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Review of War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War

Updated on September 7, 2010

Review of War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War.New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Most communication scholars would agree that at the heart of every disagreement are biases, battling opinions and possible misperceptions of the truth. According to historian John Dower’s writing in War Without Mercy, this was even true for raging superpowers in the midst of World War II. Although the Nazis’ infamous anti-Semitic acts are the most noted of racial extermination, race wars between countries such as Japan and the United States were fueled by popular misunderstandings and wartime propaganda. In his book, Dower studies the wartime media distributed by both sides and the effects they had on their audience.

The first part deals with media in general, and the ways both sides would use film, radio broadcasting, or written text to promote racial attitudes. For instance, Frank Capra, a Hollywood director, was summoned to direct a documentary which was viewed by every American troop titled Prelude to War. He described the purpose of the film when he stated, “Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause—and the justness of ours.” His films included Prelude to War, The Battle of China and Know Your Enemy—Japan which are all reviewed by Dower. The Japanese counterparts to these films were booklets like Read This and the War Is Won (Kore dake Yomeba Ware wa Kateru), The Way of the Subject (Shinmin no Michi), and the Field Service Code (Senjinkun). This battle of propaganda was encouraged by each nation’s actions, as “one side’s idealized virtues easily fed the other side’s racial prejudices.”

Prejudices held by Americans centralized around the idea of Japanese men, women, and children being less than human. Even before the war began, the hatred for the Japanese was much stronger in America than even for the Germans because (in belief) there were no “good” Japanese. This was evident in the inhumane ways prisoners were treated, or by comments which portrayed their loyalty to their country not as an ideal, but rather as proof that they had no intelligence to think for themselves. In propaganda, Japanese were depicted as apes, monkeys, or other beasts and were seen ravaging cities, raping white women, or causing mischief. On the other hand, the Japanese felt they were “neither physically nor intellectually superior to others, but rather inherently more virtuous” and were the superior race in the world.

In fact, Americans were viewed to be a demonic race by Japan. They were depicted as gangsters, giants, or even dandruff in the head of the Japanese—corrupting their minds with capitalism and self-centeredness. Purity was crucial to their culture, and white was the color of purity. For example, fairer-skinned Japanese were obviously upper-class since the field workers had a darker complexion. Morality was highly valued by the Japanese, and for this reason, the ideals of the United States were not honored but rather viewed as selfish and corrupt. Dower explains how the propaganda produced by the Asian culture portrayed Americans as ravaging demons who would torture and inevitably slaughter the Japanese if they managed to capture any. This explains why so many would fight ruthlessly and often die in battle rather than taken captive.

Finally, racial stigmas in World War II were prevalent on the home front as well as abroad. Dower makes clear the discrimination felt toward the black population in America and the Asian people was directly hypocritical to America’s contempt with German anti-Semitic views. Jokes that highlighted the racial inequality in America were popular during this time, as they shed light on the injustice within the country. Blacks called for a double victory—one over the enemies oversees as well as over discrimination from fellow citizens—and were successful in drawing attention to their cause.

War Without Mercy highlights the racial battles of perception that occurred during the second world war. However, the conflicting views of foreign cultures that are discussed by Dower raise another question: What makes any one culture better than another? While the Americans destroyed any humanistic approach to dealing with the Japanese by the media produced during the time, they were also fighting a prejudiced enemy who saw them as demons more than willing to slaughter them. The irony is both stereotypes were caused by lack of knowledge, but further provoked by actions that reiterated the perceptions. Although biases will always exist, perhaps a better strategy to avoid war would be to understand the enemy’s culture and reason why there is a clash of ideals instead of perpetuating negative stereotypes.


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      Biana 3 years ago

      It's great to read something that's both enjoyable and provides prmsaatigdc solutions.

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      Susie 3 years ago

      This is just the peercft answer for all of us

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      CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job on the review. Dower encapsulates one of the reasons for the war. But it is amazing that both Japan and Germany became two of our best allies in the post war world. My father who fought in Europe had no hatred towards the Germans but my uncle who fought in the Pacific kept his prejudices until his death. But the horror of the Pacific closely resembled that of the Eastern Front. Keep up the good work.