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Historically Speaking June 2002 Eric Bergenia No Quarter: The Pacific Battlefield World War ? was, by a great margin , the most violent conflict in modern times. YetJapanese and American soldiers fought the land war in die Pacific with a savage and relendess intensity thatwas rarelyequaled and neversurpassed in World War?. Although itis possible to identify incidents ofrestraint and humanity comingfrom both sides, the essence ofthe conflict was somediingvery close to a war ofannihilation . The grim nature ofthe PacificWaris best illustrated by the extremely low number of prisoners taken. The numbers tell a dismal tale. Approximately 37,000Japanese servicemen surrendered during land operations in the Pacific War. This was opposed to a total of killed in action that surpassed one million. In odierwords, foreveryJapanesesoldierorsailor fighting on land (Japan had no Marine Corps and the Naval personnel were involved in all major ground campaigns) who surrendered, there were twenty-five killed. In comparison , in northwest Europe both Britain and U.S. ground forces lost one prisoner for every two men killed. But the numbers are evenworse than dieyseem. Averyhighpercentage ofJapanese POWs surrendered in the waning months of the Pacific War in areassuch as the South Pacificorthe Philippines where imperial garrisons had long beenisolated. Menwere starving, in despair, and militarydiscipline was gone. Whatwas absent, however, was an organized surrender ofa large number ofprisoners during or at the end ofanyofthe majorland campaigns, the kind ofoccurrence that was typical in every other theater ofwar. After the surrenders ofseveral garrisons early in 1942, almost no American soldiers or Marines became prisoners and lived to tell the tale. In short, when the Japanese and Americans squared offinbatde dierewasno quarterasked or given. The most common explanation for what John Dower called "War without Mercy" is racial hatred between theJapanese and Americans . AlthoughJapan receives a share ofthe blame, deeply ingrained Western racism, as manifested in the United States, is found to be the prime culprit. Scholars attempt to prove their point with a cavalcade of propaganda posters, films, cartoons, and articles in the press. TheJapanese were systematically portrayed as animals; consequendy, so goes the argument, extermination was a natural response toJapan's attack. Many now argue that wartime propaganda campaigns in the West were only one manifestation among many ofan old pattern ofracist behavior that created the slave trade, underlay colonial empires, and led to the incarceration ofthousands ofJapanese citizens in the United States in 1942. 1 don'tdoubtdiatethnicloathingwas partofdie equation. However, foranumberof reasons, I find this argument incomplete. One problem is obvious. Ifthe murderous nature ofcombatin the Pacificwas generated byAmericanorWesternracial attitudes toward Asians, it is very difficult to explain why U.S. forces took huge numbers ofPOWs in the KoreanWar. Ifracial enlightenmenthad taken place or the Rules ofEngagement within the U.S. military had changed between 1945 and 1950, 1 find it difficult to detect. Likewise, in VietnamAmericans captured enemysoldiers in numbers that dwarfed those ofthe Pacific War. We should also remember that there was no history ofconflict betweenJapan and the United States. Nor were American soldiers fightingfordiephysicalsurvival ofdie United States.ManyinAmerica's intellectual classhad longfound much toadmireinJapan, aldiough Japanese aggression against China did much to tarnishTokyo'simage. More important, the segment in the American political arena that wished either to enter World War II or become more activelyinvolved had its eyes on die struggle againstHider. Although conspiracy theorists continue to try to prove otherwise , I am convinced that Washington very much wanted peace in Asia as long asJapan did not threaten Western interests in Southeast Asia. Idoubtsuchcalculationshad muchimpact on the young men swept up into war. Eighteen - ortwenty-year-olds of1941 were noless apolitical orself-possessed than dieircontemporaries oftoday. Ihavespentthe lastseven years researching the Pacific War and have interviewed about two hundred veterans of all services, mosdy American. I asked each about their attitudes toward theJapanese. When describing their wartime service, almost all expressed retrospective hatred: many admitted that the hatred had not totallycooled over a half-century. Interestingly , however, manyG.Ls pointed out that priortoservice in the Pacificdieyhad never met aJapanese person or an American citizen ofJapanese descent. These same men admitted that they knew almost nothing about Japan. Obviously, Pearl Harbor changed this situation overnight. It is also clear, in my view, that these men learned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 8-10
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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