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  • Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire by Aaron William Moore
  • Sandra Wilson (bio)
Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire. By Aaron William Moore. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013. viii, 378 pages. $45.00.

Aaron William Moore’s study of some 200 diaries of Japanese, Chinese, and U.S. soldiers participating in the Asia-Pacific War is a tour de force. To have brought together and analyzed so many sources, written in three languages and now widely scattered, is impressive enough. Few scholars writing in English can deal expertly with documents in both Chinese and Japanese, and researchers on World War II who cannot read either or both of these languages will be grateful to Moore. The author’s larger contribution, however, is his analysis of the experience of combat, occupation, victory, and defeat in the conflict of 1937–45 from the soldiers’ point of view.

Moore uses the diaries to analyze soldiers’ self-images, motivation to fight, willingness to engage in brutal acts, and responses to the end of the war while also engaging in sustained reflection on the nature and limitations of war diaries and the “power of genre” (p. 290) over the recording of soldiers’ experiences and thoughts. His central thesis is that through the writing of diaries, soldiers developed constructions of the self that mixed official discourse, mass media images, and perceptions of their own experience. In recording their personal accounts, they progressively developed their “subjectivity,” that is, “the sum total of what an individual thinks to be true about himself and the world around him and, consequently, what he thinks is possible.” For the historian, understanding soldiers’ subjectivity, in turn, is a crucial part of investigating “how modern governments managed to mobilize ordinary people so effectively” for war (p. 8). Moore also refers to an individual’s construction of subjectivity as “self-discipline,” arguing that “battlefield diaries are both tools for and evidence of” self-discipline (p. 11). In emphasizing self-discipline, he highlights the point that mobilization was not only imposed by outside institutions but also came from within, in a process by which individuals created their own selfhood and, in this case, mobilized themselves for war. It was not a straightforward process, however, and the diary was “a battlefield where the inarticulate desires of the individual and the well-spoken demands of authority conducted a daily struggle” (p. 17).

Moore begins with an extensive investigation of the antecedents of the individual soldier’s war diary, examining the history of field diaries produced by officers for their superiors, the rise of war reportage, and the [End Page 403] growing use of guided diary writing throughout East Asia as a training tool in schools, bureaucracies, and barracks. During World War II, personal diary writing was common among Chinese, Japanese, and U.S. soldiers. The Japanese military had begun in the mid-1930s to encourage the habit, while also attempting to institute a system of official review of individual diaries. Authorities’ attitudes to soldiers’ diaries were ambivalent, however, and Japanese and U.S. commanders frequently attempted to ban them. Nevertheless, soldiers continued to write, and sometimes to hide, their diaries.

Chapter 2 examines Chinese and Japanese diaries from the first few months of the Sino-Japanese War. Moore argues that diaries were instrumental to soldiers who had to prepare themselves to fight, and then to cope with defeat in the Chinese case and victory in the Japanese, at a time when the conflict was so chaotic that soldiers were often separated from the voices of authority. Chapter 3 describes a process beginning in the period from the fall of Nanjing in December 1937 to the fall of Wuhan in October 1938. The writing of diaries, Moore argues, was crucial in allowing and justifying acts of extreme violence by Japanese soldiers at this intense stage of the war. By convincing themselves through their writings that the fall of Nanjing would end the war, and that it was necessary to destroy the Guomindang at any cost, “Japanese troops literally talked themselves into becoming ruthless adversaries” (p. 120), as the Nanjing Massacre testifies. Soldiers on both sides recorded their panic and despair in this period...


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