Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dehumanizing the enemy

I came across an interesting discussion online about video games, and particularly the portrayal of different races as the villians. The game referenced here is a(nother) WWII first-person shooter, that's set in the Pacific theater. A gaming journalist took offense at the opening scenes, bringing up memories of his family, specifically his (Japanese-American) grandmother who was interned in the camps in the western US. If you feel uncomfortable, that's fine, but he goes on to use the Nazis as an example of a group that he has had no problem gunning down in other WWII shooters.

The discussion at Ars has ranged pretty widely, and I think it's notable that it hasn't descended into typical Angry Internet Man territory. There are some very thoughtful comments on what the use is of dehumanizing the Nazis, and how some people conflate the Germans of today with the Nazis of the 30s and 40s. I would highly recommend it, and I'll restate my comment there that it's important not to call the Nazis monsters, because it removes their humanity from them, thus making it less likely that the rest of us will be on guard for that same potential to commit atrocious acts. The best way to honor the victims of concentration camps is to realize that all of us are capable, and to protect against becoming what we decry.

The most interesting comments were about Japan, and how they were so much worse than the Nazis, and thus are even more deserving of dehumanization. My father wrote me recently, asking about the Japanese Air Defence Force general who was forced to resign after writing that Japan was forced to bomb Pearl Harbor, and specifically my reaction to a blog post he read.

History is written by the winners, but that only works if you eradicate the opponent. Otherwise, what you get are different versions written for different audiences. I'm going to assume most of you know the schoolbook American version. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, we fought back, it was very difficult, but we overcame the hardships and dropped atomic bombs because we had no other choice. This is not exactly how it went, and deserves some thought about revision. Why was Pearl Harbor bombed? Hint, it wasn't because we Americans were minding our own beeswax when the Japanese decided to conquer the US.

The Japanese schoolbook version is a bit different, and there's not actually one set version. There are some versions that are more true, but there are also a few revisionist versions that whitewash everything from the occupation of China to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the basic gist of what schoolchildren learn is basically that Japan started the war, people fought, then America dropped the bomb on poor, little Japan and now we should pity them and they have a cudgel to beat Americans with every August (which is reason #53 I leave during August, in between #52 80% humidity and #54 being bored out of my skull not doing anything for a month).

Neither the Japanese version nor the American schoolbook versions are entirely correct. Each one emphasizes what benefits the country's narrative (Americans fighting back after being unfairly attacked, Japan suffering the only atomic bombing in history) and minimizes embarrassments (American Marines boiling Japanese skulls for sending home as souvenirs, the firebombing of Tokyo, the Rape of Nanking, the death marches, "comfort women").

With my parents, I visited Yasukuni shrine, the one that gets Asians all upset when Japanese politicians visit because all war dead are enshrined there, including a number of class A war criminals. There's a history WWII there, told from the Japanese perspective. It's very illuminating, especially the parts about pre-Pearl Harbor events. Most Americans think Pearl Harbor just happened. There's no mention of the US oil embargo on Japan, nor how they were being strangled economically because of their involvement in China.

I'd really like to know more about Japanese sentiments, but it's very difficult to have this discussion with people. It's still an emotional topic.

1 comment:

Candide said...

Jeremy, this is an excellent post - truly. Take it from a trained historian, and former history teacher! I would just take issue with your wording that Japan was just somehow "involved" in China. Japan had invaded China. Granted, China was an awful mess at that time, and the US policy in the region was far from just peaceful (think: the Philippines were a US colony, after all) - but still, Japan was the invader, and the embargo a response to this.