Monday, August 29, 2005

Race and Power: Tales of the South Seas

World War 2 remains a sacred cow of American civic mythology. In an age when virtually every episode in orthodox US history from Plymouth Rock to Iran-Contra has been critiqued to expose hidden narratives of white-male-capitalist dominance, the crusade to free the world from Axis tyranny remains a virgin field, where the twin pillars of American goodness and courage stand largely unsullied. The Pacific conflict in particular continues to be celebrated in the United States (and in Australia) as the epitome of a 'just war', endlessly recycled as evidence of the essential moral distinction between the West and the Rest.

It's hardly coincidence that Pacific War films are now the cultural form that most nakedly exposes the dark underbelly of the Anglo-Saxon democracies. Vietnam movies as far back as Full Metal Jacket matured to portraying non-white enemies as human and white protagonists as occasionally wrong, but the war against Japan continues to spawn high-tech versions of 1940's Yellow Peril propaganda reels. As if 2002's Windtalkers hadn't given us enough screaming Nips being stuck by bayonet-wielding, candybar-offering US marines, audiences can now massage their patriotic conscience with The Great Raid, based on the rescue of POW's from Corregidor. Critics have savaged the film as so one-dimensionally jingoistic that it might have been scripted by the Pentagon (not to mention succumbing to the current Hollywood vogues of pre-80's remakes
and shooting films in Australia). The American right has predictably leapt to movie's defence, the Weekly Standard's Hugh Hewitt leading the charge with this charmingly introspective review. To quote:

'[NYT critic Stephen] Holden slammed it for "its scenes of torture and murder [that] unapologetically revive the uncomfortable stereotype of the Japanese soldier as a sadistic, slant-eyed fiend" ... Holden isn't reviewing a movie; he's defending his own politics...'

'Wars to preserve freedom can require terrible, but just, measures. Enemies of freedom can be the worst sort of human beings, and their defeat may indeed require devastating blows'.

Hewitt obviously hasn't engaged with the question of whether killing half a million Japanese civilians from the air was either just or necessary (you can make an argument for the latter, though it's tenuous). Nor does he seem to recognise bigoted caricatures of a foreign nation - which now happens to be a core US ally - for what they are, or the moral reductionism involved in lumping together every individual who fought under the banner of the Rising Sun as 'enemies of freedom' and 'the worst sort of human beings'. It's another sterling example of the right's capacity to ignore ugly truths - in this case the fact that, whatever the merits of its entry into the Pacific war, the US prosecuted it through a race war paradigm comparable to that in which Germany fought the war on the Eastern Front. The Japanese enemy was conceived as subhuman, justifying acts that would have been unthinkable in the European theatre - sinking hospital ships, trophy-taking from corpses, mass slaughter of civilians, etc - and which provide a basis for criminal prosecution under the laws of war, even as they stood in 1942-5. The same applied to how Australian troops conducted hostilities, a point worth mentioning with all the talk of 'Aussie values' floating around at the moment. Pushing prisoners out of planes and crusading against inferior races are as much part of Australian history as are traditions of mateship and fair-go, to name two values recently nominated by our esteemed education minister.

To make myself clear before the right-wing thought police come for me, I'm not pushing a moral equivalence argument here. As a Chinese person whose grandfather saw cellmates beaten to death by the Kempeitai, I believe that Japan was the aggressor and bears the overwhelming burden of guilt for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But I feel a need to push this to
combat the pernicious construction of the virtuous (Anglophone) West versus the evil Other, which has wreaked immense social and intellectual damage and which is making a comeback in the context of the War on Terror. While the moral weight may lie on one side - in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, I'd suggest it lies on ours - we must remember that all cultures are capable of barbarity and need to come to terms with it in their past. In the case of the Pacific War, all three major parties - China, Japan and the US - have written their own versions of history and have so far largely gotten away with it.

If you need another dose of flag-waving, blinker-wearing American triumphalism, by all means go watch The Great Raid. If you're after an introspective WW2 flick, save your money and find a copy of Das Boot or Stalingrad, two of Wolfgang Petersen's best before he ruined everything by moving to Hollywood.


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Lone Ranger said...

If you have so much contempt for the society in which you live, why don't you just leave it? I'm sure North Korea would be happy to take you. How do you like tree bark stew?

CJ said...

The fact of the matter is that most Americans like their history in black & white. No grays need apply.

When the Cold War ostensibly ended, so too did a large part of the American identity. That is why so many people on both sides of the political fence have taken such a shining to the War on Terror (incidentally, the first war on a feeling that I think this country has ever declared).

There is still debate as to the merits of the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. With that in mind, don't expect any large scale soul-searching on our behavior in World War II, a much more slipper topic.

John Lee said...

I've deleted the first 4 comments, which were unfortunately the first spam that this blog's attracted.

Lone Ranger - I don't have contempt for the society I live in (Australia), as would have been obvious if you'd read the whole article. The people who hold our democracy in contempt are the ones who whitewash its past, such as those who respond to reasoned argument with infantile cliches like 'why don't you go live in [substitute 3rd world country]'.

CJ - every society likes its history in black and white. The Asian countries are hardly blameless in this department, as noted in the post. But I don't live there, I live here, so I'm grapppling with our history and self-conception in the West.

I don't believe that US or Australian history is solely a narrative of white dominance, an impression readers may have mistakenly taken from the post - I was merely noting that this is how it's been deconstructed by some postmodernist critics. Nor do I think that a constructed 'other' is indispensable to the US or Australian national identity (why should it be, for societies based on principles of secular liberal democracy?). But I do think that historically there have been strong strains of this in the self-conception of both countries, and that we need to acknowledge and deal with this if we're to move past it.

As to the internment of Japanese-Americans, I think it's become something of a whipping dog for US conduct of the Pacific War itself, partly because it happened on US soil to US citizens and partly because it's less nakedly barbaric. We had a similar episode down here with the internment of German Australians during the war, but it's lucky to get a sentence in our history books.