From Milne Bay to 9/11

Why might people like us machine gun drowning sailors (or torture prisoners) ? Reading Mark Johnston’s Fighting the Enemy: Australian soldiers and their adversaries in World War II which sheds some light on this question. The hierarchy of enemies is not surprising, Italians were despised, Germans respected (and postwar polls showed they were popular migrants), the Vichy French were a puzzle and the Japanese were hated. Johnston is something of a traditionalist in stressing the role of Japanese atrocities in generating hatred rather specifically racial motives. Certainly the atrocities are stunning in their horror, Johnston¬† describes at Milne Bay, one of the most infamous atrocity sites:¬† ‘a soldier with the tops of his ears cut off, his eyes removed, his hands tied in front of him, his trousers pulled down and tied to his boots by the belt, his body subject to about twenty stab wounds, and his buttocks and genitals frightfully mutilated’. Cannibalism also occurred. Why this policy? Worth remembering that the overall goals of Japanese policy were the sanest of all of the Axis, they were not trying to reform the Roman Empire or construct a 1000 year Aryan Reich, the Japanese sought a colonial empire in East Asia. that is to do what the Europeans had already done. At the time Japanese violence was interpreted in a racialized framework in which the Japanese were cast as sub-human. It seems that the Japanese objective was rational they sought to terrify and demoralize their opponents by wanton brutality, along with their own suicidal conduct. But even on its own terms the policy was unsuccessful, Australians knew the Japanese could be effective soldiers, but often they saw them as deranged, the Japanese propensity for suicide was incomprehensible. The result was Allied atrocities such as the murder of prisoners or other Japanese soldiers unable to fight (the video shows this for Americans). Perhaps a parallel could be found with Jihadist terrorists there is a coherent strategy behind their actions, it is not just irrational. However their actions inspire not just fear and alarm but incomprehension. More broadly the road to foreign policy success does not lie through incomprehensible violence and aggression.

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