The World War 2: War In The Pacific

The Pacific Theater of World War II doesn’t feature as heavily in current media and culture as the European theater does. While the battle in Europe against the Germans has become a part of the American historical narrative regarding good versus evil, democracy versus fascism, and the concept of universal human rights versus genocide, the war in the Pacific was a bit…messier.

At the time, the war against Germany was framed as a war on behalf of freedom and justice, a war of liberation. While Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and much of China was living under the brutal occupation of Japan, the war in the Pacific was not necessarily framed as one of liberation.

Ironically, the war was framed in ways that were not dissimilar to the kinds of propaganda used to justify genocide in Europe at the time. The war was one of retaliation against a sneak attack; the Japanese were painted as back-stabbing, treacherous “rats” that had to be “stamped out” and “exterminated”. Clearly such feelings were not without justification, but the revenge motivation that drove many of the soldiers who fought in the Pacific ended up fueling bitter racism and hatred. Unfortunately, this made the Pacific war a war of extremes, of no quarter, where the “rules” were largely abandoned and the fighting more like the cruel, bloody violence of the Dark Ages rather than something bound by strict international guidelines.

While not framed as a war of liberation the way the campaign against Nazi Germany was, the stakes were just as high. It couldn’t necessarily be said that the Japanese were more brutal than the Germans, but they were arguably more flagrant and unabashed regarding their brutalization of civilian populations. Believe it or not, Japanese newspapers ran front page stories with photos of their soldiers dangling the severed heads of civilians like trophies, indeed, as if it were some kind of sport. While Germans were indoctrinated with the belief in their own racial superiority, they saw themselves as the a kind of chosen people whose duty or “burden” was to be the shepherd and caretaker of the other European nations while weeding out what they saw as an inferior race and guarding Europe (and the world) against Communism.

Japan’s belief in its own racial and cultural superiority was arguably more absolute. Their beliefs were imbued with some of the same kind of ancient mysticism that drove German fascism, but they saw themselves as without equals. Though they painted their war as part of an effort to liberate Asians from European colonialism, theirs was a campaign of domination so extreme, so brutal that by the end of the war the formerly colonized nations welcomed aid and help from the Europeans who had once controlled their countries.

From the people of China and Southeast Asia to indigenous Pacific islanders and Allied prisoners of war, all were viewed as fodder to be turned into slave labor for the benefit of Empire of Japan. To the Japanese, everything was fair in war so long as you were the victor. Might truly did make right. This goes some way in explaining some of the level of desperation and fear among the Japanese civilian population as the American and Allied forces pushed ever closer to the Japanese homeland. While Japan was eventually under constant aerial bombardment, many Japanese civilians were led to believe that successful American invasion would mean enslavement and brutalization of the population, the same consequences for the civilians of the nations which they themselves invaded. As a result, Japanese civilians were prepared to take up what ever arms were available and resist American occupation at all costs…or die trying.

It is perhaps fitting then that this terrible, horrific war of extreme attitudes and extreme atrocity ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs. Though the justification for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be no doubt continue to be endlessly debated for years to come, there can be no question that the bombings humbled the Japanese populace and irrevocably altered their culture and society as they were forced to surrender and abandon their long-held militarism and fanatical attitudes regarding warfare.

Though it has long been overshadowed by the war against the Nazis in Europe, the war in the Pacific must continue to be remembered by this generation and generations to come. It serves as testimony not only to the cruelty and brutality of which mankind is capable in Japan’s conquest and disregard for human rights. It provides stunning clarity regarding the courage and perseverance of the human spirit, not only in the American soldiers who threw themselves against the odds at battlefields like Iwo Jima, but in the prisoners of war and civilians who survived unspeakable torment at the hands of their captors. Let us learn from history and work to prevent a war of such extremes from taking place again.

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