Manchukuo’s famous 8th, once again, and the final battle was joined. This was a battle of bureaucrats as much as anything else, because the US lacked soldiers, industry or equipment, and was hiding in what was essentially a coral atoll. The president himself, his family and the few retainers and functionaries of the surviving government of the USA were all that remained and, I’m sad to say, they fought to the last family member. Or so the grizzled veterans of the Manchukuo 8th told me. Only the most barbaric of peoples would force even primary-school aged children to fight! Such a shame they all had to die … though I hear there was rejoicing on the streets of America (or what’s left of them, in most cases) after 6 years of war were finally brought to an end.

So now I find myself facing off against China, who declared war on me 2 years ago and in the first heady stages of that war managed to seize huge amounts of territory from me – all of India, Burma, Nepal and Tibet, in fact. I hold them in a line from the border of Burma through Guangzhou and up to Qingdao, and also the northern areas around Beijing, but it’s been a desperate slog for both sides, as huge numbers of my soldiers have been tied up in the USA and getting them back can take months of reorganization. I’ve now started landing forces around Qingdao and western Thailand ready for the big counter-attack: my aim is to cut off huge chunks of the Chinese army at Tianjin in the North and Sittang in the south, and then destroy them, before pushing into the inland from Beijing and Guilin and working an encirclement the size of a continent.

In many ways China have been harder than the US, because they US focused its industry on naval and airforce units, and when I finally landed on the mainland they had very little infantry for me to roll up – in fact a good 3-6 month period of the war on the west coast was taken up with defeating a large Canadian land army. But the Chinese have an enormous land army, that is fielded in great clots of men – 100,000 here, 200,000 there, maybe a million in total camped around Beijing and Tianjin and constantly trying to break through that poor beleaguered city. Every victory is followed by a defeat, and battlezones like the plains south of Beijing or the karst landscapes of Guilin have seen our armies crossing and re-crossing the killing zones for months. The nature of the Chinese campaign, with so many soldiers, makes it very hard to conduct encirclement operations, because they have so many soldiers that they have an excellent defense in depth. I have to wait for them to push a salient towards the sea, then snap it off in counter-attacks that are costly in time and men. So far I think I’ve captured about 100,000 men (10-12 divisions) at the loss of 20,000 of mine, and I have the enemy teetering on the brink of collapse. I regularly devastate their industrial centres, and their capital is a smoking, radioactive hole – Chengdu and Chongqing have both been nuked, and thrice hit with conventional missile attacks, as have many of their industrial centres. I’ve captured Nanjing, Guangzhou and some of the mountain approaches to the South, and hope soon to overrun Guilin. I know that they’re unable to maintain reinforcements for their army, feed their populace and keep dissent under control without abandoning all other industrial tasks. I think soon they will lose the ability even to control dissent and reinforce their troops.

In anticipation of this, I’m now reorganizing my naval forces to start starving the British, with a naval blockade of Britain itself and a submarine force set to prowl the Caribbean. China is going to take another year to beat, and I’m going to need to leave a huge force there in readiness for any aggression by the Soviets, but I think in a year’s time I’ll be in a position to start attacking Western Europe. I hold the Azores and Iceland, so a simultaneous attack on Portugal and the UK is a distinct possibility. But first I’m going to clean up the UK’s Caribbean territories, to ensure there is no way they can stage counter-attacks on the US.

The big problem I’m having with this game is that the computer never surrenders. Even when I have reduced it to a rump of two provinces, with no military or industry, it still refuses to surrender. This drives me crazy, because it means I waste months trying to find and capture every single territory the enemy possesses, even coral atolls like Tinian. I even once tried starting the game from a saved game as my enemy, and suing for peace with myself, but the computer wouldn’t accept my generous offer. This makes the endgame of every war unrealistic and is going to be a particular pain in the arse with Britain – conquering Africa is sooooo tedious.

Other than that, though, I’m having  a great time. The main question I have to put to my readers: what shall I call America? It’s clearly no longer the USA, so what should I call it?

With typical alacrity, the islamophobic right have moved from claiming the Norwegian terrorist was a muslim, to claiming it was a “false flag” operation to claiming he is just a lone madman. The reasons they have to do this are obvious – labeling him a terrorist places him in a political context, and the political context in this case is scum like this, who have been peddling exterminationist anti-muslim, anti-“marxist” propaganda with increasing stridency in the past few years.

Recently on this blog I’ve been examining the role of propaganda in driving Allied and Japanese atrocities in world war 2, based on my reading of the book War Without Mercy. The “lone madman” excuse is relevant to this, because a lot of the people making this claim are doing so purely on the fruits of Bleivik’s work – that is, anyone who would kill 70 unarmed people must be a madman – and I don’t think history tells us this is a valid logical approach. The right-wing shockjocks and anti-“cultural marxists” are unable to point to his writings as proof of his insanity, since they are basically a quite lucid reproduction of the works of Pam Geller, early Little Green Footballs, Free Republic, Glenn Beck, Andrew Bolt and Melanie Phillips. So instead they point to his actions as evidence of his insanity (just as they also point to his actions as evidence he can’t be a christian).

But the history of war – and even recent wars, in Vietnam and World War 2 – show us that you don’t have to be a madman to kill a lot of unarmed people. The atrocities depicted in War Without Mercy were carried out by otherwise quite ordinary people who returned comfortably and without difficulty to ordinary lives after the war. Machine-gunning lifeboats, murdering unarmed sailors floating in the water, shooting significant numbers of prisoners in cold-blood, calibrating your flamethrowers so it takes the enemy a while to die, cutting out their fillings while they’re still alive, making them dance to your shooting before you finally tire of the game and kill them, throwing them from planes, or forcing them to fight after they try to surrender – all in a day’s work for some ordinary Allied soldiers in the Pacific War. So are we to conclude that these ordinary soldiers were also mad? We can’t conclude they were driven mad by war, since none of these things were done in significant numbers in Africa or Europe, even when the Allies were losing. Why should only Allies in the Pacific theatre be mad? Some selection process?

No, the answer is that they weren’t mad, and they were doing what they believed was necessary. For another example of the same, consider the “order police” described in Richard Browning’s Ordinary Men. These soldiers, mostly too old to join the regular army, usually married and with children of their own, participated in large-scale extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe over a 2 year period during world war 2. They were offered at first the chance to avoid these duties, many of them had to get drunk to do it, and often they tried to get local collaborators (e.g. Tiwis) to do the worst of it. But many of them still did it, even though it sickened them. They were doing what they thought was necessary, and they thought it was necessary because the propaganda told them so. History provides us many many examples of people who did terrible things from a position of lucid sanity, and there is no reason to judge the Norwegian terrorist by any different standard.

If he is mad, he will be judged so on DSM-IV criteria by a physician, not on the basis of this action. Similarly, if he is christian he should be judged so on his participation in christian rites and acceptance of Jesus, not on the basis that “no christian would kill 70 unarmed people.” And whether or not he was insane, the islamophobic right needs to accept that he picked his targets based on their propaganda. Whether he chose to kill 70 people because he was insane or because he thought it was a necessary first act in a war, the people he chose to kill were identified for him by the right-wing propagandists whose ludicrous paranoid rantings he was so obssessed with. He is a terrorist of the right, and the right needs to accept the crucial role their propaganda played in prepping him and identifying his targets.

The French soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt were so exhausted by the time that they entered battle that they could barely have fought, according to new research reported in the Guardian. A professor of biomechanics asked staff from the Royal Armouries Museum to walk and run in replica armour from the 15th century, based on a variety of designs, and took measurements of oxygen use, which enables estimates of energy consumption. The Guardian website has a video of how they did it.

Apparently running in a typical suit of armour uses 2 times as much energy as running in normal clothes, because the armour weighs up to 30kg; but worse than that, running in a backpack carrying 30kg of weight uses only 1.7 times as much energy. This is because the armour distributes some of that 30kg onto the limbs, which move more than the back during ordinary movement. Additionally, armour constricts breathing. The news report also points out that in Agincourt the French had to slog through mud, which would further add to their energy load. Interestingly, armour is comparatively more efficient when running (1.9 times the energy load) than walking (2.3 times).

I’ve always been suspicious of mediaeval re-enactors oft-repeated claims that plate armour is easy to move in and not that exhausting. I suspect this comes from their limited experience of battle. I’m guessing that most mediaeval re-enactment battles cut straight to the chase, and ignore the lived experience of 15th century soldiers. Most battles probably consisted of many hours of standing and walking, and obviously we don’t do things like mediaeval re-enactment in order to reproduce the tedium of ancient warfare (or the cholera and dysentery, for that matter). So if you cut out the long, arduous process of getting to and from the battle, waiting fororders, etc. the armour probably doesn’t seem so bad. But if you think about moving around for hours in it, and the battle itself just a short part in the middle, you can see that the energy expense of just walking would be a terrific burden on the use of armour. When we think about adventurers in caves and dungeons, slogging around for hours in their full plate, it makes sense that it should put an inordinate penalty on their combat actions to represent this. Warhammer 3 reproduces this nicely with punitive encumbrance rules that quickly punish characters with fatigue penalties; I don’t think D&D was ever so good at this (largely because no one ever bothered with the encumbrance rules, I guess). Of course Rolemaster does it with complex movement manoeuvre penalties, which would be really good if they were combined with fatigue (which I don’t recall RM using).

I think the Guardian has probably over-egged the pudding on this one though, so here’s a few additional thoughts:

  • The study subjects weren’t fit: Some workers at the Royal Armouries are probably re-enactment types[1], and might be used to armour, but at a guess most of them weren’t that fit or trained for running in armour. My guess is that, just as longbowmen trained to use the bow, mediaeval soldiers trained for their armour, though this guess could itself be over-optimistic (“training” is actually a pretty modern concept). So it could be that the relative burden of armour compared to no armour is reduced in mediaeval soldiers compared to modern archivists, since fitness training tends to adapt the body to specific activities
  • The study subjects were modern: and thus almost certainly physically healthier than a mediaeval soldier, with better diet and less childhood illnesses to reduce fitness. However, they were likely also bigger, and bigger people (I think) use energy less efficiently. But one should never underestimate the importance of good modern diet, housing and healthcare (as well as childhood fitness training at school) in improving the fitness of modern people over their ancestors. So it could be that armour was even more exhausting for the mediaeval knight
  • Study bias due to armour type: Wikipedia tells me that actually most soldiers didn’t use the type of armour depicted in the video on the Guardian site, and were more likely to wear weaker wrought iron or composite armour types, that are probably also easier to move in (though wrought iron full plate could be awful, I would guess!) It also tells us that the elite knights in the vanguard at Agincourt[2] were relatively unharmed by the longbows. Still, they would then have to engage in melee combat against lightly-armoured and mobile foes while exhausted. So the best tactic for these guys would be to ensure they were surrounded by less heavily-armoured allies while they regained their breath; unfortunately, the longbowmen would have reduced the numbers of those less armoured mooks quite hideously (the stats and description of the bows at that wikipedia entry suggest that for the lighter-armoured French soldiers Agincourt would have been truly terrifying). In any case, the army fielded at Agincourt would not have looked much like the army being tested in the linked study
  • The longbow was actually not that effective: Wikipedia also tells us that, although they had a few successful battles, the French quickly got the measure of the longbowman as a weapon of war, and in some battles either defeated them or routed them. This is probably because tactics based on the longbow depend on this phenomenon of exhaustion – you thin out the lightly-armoured troops in the charge, and by the time the knights reach you they’re too buggered to fight. But I guess this depends on either a numerically superior force or having very good positioning to force a long charge (as happened at Agincourt, with mud). This goes to show that tactics are ultimately more important than most single weapons or devices. Also, I guess that although the longbowman appears, superficially, as an appealing strategic investment (lightly armoured, so cheap to equip, and manpower was something every mediaeval country had an excess of), he was probably actually a type of elite professional troop that was highly expensive to develop (15 years on that bow!), and you only need to beat them in battle once or twice to have essentially destroyed a once-in-a-generation investment. So maybe as a military tactic the longbow was as much of a dead end as the knight. The pikeman, on the other hand…

It’s nice to see science attempting to answer some of these questions about how the ancient world waged war or achieved some of its more impressive peace-time achievements (like the science of longitude, cathedrals, etc.) Some of what we think of now as quite barbaric or backward practices, or don’t esteem because they’re trivial in the modern world (like church-building) actually required prodigious talent and willpower (like any kind of mediaeval warfare) or skill, and it’s good to appreciate that.

fn1: If you’re from the Museum and you’re reading this, please don’t sue me for this slur

fn2: Ah, the days when the people who chose to go to war actually had to lead the charge! I bet if that were expected of your average modern politician, we would have much much lower “defence” budgets that were actually for defence.

"Let the punishment fit the crime"

Back from Beppu and continuing my reports on the book War Without Mercy that I introduced here before my travels commenced. I’ve finished the section on allied and Japanese war atrocities, which were numerous and terrible on both sides, and which I briefly mentioned in my previous post, and now I’ve also read the section on allied representations of the enemy. This section makes clear that the allied response to Japanese aggression was both furious and exterminationist in its content. That is, the allied war planners and propagandists, and allied media, made clear both their deep hatred of the Japanese, its racial origins, and their belief that the only solution to the problem of Japanese aggression was extermination of the Japanese as a race. Obviously since the Japanese survived this goal was not enacted and cooler heads prevailed,  but the propaganda that was driving the allied war effort in 1943-45 was genuinely disturbing stuff.

Exterminationism, US style

However, the nature of allied propaganda began to create uncomfortable contradictions in both internal political struggles in their own countries, and between them and some of their less “enlightened” allies. This is because it called on fundamentally old-fashioned racist tropes, but its connection to exterminationism and the defence of the colonial project led them into tricky political terrain.

The Eternal Racist

In an illuminating section of the book, professor Power points out that the allied anti-Japanese propaganda used in WW2 drew on a wealth of existing racist caricatures with almost no change or originality, simply substituting Japanese for Native Americans or black Americans. In fact, Roosevelt’s own father had been saying almost exactly similar exterminationist things about Native Americans, and the common images used to describe Japanese were borrowed directly from the racist lexicon: they were animals, apes, children, insane, cunning, treacherous and had special “occult” powers. The accusation of “occult” powers was particular to anti-Asian racism and had previously been used against the Chinese; but all the other epiphets and images could have been used for any previous racial enemy of the US or Britain – and Power observes almost exactly equivalent language being used against Native Americans, black Americans, Mexicans, Chinese migrants and the Chinese nation, and then finally the Phillipines, over the course of just 150 years. He also points out that the original Spanish descriptions of the Native Americans of South America were interchangeable with the allies’ claims about the Japanese; and to this he could undoubtedly have added the British defense of their colonial practices in India, and western descriptions of Aborigines and Maoris[1].

The Colonial Project Continues

The other aspect of allied propaganda that was quite surprising was its open acknowledgement and approval of the colonial project in the Pacific and Asia. The US even had a popular song, To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific that summarized western ideas about the war. Political and opinion leaders didn’t shy from defending their right to own territories or colonies in Asia, and their anger at Japanese temerity in attempting to either establish its own colonies, or to take theirs. The war now is seen as a war to preserve freedom, but the western peoples of the 1940s were comfortable seeing it as a war to preserve their overseas colonies. One report to war planners even observed that many Asians in the fighting territories saw the war “cynically” as a war between fascists and imperialists. How very cynical of them! Churchill openly stated his aim as the preservation and continuation of Britain’s colonial possessions, and many war leaders saw the Pacific war specifically as a race war, between “white supremacy” and the “coloured races.” They worried that the “coloureds” were stirring, and explicitly saw the Japanese attack as a threat to the long-standing world order. Having portrayed the Japanese as apes and animals, they now had to face the fact that these “apes” were capable of besting the “superior” races in military activity, and were setting an example that other Asians might choose to follow. Some of the more alarmist planners saw in this the germ of the long term collapse of the white race, and openly stated so.

These worries were acutely seen in two areas: fear of the effect of the war on black Americans, and fear of the collapse of China.

Racism at Home

It’s well-established (though not often discussed) that the US was extremely racist in its dealings with black soldiers. Black Americans were not allowed in combat roles until very late in the war, were not allowed many promotions or the best or most skilled jobs in the army, and were even required to maintain a separate blood plasma supply: that’s right, black blood couldn’t be used in white soldiers, even though the people writing this policy knew that the scientific evidence was that the blood types were indistinguishable. Some racists portrayed plans to amalgamate the blood supplies as an attempt to weaken the white race by merging its blood with black blood. Black American blood. In Australia, the US government sought (and was granted, I think) special permission to maintain its segregation laws in the housing of US soldiers in Australia, and conflict regularly occurred between US and Australian soldiers in public places when Australian men and women failed to observe American ideals about segregation – particularly, Australian women would date black soldiers and the soldiers would be punished by their white colleagues for miscegenation[2]! Black Americans were acutely aware of their unequal status as combatants for “freedom,” as exemplified in these two slogans from black freedom activists:

Defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito by Enforcing the Constitution and Abolishing Jim Crow


I want you to know I ain’t afraid. I don’t mind fighting. I’ll fight Hitler, Mussolini and the Japs all at the same time, but I’m telling you I’ll give those crackers down South the same damn medicine[3]

One black soldier upon enlistment gave as his suggested headstone “Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.” This distinction between racism at home and race-hate abroad created a problem for the white authorities, a problem they were aware of and, sadly, not particularly interested in addressing: how can you call for the extermination of a race of apes overseas, using exactly the same language you use to describe a group of people you are oppressing domestically, and expect loyalty from those same people? And how can you maintain your theories of superiority over that domestic group, when the people you paint in the same language overseas are kicking your arse in an area the size of the Pacific?

Loyalty from black Americans was a source of worry for American war planners, who broke up a few groups that may have been getting support or information from the Japanese, and the Japanese certainly attempted to use the Jim Crow laws as propaganda against America (in Japan). However, black American loyalty was largely to America, and the bigger worry for US policy makers was that the Japanese might provide black Americans with inspiration in their own struggle. With Japanese defeat looming, a large number of Americans would be returning from the front armed with the certain knowledge that “inferior” races could defeat “superior” races, and that the racial policy of the past 50 years was hollow; but at the same time they were exhorting white men to exterminate Japanese men with the same underlying logic of white supremacy that was being used to hold black people down in the US. Would this not make US blacks extremely uncomfortable? By using this language, the government had basically shown itself to be of a piece, ideologically, with the supremacists who still murdered black men in the South.

The US response to this appears to have been weak, with no real effort made to amend domestic laws or to move towards the end of segregation and Jim Crow. The only efforts they made were security efforts, to arrest domestic activists and look harder for evidence of connections between Japanese and militant black movements. They showed a little more foresight in dealing with the problem of the “coloured races” rising up abroad, but even there they were complacent and had great difficulty shaking off basic racism, as is shown in the case of the allies’ dealings with China.

The Collapse of China and World War Three

The allied war planners’ biggest fear was that China would collapse or surrender, freeing up 2 million Japanese soldiers to advance into Asia and lending all of China’s economic, industrial and manpower resources to the Japanese. Almost as devastating would be a peace treaty between China and Japan, and the most likely cause of such a treaty – besides China’s exhaustion after 7 years of war – would be their treatment by their allies. Churchill had made it clear he intended to maintain British colonies in the Far East, and the allies refused to rescind a special treaty which prevented China from trying foreigners in local courts. But worst of all was US racism toward Chinese migrants in the US, who were placed in a special category of undesirables and refused both admission and naturalization rights. The catalogue of racist laws applying to the Chinese in the 1940s is quite horrifying, and saddening, and shows an intense and abiding anti-Oriental racism in the west at that time. It was impossible for Chinese to become US citizens at the start of the war, and almost impossible for them to enter the country at all, or only at a very high price and often with extreme difficulty. These laws were a big issue to Chinese in China, and it was obvious that the threefold combination of British imperialism, US racism, and allied special privileges in Asia could turn Chinese attitudes against their western allies. But it was extremely difficult for the US to give up its anti-Chinese laws, and in 1944 as a comprise it allowed a quota of just 105 Chinese a year to become citizens, provided they were new migrants. This was the WW2-era Americans’ idea of a compromise to a lower race. Even though they were fighting a huge and terrifying war in the Pacific, whose outcome at least partly depended upon their treatment of their local allies, they couldn’t properly give up their racist ideals. Similarly Britain, which was highly dependent on its colonial armies as a bulwark against Japan and knew that at least some of the countries it relied on were shaky, refused to give up its colonialist policies in Asia. By this time India was beginning to rebel against white rule, the Burmese had at one point showed allegiance to Japan, and the Japanese were using the language of the East Asia co-prosperity Sphere to claim that they were liberating Asia from white imperialism. Had they behaved less like colonialists themselves this propaganda might even have been successful.

This toxic mix of rebellion by the “inferior” Japanese, activism in colonial provinces, black activism at home, and fears of Chinese collapse, led many commentators in the West to fear that the world was on the brink of a new war that might explode from the ashes of WW2 – a war between the races, with the Eastern “coloureds” rising up against the “superior” whites. The fear of Americans was that the Chinese would fall behind this rebellion and the west would be both outnumbered and outgunned. They spoke of Japan “winning the war by losing” and of the “rising wind” becoming a hurricane.

The Pacific War as a Missed Opportunity

Very few western commentators and politicians saw either the logic or the principle of the obvious measures required to prevent this hurricane – rescinding racist laws, voluntarily withdrawing from their colonies, and ushering in a newer, fairer world order – even though many of Japan’s reasons for entering the war were connected to its racist and unequal treatment between 1905 and 1937. So it was that the war came to its end with the West still convinced of its superiority – perhaps even reassured, after putting Japan “in her place” – and unwilling to consider the wholesale changes that would be required to restore peace to half the world. So it was that over the next 20 years we saw colonial territories throw out their masters, often violently and with huge death tolls in India, Indonesia and Malaysia, the establishment of new and fucked up Juntas in Burma and Africa, and the collapse of economies through war and the scorched earth policy of the colonial masters. Following this was the civil rights movement in America and the sad and terrible disgrace that is the US invasion of Vietnam. Instead of seeing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour as a wake up call and the ensuing war as the final battle over racist ideology, that they must inevitably lose, the colonial powers mistook it as a chance to reassert their grip, and in tightening the screws they just increased the pain that those countries were willing to bear in order to gain their freedom. As the universe’s most famous freedom fighter once said – the more you tighten your grip, the more they slip through your fingers. This means that the Pacific War was not just a catastrophic and avoidable mistake at the time it happened, but the one useful lesson that could have been gained from it was missed, and a teaching moment for Western Imperialism was overlooked. The ensuing history of Asia was written largely in blood, much of it probably avoidable if the allies had not cleaved so strongly to the racist ideals that underlay their ideology in both war and peace at that time.

(Note: Illustrations are from the text).

fn1: As an interesting aside, our approach seems to have become much, much more mature in recent years – descriptions of Afghani and Iraqi enemies are generally much less dehumanizing than those used in World War 2, even though al Qaeda’s treachery on September 11th was comparable with – or worse than – Pearl Harbour.

fn2: I’m taking this information from an ABC documentary on segregation in Australia, not from Power’s book.

fn3: Note here a subtle effect of the racist tone of war propaganda. The western European enemies (Italy and Germany) are identified with their leaders; the Pacific enemy are identified as a race