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Forgiving and forgetting

In some ways Prisoners of the Japanese is similar to another American classic, Studs Terkel’s The Good War. In both books ordinary men tell stories about their World War II experiences, but where The Good War often makes you smile, Daws’s book will make you cry:

They took four more officers … They beat them for hours–beat them to death. They threw the bodies in a swill pit behind the Japanese latrines. Next morning … one of the guards was walking around in a pair of British suede shoes.

Gavan Daws is an Australian historian who lives in Hawaii, and this book is written primarily for American readers. While it includes material about British, Australian and Dutch POWs (as well as the thousands of Asians who were enslaved by the Japanese during World War II), most of its voices are American. But as the Japanese treated all their captives with indiscriminate brutality, this is of small consequence.

Prisoners of the Japanese raises a lot of questions. Why did Allied submarines sink Japanese ships which they knew, or should have known, were carrying POWs? (This leads to the almost unbearable fact that ‘of all POWs who died in the Pacific war, one in three were killed on the water by friendly fire’.) But the most fascinating issue is the way men of different nationalities behaved.

The British tried hardest to preserve discipline and the distinctions of rank. The Dutch (who usually had much more tropical experience) tended to be more compliant. They survived in far greater numbers. The Americans included the most ruthless traders and were more competitive with one another. Alone of the nationalities, they killed each other, especially on the hell-ships that were taking them to Japan towards the end of the war.

The Australians, on the other hand, seem to have maintained a real solidarity, and this, along with Gallipoli, has become one of the most powerful and moving manifestations of the way we see ourselves.

But this is to oversimplify the complex social orders that arose in captivity. Men quickly learned that their chances of survival were stronger if they formed small groups—families almost. The ideal number seems to have been four. Beyond this family, affinity might extend, in diminishing degrees, to larger units based on a home town, a military unit and eventually a nationality. Other alliances developed. The Australians and Americans both disliked the British. And of course everyone hated the Japanese.

Many writers—Primo Levi, for example—have explored the moral dilemmas that prisoners in wartime face, and Daws includes some awful examples. The POWs stole ruthlessly from one another; food, medicine, equipment and clothes (one man had his trousers torn off while he squatted in the latrine). Most officers made sure they lived better than their men did.

Some questions continue to worry us. First, why did the Japanese behave so badly? One answer cites bushido, the ancient Japanese warrior code that made capture a disgrace. Daws is sceptical: ‘Bushido ... meant whatever officers wanted it to mean.’ He thinks that the main factor was more basic: ‘They were different races … each seeing the other as unspeakably alien and repulsive.’

It is true that 60 years ago most Westerners felt superior to Asians. My mother, born in 1912, recalled the?derisive stories told in Melbourne during the early 1940s: ‘Japanese are cross-eyed; their bomb-aimers can’t see straight’; ‘They won’t fight in the rain, you know.’ It was inconceivable that they could beat us in a war. And then, at Singapore, the unthinkable happened and the rules—either ours or theirs—didn’t apply.

The fact that these events happened within living memory leads to?the?biggest question of all: how have we all moved on so easily? The Japanese moved on straightaway; no explanation and no apology; just a persistent refusal to?acknowledge that anything untoward occurred. Some years ago, when the Japanese economic miracle was at its height, there was a story—probably apocryphal—of a Japanese leader who apparently said, immediately after the?war, ‘We’ll just have to do it the slow?way.’

But we Westerners have moved on too. Many Australians who grew up during the 1950s and ’60s heard their fathers and uncles hinting at the dreadful things they had seen and heard at the Pacific War and declaring that they would never buy Japanese products. During the 1970s and ’80s there was occasional protest when Japanese developers bought up Australian beachfronts. But these days references to the Japanese atrocities are seen by many to be in poor taste.

The reason that most of us in the West have been so willing to forgive and forget probably involves pragmatism and our old friend, economic rationalism. But some people remain uneasy. This excellent book will reinforce that unease. And a good thing too, I think.  

Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific, Gavan Daws. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76912 9, rrp $39.95

Denis Tracey lives in Melbourne, where he teaches and writes about philanthropy and social investment. In lighter moments he studies theology.


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