A Savage Enemy
Today the situation is worse. We no longer believe there is such a thing as human savagery. The very word savage is shocking to those recently indoctrinated in our universities. Yet the word savage comes as part of a set: civilized and savage. They are both possibilities within the human experience. The greatest societies, giving us liberty, tolerance, wealth, and justice, are as much a part of human history as the most oppressive, vicious, and macabre regimes. Human beings can rise to great heights and they can sink to gruesome lows. The same species that includes Thomas Jefferson also includes Pol Pot.
In the early 20th century, Japan was savage in her domination of East Asia and maintained imperialist aspirations to pillage and dominate the whole Pacific Rim. Japanese society itself was oppressive and harsh. While all war is savage, the speed and depth of the Japanese decent into depravity reflected the very culture which nurtured such barbarity. One can get a glimpsed of Japanese ways in the book, the Rape of Nanking. We experienced Japanese savagery in their occupation of the Philippines and the treatment of our captured soldiers.
The harsh treatment of Japan is a stark contrast to Germany’s treatment of Allied forces. More British troops died in Japanese captivity than fighting the Japanese army. And this made the Japanese despise the British even more. The main motivation in the humane treatment of surrendering forces is the encouragement of their surrender and reduction of one’s own casualties. Unfortunately, the Japanese assumed their treatment of surrendering forces and populations was normal; and they fought to the death, fearing the pain of surrender as much as the dishonor. (See Richard B. Frank’s book or any good book of Japan's war.) Our “civilized” rules of warfare failed to payoff in the Pacific theatre.
The Japanese descent into savagery was so painful and the reformation of post-war Japan so impressive that this history, if not forgotten, was quietly put aside as we faced more pressing problems in the Cold War. Still, the level of savagery ranks Imperial Japan as one of humanity’s most barbaric societies. That view is currently being challenged in both academic and popular venues.
A recent Clint Eastwood movie turns American heroism in Iwo Jima into propaganda, if the reviews are any indication. But worse is yet to come. If an artist confesses his own worldview in the selection and portrayal of events, what should we make of Eastwood’s planned follow-up movie that will also be about Iwo Jima and “tells the story from the Japanese point of view?” Eastwood explains:
“Those who lose their lives in war, on both sides, are fully deserving of honor and respect. These two films are my tribute to them. Through these films that tell the story (of Iwo Jima) from both the U.S. and Japanese sides, I hope that you will be able to see a new perspective on an era that the people of both countries share - and has made a deep impression on their hearts.”
Apparently we are to believe that they were human beings just like we were. They were human beings, for course, but they weren’t like us. The difference is not a question of species but character. They were savage. What happens when you ban the "s" word from the English language? The first casualty is the truth in the form of a moral equivalence. The second casualty is the memory of our greatness. Without acknowledgement of the vast difference in character and culture, our attitude to the Japanese during World War II is increasingly described as racist. If you subtract character you only have species and a difference in viewpoint means you exempt them from the species -- you see them as subhuman.
It is common now to refer to our manner of fighting World War II as racist; for example, consider the interview of this philosopher/writer. The absurdity of this should be apparent by any examination of salient facts of history. We fought a vicious enemy that already plundered large swaths of the Orient. The pre-emptive attack at Pearl Harbor was meant to insure Japan’s ability to expand the pillage. A proper judgment of the Japanese culture, their repeated behavior, and long-term aims would leave no other moral assessment possible: they were savages. But it was not genetic. If we thought that how could we have hoped and helped to create the free society after the war? Clearly we didn't believe there were congenital flaws in the Japanese race.
As an anecdotal aside, many of my childhood friends in the 1950s lost uncles or had fathers who fought in the Pacific theatre. My father did. Yet back in the 1950s I never heard any racial remarks disparaging the Japanese in my working class neighborhood that was rife with anti-Semitism and the denigration of blacks. Nor did my parents show any anti-Japanese hostility when my sister, in the 1960s, dabbled in Japanese religions. Racism isn't amenable to evidence of change when one truly believes in the biological bases of character. Americans had no deep-seated or lasting hostility to the Japanese. (Contrast this with the lingering hatred towards Japanese in China and Korea.)
In response to the condemnation of a savage society, we hear the same vacuous reframe repeated ad nausium: aren’t they human beings too? Such a banality is uttered as if species identity implies good character. Jeffrey Dahlmer was a member of the human species; it isn’t an automatic compliment. Only human beings are capable of sustained atrocities with deliberate planning and vast devastation. The false alternative of innate goodness and original sin both fail to grasp the full picture. Human character has to be created and nurtured; human nature only holds a potential – a dual potential – either for greatness or depravity.
Culture is the character of a people. And like character it isn’t sudden or exemplified in a single act, it is evolutionary, cultivated over a period of time, and sustained by behavior that reinforces the habits of character. The possibilities of human nature are narrowed as one chooses a path in life and becomes the distinct person that character implies. Vestiges of that potential are always apparent in isolated acts, for individuals, and the residue of tradition, for a culture. However, the dominant force that continues to reassert itself remains one of evil when a society is or becomes savage.
The decent into savagery, barring any sudden apocalyptic event, is evolutionary – representing a character/culture transformation on the order of a generation. In the last 20 years we’ve seen this occur in the West Bank, especially Gaza. A regime of terror purged the area of moderates willing to openly discuss the paths to civility: living in peace with one’s neighbors. The installation of Arafat has turned PA controlled areas into terror machines indoctrinating a whole generation with the glory of becoming human bombs. The revival of the original practice of Islam solidified this savage mindset creating a level of barbarity not seen in generations.
What kind of person kills their daughter for bringing “disgrace” to the family? What kind of person looks at their children and sees human bombs waiting to be deployed in the slaughter of peaceful members of civilization going about their daily lives? What kind of people cheer at the pictures of office workers slaughtered by planes flown into modern buildings. Or hide their women in black blankets in 120 degree heat? Or dream of death and the glory of killing for Allah? Or kill over a cartoon?
We need to remember evil or we will fail to recognize it again. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the purpose of the Eastwood movies, the blather about “we’re all the same,” and the refusal to label savages in the manner they deserve. Today we face a threat as savage as those in the past. In Islamic nations the last vestiges of colonial civilization are giving way to a revival of a savage warrior ideology that brings pain and oppression everywhere it spreads. The current chorus of the universality of human decency is meant to blind us and shame us into inaction. We are being disarmed by the intellectuals and artists within. We must fight back … the war is at home.
Update: Walter Williams compares then and now.
Update2: Sixth Column on evil.
Update3: A New York Sun review explains that Eastwoods’s "Letters From Iwo Jima" will tell the story from the Japanese side where “the Japanese defender of Iwo Jima who knew his cause was doomed but fought on bravely, tenaciously, skillfully, and almost to the last man. Apparently, heroism of this classic type is okay for the Japanese, but it won't do for Americans. We only want the victim-hero … "Flags of our Fathers" [is] a bore … is the ponderous and heavy-handed moralizing. Heroism, for him [Eastwood], means suffering, not triumph or glory.”