Is there something in the water in Hollywood? Or is it just that difficult to stay grounded in reality when you are paid $20 million for six weeks of work in which you bring fantasy to life? I expect left-wing drivel to spew from the mouth of a Sean “I (heart) Hugo Chavez” Penn and his ilk. But et tu Tom Hanks? Now there is a blow to the solar plexus I didn’t see coming.
Mr. Hanks’ newest project, The Pacific, is a companion piece to Band of Brothers about to be aired on HBO. If Band of Brothers is any indication of the quality of this new mini-series, it should be a delight for amateur historians like myself (especially one whose father was in the 1st Marines—albeit Korea not WWII—explaining my deep interest in the Pacific War).
However, the actor/producer’s recent statements about the Pacific War seem a bit out of whack with the history itself – one that Hanks of all people should understand. “Back in World War II,” he says, “we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”
First of all, Mr. Hanks makes a fundamental error in labeling Japan’s cassus belli as some sort of national objection to our “way of living.” It was more practical than that. The island nation lacked any raw materials and thus waged a war of conquest to obtain what it needed; particularly in Southeast Asia from which it imported most of its rubber, ore, and especially oil. As for the Americans, the Japanese viewed the U.S. Pacific Fleet as the greatest threat to its ring of island fortresses that protected their empire as well as a very real and growing threat to their sea lanes. Knowing that our industrial might once ramped up would be overwhelming, they gambled on destroying our fleet with one knock-out blow at Pearl Harbor. It didn’t work.
It was the very under-handed nature of the attack itself that brought out the animosity in the U.S. populace against the Japanese as opposed to Germans or Italians. But as those throughout Asia who fell under Japanese military rule could testify, Dai Nippon’s racism was of a much more overt and vicious kind. In fact, Japan had been waging a brutal war against their “inferior” Chinese neighbors in the region for a full decade before she ever set her eyes on Hawaii. For Mr. Hanks to subtly omit the visceral racism instilled in the Japanese from on high, and expressed in such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking or the sacking of Manila in which hundreds of thousands of helpless innocents were butchered by Japanese soldiers in the most violent and sickening of ways, is to falsify by omission.
Now, no one can deny that our own racism played a part in our prosecution of the war. After all, the United States in 1941 was a much more European-descended nation which could account in part at least for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans while German/Italian Americans got a free pass. Part of it was a matter of our educational system. As the late William Manchester observed, American kids’ textbooks in the 1940s taught that civilization started at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and marched steadily westward to culminate in North America at the waters of the Pacific. So it was natural that we viewed the war in Europe among common ancestors in places like France and Italy (places we knew well) in a different light than the war in the far off Pacific with a nation so alien to us and that blatantly attacked us while we literally slept.
But racism was not something unique to the West. If most Americans viewed the Japanese as a diminutive buck-toothed and bespectacled Gilbert & Sullivan race, the Japanese viewed their Occidental enemies as hairy beasts, unclean, barbaric and on a par with dogs — even going so far as to display American POWs in animal cages in their city zoos.
And those Asians who were nonetheless non-Japanese, be they Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Burmese, etc. were subjected to sadistic cruelties and unimaginable violence that could only be rationalized by a people indoctrinated through systematic propaganda into believing themselves “spirit warriors” utterly superior to those races whose countries they now controlled by force.
But much of the sense of a bloodlust, or desire for “annihilation” on the Americans’ part to which Mr. Hanks refers is misdirected in the sense that this is the way Americans prosecuted both fronts, especially from the air. It is estimated that the USAAF bombing raids in the ETO killed over 300,000 German civilians. Having a common genealogy did not spare the people of Dresden, Bremen, Essen, Cologne or Berlin from our bombs.
In another interview, Mr. Hanks cites as evidence of his claims of American “racism and terror” that “it would seem as though the only way to complete one of these battles on these small specks of rock in the middle of nowhere was, I’m sorry, to kill them all.” Naturally, the actor conveniently leaves out the fact that the Japanese rarely surrendered but rather chose to fight to the death… and take as many Americans with them in the process. In war it is “get or get got” as my dad used to say… especially when fighting a fanatical enemy whose stated goal was to kill ten Americans before they died. So only those who have fought an enemy who would often feign surrender and then hurl hand grenades at their captors can judge the men in the field. I would imagine if the Germans fought to the death, rather than surrendered en masse, that the history of the ETO would be just as savage.
Perhaps the most ignorant observation Mr. Hanks’ makes, however, is his comparison to our modern day war against terror. To make the claim that we are waging war on Islamofacists because, presumably, we view Muslims as “different” not only is an insult to the nation but betrays a stunning ignorance of contemporary history. The fact is that no nation has done more to protect, defend and better the lives of the world’s Muslim populations than the United States. From ending the Muslim genocide through force of arms in the Balkans to overthrowing murdering despots in Iraq and paving the way for a freer society, this nation has been a most positive force in the lives of millions of Muslims around the world. The ones waging war on those who are different because they are different can be found cowering in caves hiding from F-18s and A-10s… they are not the men and woman in the cockpits, nor the nation they defend.
So in answer to Hanks’ question: “Does [killing those different from us] sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?” I can answer that—NO! Next question.
The Pacific War was probably the most savage war in which our country has ever been involved. We fought an enemy whose brutality was unfathomable to us before the war began. We very quickly learned that the Japanese soldier was one who would fight to the death and would torture and mutilate you if you were taken captive along the way. We saw them willingly sacrifice their lives in senseless banzai charges and waves of kamikaze air assaults. We saw a people who seemed perfectly willing to commit national suicide rather than surrender and end a war they could not possibly have won. So I am wary of the one-sided judgments cast by the likes of Mr. Hanks, living comfortably as a mega-millionaire celebrity and separated from the beaches of Tarawa or the jungles of Buna or the streets of Manila by the chasm of time and life experience. I certainly hope his 10-hour epic will be more true to history than his own take on events… otherwise I may find myself as disappointed in the production as I am in the producer himself.