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Dismembering the dead in Japan and Afghanistan


Life magazine, girl admiring Japanese skullThe publication by the Los Angeles Times of photographs of American servicemen in Afghanistan posing with the body parts of dead insurgents has provoked a lively exchange of opinion in the media. Some feel the newspaper did wrong by exposing troops to possible retaliation. Some are appalled by the corrupting effect of war on young minds. Others defend the trophy-hunters: 'war is war'.

But how did this ghoulish practice start? My interest in this began afer I was asked by a Japanese veteran, while on a reporting assignment to Iwo Jima, whether it was the Western custom to mutilate the bodies of the dead.

In June 1944, the syndicated Washington columnist Drew Pearson described an informal gathering held at the White House on the eve of D-Day in Europe:

Representative Francis Walter of Pennsylvania presented the President with an odd gift during the visit — a letter opener made from the forearm of a Jap soldier killed in the Pacific.

'This is the sort of gift I like to get,' the President said as it was placed on his desk.

Representative Walter apologised for presenting such a small part of the Jap's anatomy. But the President interrupted him. 'There'll be plenty more such gifts,' he said.

A fortnight earlier, Life magazine's 'Picture of the Week' had shown a young woman admiring a souvenir from her serviceman-boyfriend in New Guinea: a skull inscribed 'This is a good Jap — a dead one'. Some American church leaders were appalled and called for an end to 'isolated acts of desecration', but their appeal had little effect.

Just as in Afghanistan, American and Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese saw themselves pitted against an opponent who acted by a different — inhuman — set of rules.

You shot rather than captured them because a surrendering soldier was likely to be foxing. You poured automatic fire into the dead and dying in case their bodies were booby-trapped. You hurled phosphorus grenades into their hiding places because they did not have the sense to come out. 'We learned to kill them before they killed us' and 'They made you do it' were common refrains.

The rubric does not stand up to closer examination. It fails to explain, for instance, the cutting of the throats of wounded enemy; the souveniring of ears, limbs, skulls and gold teeth; the torture and murder of prisoners; the decapitations; the urinating into the mouths of corpses; the dismemberment of the dead; the target practice on women and children; the letters home to Mum that bragged 'To us they are dogs and rats — we love to kill them — to me and all of us killing Nips is the greatest sport known'.

Such deeds, committed by Allied soldiers, were witnessed in campaigns from New Guinea to Okinawa.

Attitudes were fed by racial hatred. Japanese soldiers were belittled as 'cockroaches', 'rats', 'termites', 'gooks'. The US Marines combined 'Japanese' and 'ape' to come up with 'Japes'. The question arises: Did the troops' attitudes and behaviour derive principally from battlefield experience or from racially motivated preconceptions?

This became the subject of a comprehensive study which looked into the motivations of American ground troops during the Second World War. It concluded that 'differences in hatred felt toward Japanese and Germans seem not to have been the result of actual combat experience'. Soldiers fighting in the Pacific were no more likely to have seen enemy atrocities than those in Europe (13 per cent in both theatres), but many more had heard about them (45 per cent in the Pacific, compared to 24 per cent in Europe).

The study also found that soldiers based in Europe or the United States professed greater hatred for the Japanese than the troops who were actually fighting them. Two thirds of enlisted men in the US wanted to 'wipe out the whole Japanese nation', while only 23 per cent were content to 'punish the leaders but not ordinary Japanese'. The reverse was true of Pacific veterans: a greater proportion chose the more lenient option.

If we take a line from this research, it would seem that the soldiers in Afghanistan — closest to the killing — are not the main problem. Nor is it correct to assume that atrocities are the inevitable by-products of battlefront trauma. They are more likely to be the result of homespun prejudices and bellicose rhetoric put out by drill sergeants, media commentators, politicians and others — well out of harm's way. 


Walter HamiltonWalter Hamilton has worked as a print and broadcast journalist for 40 years, including 12 years as the ABC's Tokyo-based correspondent. His book Children of the Occupation: Japan's untold story, about the mixed-race offspring Allied servicemen left in occupied Japan, will be published in July.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, Afghanistan, World War II, Japanese, war atrocities



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Existing comments

Quite so. Let the politicians who always love war to secure their positions, send themselves or their own children to fight. I didn't see any of Howard's children doing anything to help their father in his warping of public opinion. Iraq and Afghanistan have been a total waste of time, money and people. The world is no 'safer', and no one is invading Burma, N.Korea, China, Russia and all the Stans, or Pakistan, Israel, Iraq or any of the African states where business thrives on endless wars. Gillard looks particuarly stupid praising war, in a 1940s borrowed costume for ANZAC Day with the 'Foster's pissheads', the stupid youth of our nation who praise what they know nothing about, at Gallipoli. War is war, and why we get shocked at the behaviour of those sent to fight wars we don't need on our behalf is always a mystery. A bit like the faux outrage when the murderous Carl was killed in jail recently. It's doubtful that anyone beyond his immediate family was really too concerned about his fate. As for his father claiming 'damages', will those families who suffered loss at the hands of Carl be able to claim any monies from this man? One can but hope.

janice wallace | 26 April 2012  

Isn't that the way. Dehumanize the 'enemy' by the 'psychologists' safely at 'home',turning our soldiers inhuman. The same rules apply to shoppers,taxpayers and climate change 'sceptics'. No wonder I have great trouble with ANZAC day!

russell | 26 April 2012  

The above report reminds me of a meeting I had in the 1970s with ex-Sgt Major Jacob Vouza, a much-decorated Solomon Islander, and tribal leader who endured incredible suffering (and was at one time left by the enemy for dead) for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of Americans fighting in Guadalcanal. As a "souvenir" he kept a Japanese head which he would kick around like a football and display proudly to visitors. I was told (though this is apocryphal)that he had to be forcibly parted from his trophy before being introduced to the Queen during a royal visit. e ea

Alan Gill | 26 April 2012  

On a recent visit to Canberra's War Memorial I was disturbed by the proud reputation our WW1 diggers apparently had as the best "souvenir hunters" on the front line. All part of that legendary, loveable Australian larrikinism, I suppose.

Michelle Goldsmith | 27 April 2012  

Russell put it brilliantly. Humiliate the enemy. I, too, as stated previously, I think that to some degree I,too, have some tronble with ANZAC Day, in that, as I think I stated that the danger is we're forgetting Jesus' call for non-violence, and,in this case, love you enemy. This is more relevant today, as every before, but, with repeated incidents such as these, it sounds as if it goes in one ear out the other with these unspeakable incidents. So sad really.

PHILLIP SMITH | 28 April 2012  

Interesting point there raised by Phillip Smith concerning the words of Jesus, or at least the message we give to his words, that of 'love your enemy' not to forget 'do not kill'. Sadly, someone forgot to tell Cardinal Pell that as he waxed lyrical (while himself being always safe from live bullets) on the glory of sacrifice in war to emulate Jesus on the cross. Who writes this man's scripts? Utter balderdash but 'to be expected' from Pell I suppose.

Andy Fitzharry | 02 May 2012  

I note from my historical reading that most of the large atrocities were carried out by the troops who followed up the combat troops and the rear echelon troops. Amongst the western troops this does not appear to have been systemic, even those they often involved groups of soldiers. Walter does not refer to the Japanese atrocities which often were systemic, like the atrocities committed by Unit 731, or the butchering of Indian POWs for food without killing them first, and where the Japanese troops involved, even years later, saw nothing immoral with their actions. I think it best we do all we can to avoid putting people in the brutal circumstances of war. If we learn to love God, we will treat others with love should we again find ourselves in brutal times.

Christopher Howard | 02 May 2012