Sunday, March 09, 2003

Many hawks look to the reconstruction of Japan after World War II as a model for the occupation of Iraq. John Dower's not so sure -- he thinks that MacArthur in Japan benefited from, among other things, a moral legitimacy acknowledged the world over, and a genuine American devotion to reform which Dubya's crowd conspicuously lacks. But all Dower got for his book on the Japanese reconstruction was a National Book Award, a Bancroft prize, and a Pulitzer. So, what does he know?

Besides, Dower actually does see a parallel between Japan and our current situation. Though a rather different one than the hawks are looking for:

There is one "lesson" from my own field of Japanese history that I find increasingly difficult to put out of mind these days, and that concerns the road to war that began in the early 1930s for Japan and only ended in 1945. Until recently, historians used to explain this disaster in terms of Japan's "backwardness" and "semifeudal" nature. The country had all these old warrior traditions. It wasn't a democracy -- and, of course, democracies don't wage aggressive war. [Are these historians unaware of the Mexican-American war? Never mind -- Dodgson.] More recent studies, however, cast Japan's road to war in a different and more terrifying light.

Why "terrifying"? First, much recent scholarship suggests that it was the modern rather than "backward" aspects of Japanese society and culture that enabled a hawkish leadership to mobilize the country for all-out war. Modern mass communications enabled politicians and ideologues to whip up war sentiment and castigate those who criticized the move to war as traitors. Modern concerns about external markets and resources drove Japan into Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. Modern weaponry carried its own technological imperatives. Top-level planners advanced up-to-date theories about mobilizing the entire resources of the country (and surrounding areas) for "total war." Sophisticated phrasemakers pumped out propaganda about defending the homeland and promoting "coexistence and co-prosperity" throughout Asia. Cultures of violence, cultures of militarism, cultures of unquestioning obedience to supreme authority in the face of national crisis?all of this was nurtured by sophisticated organs of propaganda and control. And, in retrospect, none of this seems peculiarly dated or peculiarly "Japanese" today.

The other aspect that is so terrifying to contemplate is that virtually every step of the way, the Japanese leaders who concluded that military solutions had become unavoidable were very smart and very proud of their technical expertise, their special knowledge, their unsentimental "realism" in a threatening world. Many of these planners were, in our own phrase, "the best and the brightest." We have detailed records of their deliberations and planning papers, and most are couched in highly rational terms. Each new escalation, each new extension of the empire, was deemed essential to the national interest. And even in retrospect, it is difficult to say at what point this so-called realism crossed the border into madness. But it was, in the end, madness.

This is an article from a special issue of the Boston Review which is worth reading over in detail; they're starting to give the New York Review serious competition. Go team!


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