Review of John Dower’s War Without Mercy


By Andre Lopes Massa

For John Dower in War Without Mercy racism played a prominent role in shaping the perceptions and attitudes that both the Japanese and Americans had of each other during the war and that these perceptions often shaped the policies and actions that both sides took against each other. During World War II, much of Japan’s propaganda centered around the figure of the Yamato, a term used to describe the ethnic group of Japan. According to much of the propaganda, since the founding of the Japanese state by Emperor Jimmu 2,6000 years ago, the Yamato race has been tasked, as descendants of the Sun God, to “assimilate all other races under the Japanese master race” and that the “sacred war was a the beginning of a struggle to liberate the Asian people from their Western oppressors”. According to Dower, however, this perceived notion of their “ultimate destiny” breed massive complacency that caused them to underestimate the capabilities of the enemy. According to Dower, the “Japanese at all levels allowed themselves to be mislead by distorted perceptions of both their strengths and the purported of their enemies. They exaggerated their own social cohesiveness and supposedly unique spiritual and moral qualities, while at the same time grossly underestimating the material strength and moral fiber of the other side” (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 259). The Japanese belief that they were the “master race” with a predestined destiny to create a world with Japan at the center created an illusion that they were invincible, that they could never been taken down. Dower notes that there was “an astonishing lack of serious intelligence analysis of a psychological and economic nature. Prior to 1940, the Imperial Army virtually ignored the United States and Great Britain altogether in its intelligence gathering, being more focused on China and the Soviet Union; English was not even taught in the Army schools. Neither the Imperial Navy nor other key government organs made a major investigation of U.S productive capacity before initiating the war.” (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 260). This kind of complacency and subsequent sloppy practice was caused by the illusion of Japanese racial superiority and “ultimate destiny” that they created for themselves and the success of the Japanese against the British in Singapore in 1942, according to Dower, only reinforced the notion of a “soft” enemy and Japanese invincibility. Late in the war, the Japanese even “ did not change their code because they did not think Westerners could break them. In the field, they frequently left important papers behind, apparently on the assumption that Westerns could not figure out how to read them.” (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 261). These specific instances of a lack of intelligence gathering and sloppy fieldwork are direct consequences of the dogma of Japanese racial superiority and illusion of invincibility that would eventually cause them to lose the war because they would grossly underestimate the response of the Americans and British later in the war because “Westerns were soft” in Japanese eyes. Perhaps if the Japanese had acknowledged there own faults and weaknesses then perhaps they would have changed their codes when they needed to and taught English within the army to aid in gathering intelligence and assessing the capabilities of the enemy. However, to do so would have gone back on the racial justifications and the “ultimate density” for which Japan claimed was the reason for fighting their “sacred war”.

The stereotypes and racism Dower reveals that the Japanese were subjected to in the United States ranged from scientific racism, being portrayed as children by Western academics, and being dehumanized through animal imagery. It is the act of dehumanization that the Japanese were subjected to by the American media that Dower focuses on when analyzing justifications that supported the conditions that the Japanese were subject to in internment camps. During the war, the Americans portrayed by comparing them to apes, insects, and vermin that needed to be exterminated. By denying the Japanese their humanity, Dower notes that, “It is, at least for more people, easier to kill animals than fellow humans. Indeed, it may be easier for many hunters to kill animals by closing their minds to the fact that they are sentient beings that know and feel pain.” (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 89). Here, Dower underlines the attitude of speciesism that was at the heart of these racist depictions; by denying the Japanese their humanity and placing them at the wrong end of the human-animal binary, the Americans could justify their desire to kill the Japanese, as “animals cannot feel pain”. Japanese internment was a specific instance that represented the speciesist attitudes Americans had towards that Japanese according to Dower as he notes that, “the verbal stripping of their humanity was accompanied by humiliating treatment that reinforced the impression of being less than human. They were not merely driven from their homes and communities on the West Coast and rounded up like cattle, but actually forced to live in facilities meant for animals for weeks and even months before being moved to their final quarters in the relocation camps.” (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 82). This treatment of the Japanese and the conditions they were exposed to can only be justified as viewing them as animals, as animals are the only forms of life that can be caged up in internment camps since humans are endowed with certain “unalienable rights”. Dower shows that these speciesist attitudes towards the Japanese were even prevalent at the highest level of politics as he notes “Churchill told Roosevelt that he was counting on the president to ‘keep that Japanese dog quiet in the Pacific’. (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 82). Thus, it is quite clear that the stripping of the Japanese of their humanity was part of the overarching racism that justified such political courses of actions like that of Japanese internment.

While it would be easy to say that reading War Without Mercy has deepened my understanding of World War II, that could not be farther from the truth. War Without Mercy has complicated my understandings of the war in the pacific by shattering my previous understanding of the Japanese motivation for entering World War II as simply a way to gain economic resources. War Without Mercy has given me a complicated version of the story that shows that there was a deeper undertone behind Japan’s “sacred war” that revolved around depictions of the West as “demons” and the belief in the “ultimate destiny” of the Yamato race. The book has also shattered my previous conceptions that the United States entered the war with pure intentions. The kind of depictions that Dower revels and the levels of racism the Japanese were subjected to in the U.S has shown me that the Americans were just as bad, if not worse, than the Japanese when it came to pure hatred and that the Americans did not even acknowledge the possibility that there could ever be a “good Jap”, a privilege that was at least reserved for some Germans. Ultimately, while War Without Mercy has answered some questions that I had regarding the war in the Pacific, it has left me with a raft of new questions such as these; what roles id the Yamato ideology play in shaping Japanese-German relations during World War II, how did the Germans view the Japanese in light of this ideology, and do these racial stereotypes formulated during the war still continue in Japan and the U.S today?

Works Cited

Dower, John W.. War without mercy: race and power in the Pacific war. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

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