War without Mercy

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John W. Dower. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986. pp. 399 pp. Cloth: ISBN 039450030X. Paper: ISBN 0394751728


In the struggle that has come down to us as the Second World War, the role of race played a very significant role as a potent motivator and justifier of any number of ghastly deeds. While the Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy is one of the more well-known examples in Europe, the role and degree that race played in the Far Eastern war was just as destructive. In his book War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John W. Dower argues that the “race card” was held and played by Americans and Japanese in a brand of violence that was almost primitive in its ferocity and that the seeds of this racial conflict lay in the racial stereotypes and the views of manifest destiny held by the respective parties.

For the Japanese, the concept of purity was an essential cultural icon: purity of mind, motive, and action. One of the most enduring ways to express purity was through sacrifice. While all races were capable of purity and sacrifice, the Japanese saw themselves as endowed with particular gifts in this regard that placed them above all other peoples. When Japan was opened to the West after 1853, this relationship between purity and sacrifice--as well as the preeminence of Japan--took on a much greater weight as Japanese leaders used this traditional value system to enjoin the masses to embrace sacrifice for the advancement of Japan, since this was their ultimate destiny. While common Japanese folk were not unresponsive to this co-opting of a traditional value system, their élan rarely matched the intensity of their leaders’ exhortations to embrace a strict regime of behavior that rejected individualism and endorsed communal benefit.

Whether the source of the Japanese militarism was (a) the self-serving dogma taking root among the general population, (b) domestic economic/population pressure that grew too great, or (c) a series of Western slights that were grossly incompatible with Japanese cultural ideals, the answer is beyond the scope of Dower's narrative. However, at some point, the Japanese began to look beyond their shores for an imperial future.

The Japanese Empire--called the Co-prosperity Sphere--was a peculiar blend of mercantilism and anti-Western imperialism. Invoking the spirit of Pan Asianism, the Japanese called on the yellow and brown races to throw off the shackles of the Western imperial powers and join them in forming a purely Asian association. Within this bloc, subject peoples and nations would labor in tasks suitable to their eugenic aptitudes. Japan--via direct imperial authority and expatriated Japanese--would hold the preeminent position by virtue of their gift for purity, sacrifice, and destiny.

The practical effect of the Japanese focus on Pan Asianism was the projection of Japanese dominance. Japanese authority was autocratically applied in every nation under Japanese authority. This authority unflinchingly slaughtered legions of subject peoples, secure in the justification that since only the Japanese could embrace purity, these subject races were less than pure; this condition made these subject people less-than-human obstacles to the vital new world order the Japanese were striving to create. The urgency of this crusade and the relation of sacrifice to purity would engender the suicidal fighting habits of the Japanese military, particularly in the later stages of the war.

But to adherents of the Japanese manifest destiny, the greatest obstacle of all was the Western axes of Great Britain and the United States. Both nations were seen as ponderous relics of a passing age, whose addiction to capitalism and individualism--as well as their tradition of imperialism--made them appear morally corrupt, even as the Japanese admired their industrial might. Thus, Westerners on the whole were found wanting in terms of purity, but dangerous in terms of industrial might. This made them a threat to the Co-prosperity Sphere that would have to be marginalized if the Japanese were to take their rightful place as masters of the Western Pacific Rim.

U.S. interests in the West Pacific went back to the last decades of the 19th century, when a new thirst for overseas markets and imperial possessions had gripped the Americans. Beginning in the early days of U.S. imperialism, a quiet concern had taken root in U.S. foreign affairs that came to be called the Yellow Peril. This concept, first applied to the Chinese, argued that America might be conquered if all of the vast yellow and brown peoples of the Western Pacific could be unified under a single authority and armed with modern weapons. Initially, Japan seemed like a long shot to serve as this single authority. The Japanese had a reputation as a race that was unskilled, physically weak, and unable to build a culture of their own. But in late 1941 this would all change.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor opened a rush to reevaluate U.S. understanding of the Japanese. Clearly, the Americans thought, here was the personification of the Yellow Peril: an aggressive industrialized state seeking an empire to directly threaten the United states. But the reevaluation went much farther than that.

In describing the Japanese psyche, U.S. experts stated that due to long isolation, a suppression of individualism, and harsh child-rearing practices, the Japanese were prone to feelings of inferiority and anger. The experts also believed that the Japanese had serious anal/phallic fixations that fostered a childish/adolescent mentality that was emotionally immature. This then explained the tribal character of Japanese society, as well as its lack of adherence to Western international practices and its unquenchable thirst for economic and territorial domination.

This vision of immaturity and tribal conduct led to a popular U.S. perception of the Japanese as primitive. Harsh racial bigotry found this view a ready point of departure for images of the Japanese as simian brutes who could only recognize coercion. For many Americans, this view was all too believable, and it encouraged and enabled them to believe that the Japanese could only be beaten through genocide. Degrees of this mentality justified the Americans’ use of their most terrible weapons to kill as many Japanese as possible, for if they were not defeated in this fashion, the threat of Yellow Peril might resurface within a generation.


Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

John W. Dower in War Without Mercy brings forward concepts of race, racialization and racial hierarchy, within the context of World War Two. While these concepts seem related, the subtle nuances and the way in which the Japanese and Americans manipulated them show the power of words and imagery. Dower wants the reader to understand the way in which the Germans were portrayed in political terms and the Japanese in racial terms. Dower helps readers to engage in the process of marking this historical moment as only one point along a continuum of long standing prejudices in the United States. By comparing and contrasting an American history with the Japanese history, we see the ways in which complex ideas of superiority were used to justify brutality and justify atrocities. The degree to which racism it rears its ugly head or is tolerated or officially endorsed depends on the circumstances.

At one level, the bombing of Pearl Harbor can be seen as one powerful notion that lead us to vicious portrayals of the Japanese, however, Dower wants readers to see that the denigration of the Japanese extended to all of the people not just the military. While there were fears in the United States of an alliance of oppressed peoples or perceived uprising against the white race, many Blacks held no different attitudes than the mainstream. I suggest that as the war progressed and more and more people were personally effected, the more people needed to embrace the ‘other’ and the less human that ‘other’ the easy it became for the ends to justify the means. In many ways, this is a very troubling read, not because of the language and imagery, although that it is certainly painful nor is it because of the fact that one still encounters signs of our racist society. It is disturbing because the ideas of race and power allowed war without mercy and one wonders what tapped into the collective psyche to allow such atrocities. The same case can be made after the events of September 11, 2001 when there appeared to be a moment in time when Americans were eager to embrace the rhetoric of hate.

What are the historical lessons learned from this work? The first is that the United States was complicit in specifically allowing and even encouraging heinous stereotyping and racial prejudices. The second is that the Japanese also had a history of racial hierarchy was used in on the same scale and spectrum as the Americans. The third is that Dower wants to complicate an understanding of intent and action and he is successful in doing so. This work is a valuable addition to not just military history but also to social history as it speaks to many ideas of norms, values, and attitudes about race and imperialism.

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