World War II was really many wars knit together. There was the war Japan waged on China, beginning in 1931. And the war that England and France declared on Germany in September 1939. The war between Germany and the Soviet Union initiated by the German invasion of June 22, 1941. And there’s the war that the United States, along with junior partners Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, fought with Japan — the Pacific war. They all had rather different characteristics.

In 1948, 25-year-old Norman Mailer published his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, a grim and biting picture of the Pacific war. The frontline soldiers are lonely, confused, and resentful, pitted against one another by background and prejudice, kept in line by a macho sergeant, Croft (a direct ancestor of Platoon’s Sergeant Barnes), and used by a semifascist general, Cummings. Although the book’s focus is on interactions among the American soldiers, a few graphically described incidents involve the Japanese enemy. A few days after a battle, men hunt among the rotting corpses for “souvenirs,” and one of them smashes out a dead man’s teeth to get the gold ones. Sergeant Croft gives a just-captured prisoner a cigarette, chocolate, water, then shoots him.

Later, the campaign for a fictional Pacific island having been won, mopping-up operations begin: “Certain things were SOP. The Japanese had set up many small hospitals. . . . The Americans who came in would finish off whatever wounded men were left, smashing their heads with rifle butts or shooting them point-blank. . . . Occasionally they would take prisoners, but if this was late in the day and the patrol was hurrying to get back before dark, it was better if the prisoners did not slow them.”

In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John W. Dower seeks to explain such practices. The sorts of incidents related by Mailer were by no means exceptional. The American custom of collecting gold teeth, along with ears, bones, scalps, and skulls, from Japanese dead (or sometimes only nearly dead) was in fact common knowledge during the war. “In April, 1943,” Dower reports, “the Baltimore Sun ran a story about a local mother who had petitioned the authorities to permit her son to mail her an ear he had cut off a Japanese soldier in the South Pacific. She wished to nail it to her door for all to see. On the very same day, the Detroit Free Press deemed newsworthy the story of an underage youth who had enlisted and ‘bribed’ his chaplain not to disclose his age by promising him the third pair of ears he collected.” A year later, Life “published a full-page photograph of an attractive blonde posing with a Japanese skull she had been sent by her fiance in the Pacific. Life treated this as a human-interest story.”

“What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway?” asks one American war correspondent, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few months after the war’s end. “We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”

Nor were such barbarities a matter of individual aberration, the work of loose cannons. just after the war had begun, Admiral William Leahy, in an official memo, endorsed the opinion that “in fighting with Japanese savages all previously accepted rules of warfare must be abandoned.” Admiral William F. (“Bull”) Halsey, commander of the U.S. South Pacific Force, was famous for such slogans as “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs” and, improving on an old American saying, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.” The admiral was by no means referring only to combatants, adding at an early-1944 news conference that “when we get to Tokyo . . . we’ll have a little celebration where Tokyo used to be.”

Such pronouncements by men at the top set the tone, and while military commanders may not have specifically recommended the collection of ears and skulls, the slaughter of prisoners was not only sanctioned but officially ordered. Dower tells, for instance, of a U.S. submarine commander who sank a Japanese transport and spent the next hour or so killing perhaps thousands of Japanese survivors with his deck guns; he told it all in his official report and was commended and publicly honored by his superiors. After the three-day battle of the Bismarck Sea in 1943, U.S. and Australian airplanes systematically searched out and destroyed all Japanese rafts, lifeboats, and their inhabitants. “It was rather a sloppy job,” said a U.S. major in his official battle report, “and some of the boys got sick. But that is something you have to learn. . . . You can’t be sporting in a war.”

Although casual atrocities occurred everywhere, the Pacific war did differ significantly from the war the U.S. waged in Europe, and the difference was reflected in movies, newspapers, and public discourse generally. The Hearst newspapers, for instance, differentiated the Asian war from the European by pointing out that Japan was a “racial menace,” whose victory would mean “perpetual war between Oriental ideals and Occidental.” In film, the same sort of racism prevailed. “We’re not fighting men anymore, we’re fighting animals,” Dennis O’Keefe informs John Wayne in The Fighting Seabees (1944). Later Wayne punctures and ignites a large fuel tank, flooding the advancing enemy with burning oil. “That’ll scorch those Nips back six generations,” he exults as the Japanese are immolated and machine-gunned. “Japanese make great servants,” remarks Humphrey Bogart as a ship’s steward leaves his cabin in Across the Pacific (1942). At another point in the same film he says, “They all look alike anyway.”

The attitude toward the Germans was more judicious. Nazis were consistently distinguished from other Germans; the European enemy was often personified as Hitler. In songs, posters, popular articles, fiction, and movies it was always the same: “Nips and Nazis,” as a chapter in a popular wartime book epitomized the enemies; and in the words of a song of the era, it was a war for a time when “there’ll be no Adolf Hitler nor yellow Japs to fear.”

Americans’ perception at that time was very simple: the Japanese were far more treacherous and savage than anyone else in the war. They tortured and mistreated prisoners, attacked civilian populations, began the war with a “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor, and did not even value their own lives. And of course incidents were readily available to support these accusations — the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the kamikaze pilots. But Japanese atrocities don’t fully account for American attitudes.

First, those attitudes antedated most of the incidents used to rationalize them. At the very beginning of the war, for example, the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. No action even remotely comparable was taken against those of German or Italian descent — despite the fact that the 20,000-member German-American Bund had openly supported Hitler right up to the declaration of war, while in the U.S. Japanese community there was never any evidence of organized activity on behalf of Japan, either before or during the war. Nor can the hatreds, even genocidal passions, be very well explained by Japanese wartime actions. As Dower asks:

“Why were the Japanese perceived as being more treacherous and atrocious than the Germans, who attacked neighboring countries without warning or provocation, engaged in systematic genocide against millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables,’ killed additional millions of prisoners, especially in the Soviet Union, mobilized slave labor with the explicit policy of working ‘antisocial’ persons to death, and executed tens of thousands of civilian and military ‘hostages’ in retaliation for the deaths of German officers?”

The obvious and most common answer is racism, pure and simple. Science Digest published a short article in 1945, “Why Americans Hate Japs More Than Nazis,” that blamed the physical appearance of the Japanese. Dower calls the magazine’s answer simplistic, and of course it is; but in the end Dower’s own explanation, although far more sophisticated and developed, is a variant of the same idea.

One of the most valuable accomplishments of War Without Mercy is the way Dower traces the sources of racist images of the Japanese, who were not only likened to rats, roaches, and apes (the most common), but also said to be primitives, children, and madmen. What emerges from his investigation is that these ideas were not deduced from any actual Japanese behavior. They were conjured up, “not from some pool of past impressions of the Japanese, but rather from the great Western reservoir of traditional images of the Other.” The epithets and concepts applied to the Japanese had all been used before, as a developing Western capitalism came into violent contact with the rest of the world:

“Looking back from the anti-Japanese rhetoric of the Pacific War . . . it is possible to trace a suggestive legacy of racial war words through two great military struggles in particular: the conquest of the Indians in the Americas, and the U.S. conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the century. This was not, however, a solitary stream, but one fed by two others: one that we may call slave words and colonial words, drawn from the experience of blacks and Chinese ‘coolies’ in America, and from the colonial enterprise everywhere; and another stream of language which deserves the label ‘intellectual words,’ involving the rationalization of racism beginning with the great debates among Spanish theologians and philosophers at the time of the conquistadores, and carrying through the ‘scientific racism’ of the nineteenth century right up to the Pacific War.”

The American conquest of the Philippines (1898-1902) was a particularly apt source of racist concepts. In this colonial struggle, some 20,000 Filipino rebels were killed, while 200,000 civilians died from starvation and disease (U.S. combat deaths numbered 4,000). American troops followed a no-prisoner policy and characterized their enemies as “niggers” and treacherous “goo-goos” (the ancestor of “gooks,” which originated in World War II). Furthermore, fighting Filipinos was linked historically with fighting Indians, since many officers and troops were posted to the Philippines from frontier posts in the American west. One such was General Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur: thus this father and son pair of generals together played important roles in the decimation of the American Indians, the conquest and occupation of the Philippines, and the war against Japan.

Dower explores not only American ideas about the Japanese, but the reverse as well, and one section of his book is “The War in Japanese Eyes.” Here too there was racism (particularly with respect to those other Asians whom Japan was in the process of subjugating) and a portrayal of the American enemy as a “demonic other.” But it would be simplistically false to leave it at that, for there were striking differences between the two sides. The quasi-religious devil figure was the dominant Japanese metaphor for the enemy in the Pacific war — their closest equivalent, Dower says, “to the Anglo-American fixation on the apish stigmata and yellow vermin.” But they are not really equivalent, for the Japanese image does not suggest the same subhuman status, and there is no parallel to the metaphor of the hunt that Americans applied to their killings of the enemy. Further, the Japanese demon imagery was almost always applied to Allied leaders (particularly Roosevelt and Churchill) rather than to whole populations. In many ways it would seem that Japanese portrayals of the enemy were closer to American anti-Nazi propaganda than to that which the U.S. deployed against Japan.

But even this comparison is misleading, for the domestic war propaganda of Japan for the most part concentrated not on the enemy, but rather on the radiance and purity of nation and self. Popular patriotic songs, for example, were strangely (to our ears) abstract, elegiac, emphasizing individual transcendence and self-sacrifice. The metaphor of the cherry blossom was common, as in this 1944 song:

You and I, companion cherry blossoms,

Flowered in the garden of the same military school.

Just as the blossoms calmly scatter,

We too are ready to fall for our country.

Ancient martial poems were used as lyrics, putting forward a sacrificial ideal quite unimaginable in wartime America:

Across the sea, corpses soaking in the water;

Across the mountains, corpses heaped upon the grass.

We shall die by the side of our lord.

We shall never look back.

In many ways the two national self-images were polar opposites, and each saw something to condemn in the other’s idealized virtues. The Americans’ prized individualism appeared as selfish greediness to the Japanese, while the Japanese emphasis on submersion of self on behalf of group or nation was seen by Americans as antlike conformism and disregard for human life. There were, on the other hand, many values that both sides putatively shared. As Dower points out: “Each raised the banner of liberation, morality, and peace. Whatever their actual deeds may have been, moreover, they condemned atrocities, exploitation, and theories of racial supremacy.” In practice, racism and atrocities were an integral part of both Japanese and American war making. But Japanese violence was directed less at the U.S. enemy than at the third world nations of Asia.

There was a clearly reactive cast to Japanese war ideals. Japan was both seeking revenge for past indignities inflicted by Western countries and proving itself superior to them. “Japanism” (Nipponshugi) was said by the Japanese to consist of a “purified Orientalism plus the merits of Western civilization,” synthesized through Japan’s own indigenous moral qualities. “The merits of Western civilization” adopted by Japan included both the practice of colonialism and the ideas of racial inequality that went with it.

Japan approached its neighbors under the banner of “Asia for the Asians” — a slogan evoking pan-Asian solidarity against Western colonialism. What it really meant, though, was that Japan should replace the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Indochina, the U.S. in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, Borneo, Burma, India, etc — and the whole panoply of Western powers in China. Along with this imperialist goal, naturally enough, went the conviction that the Japanese were superior to those nationalities they were able to conquer and rule.

Many in Asia at first welcomed the Japanese as liberators and found inspiration in the pan-Asian dream. Nationalist armies were formed in Burma and India in collaboration with Japan and an indigenous pro-Japanese movement was formed in Indonesia. The Assembly of Greater East Asiatic Nations held in November 1943 in Tokyo was a forum for many Asian leaders to voice support for Japan. “My Asiatic blood has always called to other Asiatics,” Burmese leader Ba Maw, for example, declared. But the realities of Japanese rule proved something else again, as Dower points out:

“In the end, their own oppressive behavior toward other Asians earned the Japanese more hatred than support. Ba Maw, dreamer of Asian blood calling to Asian blood, eventually became a scathing critic of Japanese ‘brutality, arrogance, and racial pretensions’; in his disillusion, as in his dreams, he was typical. As a symbol of Asian audacity, defiance, and — fleetingly — strength vis-a-vis the West, the Japanese commanded admiration throughout Asia. As the self-designated leaders of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, however, they proved to be as overweening as the Westerners had been before them, and in many instances even more harsh: dominating the political scene, taking over the local economies, imposing broad programs of ‘Japanization,’ slapping non-Japanese in public, torturing and executing dissidents, exploiting native labor so severely that between 1942 and 1945 the death toll among such workers numbered in the hundreds of thousands.”

Although the treatment of Allied prisoners received almost exclusive focus in the United States, in fact the brutalities in that sphere paled in comparison to those practiced against other Asians. This was particularly true in China, where the Japanese faced ongoing resistance and where they would, for instance, use local peasants as human mine detectors. The worst incident was the notorious Rape of Nanking. The capture of Nanking in late 1937 was followed by more than a month of wholesale plunder, rape, and massacre, resulting in the slaughter of between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians.

Dower has done a truly admirable job of bringing out and analyzing the “war words” and racist ideas that infused World War II in the Pacific. But such factors don’t explain things in the way he seems to think they do. Although the U.S. condemned the bombing of cities by the Japanese in China and the Germans in Europe during the opening years of the war, and although Roosevelt in 1940 urged all parties to refrain from bombing civilians and recalled “with pride that the United States consistently has taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited,” in fact America planned to do exactly the same thing. Even before Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall (the Army chief of staff who later became secretary of state) had directed his aides to develop plans for “general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities,” and one of the objects of American strategy once the war started was to secure bases from which to carry out such bombing.

With the seizure of the Mariana Islands, production of the new B-29s, and capture of Iwo Jima (on which Japanese fighter planes had been based), firebombing could proceed in earnest: “Now was the time for the big boys — the B-29s — to go to work,” crowed the air forces’ official postwar report of 1946. “Our intelligence analysts rubbed their hands with anticipation when they examined Japanese industry. . . . A study of her cities showed that the wood and plaster buildings were a set-up for area incendiary bombing. Only ten percent were made of stone, brick, metal or reinforced concrete. Many modern factories were hemmed in by solid masses of flimsy workshops, the very homes of the workers themselves. . . . Water supplies, never adequate, were dangerously low for large-scale fighting.”

One of the first such raids, in early March 1945, which involved 334 aircraft, totally destroyed 16 square miles of the most densely populated area of Tokyo, “dehoused” over a million people, and killed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand civilians — “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” in the words of Major General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the B-29 fleet, who had long talked of setting ablaze the “paper cities” of Japan. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed perhaps 350,000 people, can in this context be seen merely as a continuation of the mass annihilation from the air of urban civilians.

But were these atrocities simply the result of racist hatred? The bombing of urban centers was an integral aspect of British-American strategy in the war against Germany as well, and although some have felt that the atomic bombings of Japan reflected racism, it seems clear that if Germany had not surrendered before the bomb became operational, atomic warfare would probably also have been seen in Europe. After all, hundreds of thousands of civilians had already been massacred in the firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Darmstadt, and other, lesser targets, proving that the Allies felt no qualms about waging this sort of unrestricted war from the air against Germany.

The racism that bulked so large in the Pacific war cannot be seen as the straightforward cause of the way it was conducted. Although President Roosevelt apparently thought the skulls of the Japanese were “less developed” than those of Caucasians, it would trivialize history to hold that his waging of World War II was determined by his racism.

In 1944 novelist/critic Mary McCarthy characterized the Pacific war, in contrast to the war in Europe, as “a straight imperialist conflict without social overtones. The citizen is not asked to choose between two kinds of social order, he asked only to drive the Jap from the territorial possessions of the United Nations.” Whatever the case with regard to the war in Europe (and maybe it’s not so different in the final analysis), it is hard not to see the Pacific war as mainly one of rival imperialisms. Japan never attacked the home shores of France, Holland, Britain, or the United States; it attempted, rather, to take over the Asian colonies of these Western countries. One could say that the Pacific war was fought to determine whether the Marcoses of Asia would speak Japanese or English.

It’s in this context that the war’s racism can best be understood. The violent expansion of the Western world produced in its wake theories, words, and images — Dower’s “great Western reservoir of traditional images of the Other” — that served to justify that global takeover. As it happened, most of the world could be differentiated racially from the pale-skinned European conquerors, and so the “slave words” and “colonial words” were also race words, part and parcel of domination and empire.

It was this very reservoir that Japan drew upon to justify its own rule in Asia, characterizing the Chinese, Koreans, and other east Asian nationalities as childlike, savage, and even darker skinned. But expansionist Japan was also caught in the middle: On one hand was the dilemma of representing themselves as anticolonialist liberators, while at the same time the dynamics of war and empire meant that their own deeds and attitudes were as bad as those of any Western imperialist. And on the other hand, the Japanese, the first and only non-Western imperialist power of the 20th century, found themselves denigrated by the Americans with the racist epithets usually reserved for those brought under the sway of imperialism.

Nor does the irony end here. Japanese imperial conquest shattered the old colonial structures, demonstrating that the West was not invincible. And Japan’s efforts to impose its own rule aroused, as we’ve seen, the hatred and resistance of the subjugated peoples. Thus when Western powers attempted to reestablish control after the war they found Asia a boiling caldron, in which they repeatedly burned their hands.

India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, the Philippines — all were granted at least nominal independence soon after the war. The Dutch staged repeated “police actions” in Indonesia, but finally recognized its independence at the end of 1949. The U.S. fought rebels in the Philippines. The British finally suppressed rebellion in Malaya and granted a “safe” independence in 1957. The French attempt to reestablish its rule over Vietnam ended in 1954 with the defeat of its army at Dien Bien Phu. And the United States, although undisputed chief world power in the wake of the world war, met a series of momentous defeats — in China, in Korea, in Vietnam — as it tried to move into the space left by European and Japanese imperialisms. The war of rival empires thus resulted, in some cases at least, in the eventual throwing off of imperial control.

Dower does not go into these matters. He does note how the iconography of the Pacific war was transferred to the cold war: “Traits which the Americans and English had associated with the Japanese . . . were suddenly perceived to be really more relevant to the Communists (deviousness and cunning, bestial and atrocious behavior, homogeneity and monolithic control, fanaticism . . . megalomania bent on world conquest).” Of course the transference became even more vivid when the Chinese joined the communist enemy.

Dower also notes the reemergence of conflict — now economic — between the U.S. and Japan, accompanied by the use of racist language and imagery, and comments that “World War Two in Asia has become central to our understanding not only of the past, but of the present as well.” The way in which racist imagery can be used, how war fever can be whipped up against a “barbarous” foe, the opportunity that wars of empire offer for oppressed peoples to make a break for freedom — these do seem like useful lessons, maybe for the future too.

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War by John W. Dower, Pantheon Books, $22.50 (hardcover), $9.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.