News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific, by Gavin Daws, 1994. (incomplete, but I got to get some zzz’s)

First of all, an excellent book that will be repeatedly pulled back off the shelf to do active service. Full of ideas, anecdotes, stories that get to the point and aren’t redundant. Fast-paced, gripping, intellectually stimulating, and despite the temptations attendant with the ripe subject matter, to his great credit he’s impartial. A less informed or eclectic writer, in a bona fide attempt to be impartial, would have been boring.

Page 21: “Psychological concepts such as post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt were never in the heads of POWs in the camps, and were not available to them in their postwar lives. The way they saw things - the way they still see things - is this: as POWs and they did what they had to do, and afterwards they had to try to live with it or it would destroy them.”

There’s a parallel with today’s China where suppressed speech prevents the spread of, among other things, critical thinking concepts. This is one of the reasons there are so few common points of reference when speaking with the peacetime patriots. They don't understand sarcasm or wit, neither of which were encouraged during those knee-knocking times of political correctness known as the Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom, The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, The Three Represents, etc. And patriots, already privy to the arcane truth, spend all of their time trying to win arguments not trying to learn anything through debate. Those in the know have nothing to learn.

One of the dizzying ironies confounding the present herd of Chinese patriots is that many aren’t in favor of democracy or free speech. They’re only in favor of some nebulous concept called ‘China.’ If China didn’t need free speech in the past to be great, why does it need it now? Free speech is a Western trick. Surf the forums where Chinese patriots lurk, like bridge trolls, if you think I’m making this up.

Living in a world of slogans, and not concepts, they’re inert and can only learn from the past that which they’ve already been taught. In other words, history has nothing more to teach them than the mind-bogglingly little (mostly cartoonish at that) which they’ve managed to absorb. Thus peacetime patriots don’t want free speech because it didn’t appear in Chinese history. Puts a new spin on the cliché that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

Their unwillingness to take free speech seriously, due to lack of Chinese precedent, prevents them from understanding the power and ramifications of free speech. They dislike western books and are thus incapable of hearing, let alone believing, that democratic armies fight better than the armies of traditional autocrats. So they pray for a war that their nation can’t win. More doomed to repeat history….

To get back on subject, what makes this book particularly good is that "when I paraphrase, when I have to compress scores of prisoners utterances on a given subject into a few lines, it is always the POWs view of the POWs life that I am trying to convey: not only what they thought of what happened to them, but their way of expressing it.... Political correctness was not in their thinking either. At the time they were taken prisoner, the Armed Forces of the United States were still segregated; African-Americans were not even blacks yet, they were coloreds, niggers. For the British, in their own famous phrase, Wogs (meaning lesser breeds with a touch of the tar brush) began at Calais.... as for the enemy, the Japanese were fucking Japs, Nips, yellow bellied bastards... crazed gorillas, jaundiced baboons, monkey men. That was the language of the racial world the POWs lived in. What was racially true for the POWs in the years of their growing up in the years of their captivity is set down here in their words, in their tone of voice.”

Both sides saw the other as uncivilized and half-human before the war began. It makes one wonder if the multicultural aspect of political correctness doesn't have its merits when dealing with people who have no first-hand experience with foreigners. It's probably better to have them mindlessly believing every culture has equal value than having them mindlessly believing all cultures are different, for the latter leads to valuating cultures and inevitably placing one’s own as most superior.

“... some of these manifestations are so clear as to register on the written page, fifty years later, as nothing but clichés. The Americans were the great individualists of the camps, the capitalists, the cowboys, the gangsters. The British hung onto their class structure like bulldogs, for grim death. The Australians kept trying to construct little male-bonded welfare states. ... I would go so far as to say that it was nationality above all that determined, for good or ill, the way POWs lived and died, often whether they lived or died.... it came as a surprise to me - indeed a shock - to find that of all nationalities who were POWs of the Japanese, only Americans killed each other in captivity.”

As to the treatment of the POWs in the camps, it was, of course, appalling. There’s plenty of gratuitous beatings, beheadings, stabbings, and shootings and so forth. The author confirms the stereotypes although he doesn’t overdo it. He’s not gunning to enrage his readers. One of the better aspects of this book is that the author’s primarily interested in concepts and cultural patterns.

For example he mentions guards took a common position such as, "You are war prisoners and should be cold, if you are sick you should die."

This is an idealistic logic that first reminded me of Confucius in its self-righteousness and blithe unawareness that there could be more than one way to do something. Outside of the Japanese warrior code, for many a Japanese officer no other existed nor could conceivably exist. Of course this is a flaw of the young everywhere and at all times. The childishness of the fundamentalist who knows that there is only The Way and all other options are heresy and a snare to be resisted. Even listening to heretics is mortally dangerous.

"You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed - for revenge. You are here as representatives of American soldiers and will be killed. You can now pray to be happy in the next world - in heaven.”

Barbarism yes, but what sort of barbarism?

"The five were blindfolded and one after another they had their heads chopped off. ... when all five heads were finally chopped off, other men took their swords for the sport of trying to cut the corpses in two with a single stroke, like warriors of the old samurai times in Japan. But none of them were samurai; they were just hackers, slashing away in a welter of blood."

Clumsy feudalist barbarian wannabees. To state the obvious, it seems democracy and rule of law were not pervasive in Japanese society. Thus the reversion or perhaps continuum of old stereotypes in lieu of coming up with new mores and ethics for dealing with problems.

Another way to look at it is that the flip side to ultra-politeness is ultra-barbarism. When not terribly constrained by mores in their home country, the soldiers didn't know what to do overseas when they could let their hair and guard down. They did the natural thing with absolute power when they got it, they got absolutely corrupted. They returned to the untutored and quite natural human cruelty to strangers and to the generally wanton behavior of children (our most cruel stage because most ignorant and a stage in which we're still learning to view other people as people and not as objects). Ergo one scene the author mentions in which Japanese soldiers have fun throwing stones at the heads of POWs as they drove by. The best way to understand this phenomenon is to wonder in what state of mind you too would willingly engage in the same behavior. Throwing stones at people? Sounds like something from one's childhood, doesn't it? In part because as a child one doesn't realize how much potential harm there is in the throwing of the stone and also because one doesn't tend to really appreciate what it's like to be on the receiving end until one has been on the receiving end yourself. We grow up kicking animals, torturing bugs, shooting birds with sling shots and air rifles. And then you grow out of it when you gain a sense of community with the animal kingdom, after which guilt and the rest of the well-adjusted citizen’s emotional blackmail arrives. Many Japanese soldiers of this generation (as opposed to the previous one at the turn of the century which scrupulously avoided atrocities) once outside Japan didn’t grow up, but instead reverted to an earlier immature stage of social interaction. The stage when torturing and killing animals (in this case human ones) was still sport and sporting.

Japanese protocol emerged as result of traditionally ultra harsh behavior (ex: beheadings) when the upper classes dealt with the lower classes. In both traditional Japan and Korea summary capital punishment was in order for people who did not bow sufficiently low. At the time of WWII, the relatively recently emancipated lower classes (post-Meiji restoration, that is) seem to have taken their cues from the traditional mores of the upper classes when dealing with social inferiors. Now they had their first contact with a social inferior, a lower caste in fact, i.e. racially inferior arrogant Westerners, and their treatment of them makes their feudal era forbears seem enlightened by contrast. The Koreans were known for treating foreigners particularly badly, which makes sense as slavery ended in Korea only in 1910 (when the Japanese invaded and put an end to it).

Perhaps it’s a bit late to state the obvious but labeling Japanese mistreatment of POWs as immoral, is Chinese peacetime patriots like to do, only hinders getting a useful explanation. This explanation can only be acquired by pushing into other cultures, taking them seriously, and groping around for clues. For example, motorcycle gangs mauling innocents suddenly appearing on the scene is a phenomenon that has appeared in Taiwan (1990's scooter killers with watermelon knives), Japan (1970's motorcycle gangs with baseball bats), and the United States (1960's Hells Angels, etc.). All three instances were during times of rapid economic growth and when social mores were being shed and a generation was caught in a limbo between old mores and the absence of a replacement. Obviously there's a pattern here. And obviously labeling such violence immoral simply fogs the issue and makes getting a serious and useful explanation all the harder.

As to the US troops surrender, this is interesting as well, given the infamous capitulation of the French in the Second World War. "But here it was some Dutch general who did not even speak American ordering them to lay down their arms while they were still capable of fighting. The battery went through the astounding experience of having not the Japanese but the Dutch turn machine guns on them and threaten to shoot them if they did not capitulate." Needless to say, there was a lot of anti-Dutch sentiment throughout the British, Australian, and American troops for this and other related events in Indonesia.

In addition to Macarthur’s apparent nervous breakdown (when wars are proclaimed, every army has its officers who go clinically insane) and inability to make decisions and give orders there's also this: "The Philippine government had some crazed regulation about not moving rice from one province to another, and Macarthur never overrode it. Along the railroad's the Filipino workers were deserting, there were no crews left to run the trains, and the government would not let American troops take over - and so trainloads of food never got moved into Bataan. At Tarlac there were businesses owned by Japanese civilians, stores full of canned fish and corned beef ... yet permission to confiscate was never issued. In fact, when a colonel was about to do the obvious logical useful thing and take the lot, Macarthur’s headquarters threatened to have him court-martialed. So it went, all over Luzon."

A powerful government agency screws up powerfully. No news there. One of the problems with having national military is that like all government agencies it constitutes a monopoly. It's for this reason that the US military can spend $1000 for a toilet seat or $50 for a screwdriver. Because you can't fire it and no matter how much money it spends, there's always more where it came from: the taxpayer's pocket, because if you don't pay taxes you go to jail. It's also for the same reason that these national agencies perform so poorly. There is little incentive to perform well when you can't be fired.

With regard to Japanese cruelty, it's also worth pointing out that, "...Japanese enlisted men had a more rigorous time of things physically than Americans or Filipinos: routinely long marches, short rations, and rough discipline, including corporal punishment. In the Japanese Armed Forces, the senior officer could slap a junior officer, a lieutenant could hit a sergeant, a sergeant could beat a three-star private, three start to start, to star ones there. And the lowest of the low had to take it. But basic training in the imperial Japanese army did not routinely include hundred mile marches with Japanese privates bayoneting and shooting their own officers and burying men alive.... it was true that the Japanese army at the senior officer level was a mix of fanaticism and indiscipline, full of faction fighting taken all the way to assassination. And it was true that by the time of the Nanking massacre in China in 1937, tradition minded officers were worried about indiscipline in the lower ranks. Yet for all that, the imperial Japanese army was still a rigid structure, with a fetish for total obedience and instant physical punishment for the most minor transgressions by inferiors."

I'm with the author until the last sentence. Two problems. One, indiscipline at the top means unorthodox orders being given, which means unpredictability, which means fear in the troops as to which way the winds will be blowing each time an officer appears on the scene. Plus, it means if you get an order to abuse, you abuse, because you fear harsh summary punishment. No court-martial. On the spot punishment. An corps this devoid of democratic ways and means is a corps that does what the screwball in command says without question.

The author also points out the rather remarkable contrast between Homma Masaharu and Tsuji Masanobu. The first was in charge of the Bataan death March and gave orders to treat prisoners leniently and as to the second, "wherever Tsuji went in the war he trailed atrocities. He was one of the masterminds of the Malayan campaign, and after the surrender of Singapore he organized mass murders. He came to Bataan fresh from that. Out on the margin, along the East Road, an officer who looked like Tsuji was seen behaving like Tsuji, a Japanese lieutenant colonel killing a surrendered prisoner with his own hands. Some of Homma's staff did not like that sort of thing, and they said so. But then other senior officers were riding up and down the East Road in their staff cars, and they said and did nothing about what they saw, except that one of them drove over prisoner.

Some Japanese officers demanded killing of prisoners. Some encouraged it. Some tolerated. Some opposed it; but even they endured it."

I'll end this with: "in the world according to Tsuneyoshi, the domination of the white man in Asia was over, but the prisoners were still the eternal enemies of Japan. They were an inferior race, in fact worthless. They owed their lives to the benevolence of the emperor. Tsuneyoshi himself would just as soon see them dead; he regretted that he could not destroy them all, but unfortunately the spirit of bushido forbade it."

Here you have, among other things, the eternal Chinese peacetime patriot's confusion with and denial of inconvenient reality. Angry that the inferior dares upset the traditional moral order. And of course there is the underlying rage from suspecting yourself of racial inferiority. After all, racialism is a double-edged sword. If the so-called racial inferiors have defeated your nation, as was the case with both China and Japan, then you're back up the racial tree again. So one can imagine the self-doubt, plus being offended by genuine US racism and various exclusion nights per immigration. Plus the conspiracy theories about who controls the world (the Japanese would have said the White Man, the White Man would have said the Shady Jew, and so on and so forth).

One can imagine how the balderdash about Japanese racial superiority must have sounded to those who familiar with martial history. Given that 500 Spaniards overthrew more than one million Aztecs, given that the English had conquered much of India with just 2000 troops it must've been a rather awkward pill to get down into the gizzard. It reminds me of the recent scandal concerning Australian scholars who faked several scholarly histories of white massacres of Australian aborigines in order to give the aborigines a myth of their own to underpin the reinvigoration of their culture. The idea was presumably to enrage the aborigines and give them grievances and a sense of entitlement thereby making them socially well-adjusted and have them contributing to the greater glory of society. With the Japanese the idea presumably was to revive the glory and moral correctness of the ancients massacring their inferiors and thus make the common man into a faithful killing machine who loved his country and people and thus make him better adjusted to the needs of modern society. Either way, given the Japanese knowledge at the time that Westerners did so well conquering others and inventing technology, this propaganda seems doomed to produce expectations out of whack with reality. This means inferiority complexes all around and overwrought attempts to prove oneself superior, fearless, warrior-like.

Western visions of racial superiority tended to disappoint less because there was genuine superiority, though it lay not in race but in improved economic and governmental forms which in turn produced more advanced technology and more effective militaries. Even something innocuous such as Western-style team sports for kids, for example, produces an entirely different mentality (i.e. group unity, team cooperation, attention to objects lying in peripheral vision, etc.) in the young adults. On the battlefield this means in armies that desert less often, function better as teams, communicate with each other, have a heightened awareness of physical landscapes and are broadminded when it comes to potential tactical avenues.

"The standard prewar wisdom of empire was that it took only a handful of white men to run the lives of millions of yellow or brown subjects. In the Philippines, 15,000 white Americans to 16 million Filipinos. In the Indies, a quarter of a million white Dutch to nearly 60 million Indonesians. In Hong Kong, less than 20,000 white British to more than a million Chinese. In Malaysia and Singapore, less than 20,000 white British to about 5 1/4 million Malays, Chinese, Tamils, and Sikhs
. On the island of Singapore itself, whites (including women and children) were less than 0.2% of the population, and yet Britain ruled."

And then, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Japanese started to beat the whites at their own game. You can imagine what havoc that must've played upon the superiority/inferiority complex of those members of the Japanese military who have bought into the homegrown bogus propaganda. And what a mess of primeval savagery emerged. There, but for the grace of the god, go us all.

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