Download document

DOWER, John W.

War Without Mercy

Allied propagandists were not distorting the history of Japan when they pointed out much that was cruel in the Japanese past. They had to romanticize or simply forget their own history, however, to turn such behavior into something uniquely Japanese -- to ignore, for example, the long history fo torture and casual capital punishment in the West, the genocide of the Indian population in the Western Hemisphere by the sixteenth-century conquistadores, the "hell ships" of the Western slave trade, the death match of American Indians forcibly removed from the eastern United States in the 1830s, the ten thousand or more Union prisoners of war who died at Andersonville during the U.S. Civil War, the introduction of "modern" strategies of annihilation and terrorization of civilians by Napoleon and Lee and Grant and Sherman, and the death marches and massacres of native peoples by the European colonialists in Africa and Asia, right up to 1941. In their genuine shock at the death rituals which the Japanese military engaged in, moreover, the Westerners tended to forget not only their own "epics of defeat" (immortalized in such names as Roland, Thermopylae, the Alamo, and Custer), but also the self-sacrifice against hopeless odds of thousands of Allied fighting men. To give but one example, the number of United Kingdom airmen who gave their lives in World War Two was ten times greater than the number of Japanese who died as kamikaze pilots.

Such complacency naturally turned into astonishment and disbelief when the Japanese launched their bold, unorthodox, and meticulously executed attacks on the Western powers in December 1941. As is well known, the first electronic sightings of the Japanese attack force moving against Pearl Harbor were not taken seriously. When Japanese aircraft swooped in on the Philippines nine hours after Pearl Harbor and wiped out General Douglas MacArthur's air force on the ground, the general was caught by surprise and refused to believe that the pilots could have been Japanese. He insisted they must have been white mercenaries. At almost the same moment, the British defenders of Hong Kong were voicing similar incredulity as they came under pinpoint low-level fire from Japanese planes. They "firmly believed," as the official British history of the war in Asia put it, "that Germans must be leading the sorties." (In the Soviet Union, Stalin joined this early chorus that placed Germans in Japan's cockpits). In some quarters, disbelief that the Japanese could really master the weapons of modern war persisted long after they had presumedly proven their mettle. When battle-hardened GIs, accustomed to the light-arms combat of the jungles and island atolls, moved on to Okinawa in April 1945 and found themselves suddenly pinned down by accurate heavy-artillery fire, the rumor quickly spread that "German experts are directing the Jap artillery." In this respect, the war in the Pacific ended much as it had begun: in American underestimation of the technical capability of the Japanese.

This was most conspicuous in the year preceding and the year following Pearl Harbor. The decision to attack the Pacific Fleet in its Hawaii anchorage was not reached easily, nor was it irrational once the decision had been made that Japan could not survive without control of the southern region. As researchers such as Michael Barnhart and others have demonstrated, however, the brilliance of the military's operational plans for the opening stage of the war was offset by an astonishing lack of serious intelligence analysis of a psychological and economic nature. Prior to 1940, the Imperial Army virtually ignored the United States and Great Britain altogether in its intelligence gathering, being more focused on China and the Soviet Union; English was not even taught in the Army schools. Neither the

Imperial Navy nor other key government organs made a major investigation of U.S. productive capacity before initiating the war. Because the plan to attack Peal Harbor was so secret, moreover, Naval Intelligence was kept out of the planning (which was done by the Operations section), and no serious evaluation of the probable psychological effects of a surprise attack were undertaken. Admiral Yamamoto himself, as previously noted, hoped the attack would discourage the Americans and destroy their will to respond.

For a half year or more after Pearl Harbor, this impression of a soft enemy appeared to be true. The huge size of the U.K. force that surrendered without much of a fight at Singapore was incredible by anyone's reckoning, and the combined U.S. and Filipino army that capitulated on Bataan was twice as large as the Japanese expected. (They expected forty thousand prisoners, or possibly many fewer, and approximately seventy-eight thousand men surrendered.) Japanese casualties were light, and Japanese euphoria knew no bounds. For the Western Allies, these were the months of humiliating defeat that spawned the myth of the Japanese superman; to the Japanese, they were months of glorious victory that once and for all confirmed their innate superiority. It was during these months that there emerged in Japan what after the war was called the "victory disease," the fatal hubris of invincibility. Even the most cautious of military leaders were not immune to such wishful thinking. On the eve of the decisive battle of Midway, for example, Admiral Nagumo Chuichi's intelligence concluded that Americans did indeed "lack the will to fight."

The total of over 2,100,000 military and civilian Japanese deaths amounts to 3 percent of the total Japanese population at the time, but this does not convey the full picture on the Japanese side. It is estimated that only one third of the military deaths occurred in actual combat, the majority being caused by illness and starvation. Over 300,000 men were wounded severely enough to qualify for government pensions during and after the war. In 1945 alone, some 4,470,000 of the Japanese troops repatriated to Japan immediately after the surrender -- the vast majority of the total fighting force -- were found to be suffering from illness or injury. The condition of the imperial forces was so wretched by war's end that over 81,000 Japanese died overseas after the cease-fire before they could be repatriated by their Allied captors (other than the Soviets) -- a startling figure in itself, although it went virtually unnoticed at the time and survives only as a forgotten historical footnote.

On August 10, the day after the Nagasaki bomb (and two days after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan), the Japanese government made clear it intended to surrender, although the terms remained to be ironed out. Between then and the actual end of the war, two now-forgotten happenings took place that symbolize the war hates and race hates which had driven both sides so far, so disastrously. After the saturation bombing of Japanese cities began in March 1945, the Japanese military in the home islands commenced summarily executing the small number of U.S. airmen who fell into their hands. On August 12, eight were executed in Fukuoka; on August 15, the formal cease-fire a whisper away, eight more were killed by the military command in the same city -- marking Japan's last moment of war with a final atrocity. While this was taking place, General Henry H. Arnold, one of the major planners of the U.S. bombing strategy, was desperately attempting to arrange "as big a finale as possible" to end the war. It was his dream to hit Tokyo with a final 1,000-plane air raid -- and on the night of August 14 he succeeded in collecting such a force and sending it against the already devastated capital city. A total of 1,014 aircraft -- 828 B-29 bombers and 186 fighter escorts -- bombed Tokyo without a single loss. President Truman announced Japan's unconditional surrender before all of them had returned to their bases.