Friday, September 17, 2004

Truth and Propaganda

Atop a grieving Statue of Libery, the demonic-looking U.S. president waves a banner reading "democracy," but in his other fist he clutches the club of "dictatorship." Around him, on the statue's crown points, a young woman hangs in fetters, "anti-war" soldiers carouse, U.S. workers protest, and a clown in a dunce cap emblazoned with the Star of David inflates a stars-and-stripes balloon.

The latest from Ted Rall or Michael Moore? Something from the Middle Eastern press or "Le Monde?" No, the president caricatured is Roosevelt, and the image is by the great Japanese illustrator Ono Saseo, and it graced the pages of the January 1942 issue of the Japanese magazine "Manga."

When John W. Dower's "War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War" was published, in 1986, the book was reviewed and analized in terms of the current economic war between the U.S. and Japan. That conflict frames his concluding chapter. But reading the book now, in the light of the U.S. war on Islamist terror, the examples of World War II offer a template to current events.

If that was "The Good War," then the one we're fighting now, in Iraq and elsewhere, is so much "better."

Despite what you've been told. Because of the closing of the World War II generation in these years, we are saluting the veterans of that war with reverence. The current battle is held up, on the other hand, in many quarters, as a shabby and cruel excuse for a real fair fight, a stark contrast to America's great war.

Yet the care taken in Afghanistan and Iraq to avoid killing innocents; the care taken by our people to avoid crude caricatures of the enemy's culture (instead we seem intent on making crude caricatures of ourselves); and the differentiation of the mass of "good" people in the enemy lands, whom we are trying to help, from the handful of "evil" ones, is something utterly alien to the U.S., British, and Australian war against the Japanese. So is the mere possibility of considering that those who attacked us had, on some level, legitimate grievances.

As international geo-political experiences, the War with Japan and the War on Islamism can't be compared. Bin Laden and the Islamists lack a nation, a navy (though they do have kamikaze pilots), a capital, a land, a people. But on the clash of civilizations level, these things are not the defining qualities of a conflict. They affect tactics and strategies, but they are not essentials.

The Islamists can bully governments like Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, and (formerly) Afghanistan to get the land they need, when they need it. They can strong-arm cowardly dictators like the Saudis when they need cash. Their "people" is dispersed throughout the Islamic world, from which they draw what they need for their military operations, which, being mostly of a smash-and-grab nature, rarely require concentrated forces. And as for weapons, who needs a carrier fleet when one man can sink a destroyer with a balsa wood raft or deliver Hell in the back of a rented van?

The war the U.S. and Japan waged in the Pacific in 1941-45 was incalculably more intense in brutality, mutual racist loathing, and sheer killing power than that waged by the U.S. against Germany and Italy in North Africa and Europe. It was felt to be so at the time, and this was borne out by statistics accumulated later. For instance, of the U.S. and U.K. men captured by the Germans and Italians, all but 4 percent survived captivity, while among Japan's Anglo-American POWs, 27 percent died.

Dower emphasizes the role of propaganda in all this, but he also points out the degree to which the horror stories from the battlefield didn't have to be invented. Genuine atrocities hardened the two sides against one another. Despite censorship and a media that seemed positively Stone Age by today's standards, images and inflamatory speeches found their way across the ocean and galvanized opinion in both nations.

A "Life" magazine photo of a U.S. tank decorated with a Japanese skull, grinning fleshlessly under its helmet, might have done as much as anything to instill in the Japanese soldier the certainty that it was better to die than to surrender to these barbarians.

In the U.S. media, the caricatures against the European Axis powers centered on Hitler and Mussolini. There were "good Germans" in the Western press. The enemies were "fascists" and "Nazis." In the Pacific, the enemy was "the Jap." They were denied even the grammatical multiplicity that would hint at individualism.

To the Japanese, the image of the hated West was stunningly similar to that put forth by Bin Laden and his ilk: decadent, materialistic, racist, bent on world domination. The Japanese felt they were a divine race, with a destiny to lead the world. Yet they felt pressed and weakened by the West, which they perceived as bent on world domination and direct economic strangulation of the Japanese civilization. The Japanese chafed under the disrespect shown in the West toward their civilization's power and glorious history; this situation was an inversion of the divine order. They also held specific and general grievances against the West, some of them more or less legitimate.

Japan told itself it had lashed out in the name of survival against an enemy bent on hegemony and economic control of crucial resources (oil, rubber, and tin in East Asia). What Americans saw as the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor was, in Japan, "the counteroffensive of the Oriental races against Occidental aggression."

And Dower writes that each combatant wove out of the other's reality, and of the other's self image, the grotesque parodies of propaganda:

"In everyday words, this first kind of stereotyping could be summed up in the statement: you are the opposite of what you say you are and the opposite of us, not peaceful but warlike, not good but bad. ... In the second form of stereotyping, the formula ran more like this: you are what you say you are, but that is itself reprehensible. On the part of the Japanese, this involved singling out the emphasis placed on individualism and profit making in the Western tradition, and presenting this as proof positive that Westerners were fundamentally selfish and greedy, devoted to self-aggrandizement at the expense of the community and the nation as a whole. Westerners, in turn, accepted Japanese emphasis on the primacy of the group or collectivity at face value, and used this as prima facie evidence that the Japanese were closer to cattle or robots than to themselves. One side's idealized virtues easily fed the other side's racial prejudices."

The propaganda proved tremendously malleable. In the early months of the war, the Japanese rolled up easy victories, and this proved the flabbiness and cowardly nature of the West. When the Allies struck back, their fierce fighting and bombing raids proved to the Japanese that their foes were inhuman savages.