Saturday, March 13, 2010

America’s War with Japan: Tom Hanks Isn’t the Problem but Teaching Anti-Americanism Is

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By Barry Rubin

Tom Hanks, the actor, made a very controversial statement regarding his new series on the Pacific front during World War Two. In a television interview he remarked that this was:

“A war that was of racism and terror that it seemed as if the only way to complete one of these battles in these [islands] was to, I’m sorry, `Kill them all,` and does that sound familiar to what we might be going through today?”

Hanks was not making an anti-American statement here but was rather characterizing the attitude of both sides. This battle, he was saying (and he interviewed many veterans on both sides), was based on such profound mutual hatred and difference in cultural standpoint that it was extremely bitter and bloody. In other interviews, he has added that reconciliation took a long time but did eventually come thereafter, suggesting that any “racism” was due to wartime passions and eventually went away.

The fault, then, is not with Hanks but with a contemporary context in which Americans are being taught to hate their own country, at least in historical terms. Hanks may not be thinking that the United States is a terrible racist country with a shameful past but many others are doing so and trying to make that the conventional view throughout the country.

In my son’s fourth-grade class in Maryland, for example, the ten-year-olds have been told the following:

--They have read four (yes, four) stories on the internment of Japanese in America during World War Two as a crime, being told by the teacher that they were interned because they were different.

In fact, there were a number of reasons for the internment which made sense at the time. The German and Italian fascist governments were usurpers who had seized power. In contrast, the Japanese government was a “legitimate” regime supported by the emperor. The emperor was viewed by Japanese as a god, the head of their religion. While most German- and Italian-Americans opposed the regimes with which the United States was at war, there was no such opposition from the Japanese. The government did not have agents inside the community who could tell who was supporting the enemy. And at the time, there was real fear—however wrong it might seem in retrospect—that the Japanese were going to invade California. I know this last point because my mother and grandmother left that state never to return because relatives back east begged them to get away from what they thought was about to become a war front.

At any rate, the kids are not told anything about the arguments for internment. Even if one thinks the act was wrong, there were two sides to the story. It wasn’t just an act of racism, and the fact that the order was given by a liberal Democratic president, President Franklin Roosevelt, reinforces that fact.

--The teacher said the internment took place after the United States declared war on Japan. There is no mention or discussion of Pearl Harbor. This attack was such a trauma at the time, especially since the two countries were engaged in negotiations, that it is no wonder hatred arose due to a perception of Japanese treachery. This was not racism but an understandable reaction.

--The teacher told the class, when a non-American student raised the issue, that claims of Japanese atrocities were unproven and that if they occurred they were acts of soldiers against other soldiers. This is untrue, of course. One of my teachers in high school was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and told me in detail about his experiences, which left him scarred for life. War crimes trials and other investigations showed horrendous Japanese actions against both civilians and soldiers.

--When a student complains that they are being given a one-side picture, the teacher responds that now they are hearing "the other side." But this is nonsense. Almost none of these kids at age ten, of course, has ever heard the pro-American side on this or other historical issues because they have been going to a school that doesn't present them.
Most important of all—and generally forgotten today--is the fact that the United States went to war with Japan due to sentiments that could be called anti-racist. The Japanese showed far more racism than did Americans. The key issue was the Japanese war in China. The Japanese government and army treated non-Japanese Asians as sub-humans. And if their behavior did not reach the horrendous heights of Nazism, they came closer than any other country in modern history. Millions of Chinese civilians were slaughtered.

Americans were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Chinese and it was the U.S. effort to pressure Japan into easing its attack on China by sanctions that helped bring on the attack on the United States. During the war, there was also tremendous sympathy in the United States for the people of the Philippines, who were constantly portrayed as heroic.

If Americans had warm feelings for all Asians except the Japanese, that’s not racism it is national conflict.

Go back and look at World War Two movies or read newspapers of the time. In films, there is as much respect shown to the Japanese as brave and good fighters as there is “racist” stereotyping. The amount of racism is amazingly low given the circumstances. Again, if Japanese were caricatured unfavorably that is national conflict—just as doing the same thing to Germans during the war did not make Americans racist aginst Europeans.

It is also important to remember why the island battles included the need to “kill them all.” Japanese soldiers hardly ever surrendered. At times, they pretended to but used the humanitarian behavior of American soldiers who were taking their surrender in order to kill them. The need to “kill them all” was not an American war crime but a necessity given the behavior of the Japanese. Of course, the Americans would have far preferred the Japanese surrender when the battle was clearly lost as it would have cut down greatly on their own losses.

When U.S. forces captured Okinawa, they watched in horror as Japanese soldiers forced civilians to throw themselves off cliffs rather than allowing them to surrender.

I'm not going to go into the use of nuclear weapons here at length but in 1945 this was rightly seen as the only alternative to a full-scale invasion that would cost one million American casualties, kill millions of Japanese, and devastate the country for decades to come. In retrospect, it was a correct decision and one that came about because of a Japanese decision not to surrender even though they'd lost the war. The United States would have greatly preferred not to have to drop those two bombs.

And, of course, when U.S. forces did occupy Japan, the treatment of that defeated nation was exemplary, laying the basis for both democracy and economic progress. How’s that for un-racist behavior?

There was a fascist and racist government involved in this conflict, and that was the Japanese government, an aggressive and imperialist regime allied with Nazi Germany and in many ways mirroring its attitudes. One important lesson for today--in contrast to anti-Western distortions--is that a country's government and system doesn't have to be "white" or Western to embody racism and imperialism. That is what truly is what sounds "familiar to what we [are] going through today.”

So the war in the Pacific, like much of American history, is being subjected to lies intended to make the United States seem evil when in fact it shows the greatness of this country and of Americans. This doesn't mean one should not criticize fairly but what is really remarkable is that despite the shortcomings what a high proportion of rightful behavior on the part of the United States and its people, then and at other times in history.

I don’t think Tom Hanks intended to say otherwise. But, unfortunately, this is precisely the apparent goal of many in the cultural elite today, including those who design and teach the courses of study in public schools and universities in much of the country.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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