Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

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W.J. Astore

What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945?  If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?

Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers.  Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates.  Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.

Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.  Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.

The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides.  Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.

Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings.  Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant.  I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred.  The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.

Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department.  His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant.  He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.

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Peter Van Buren

Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.

Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.