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John Dower, Terror Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Our lives are, of course, our histories, which makes us all, however inadvertently, historians. Part of my own history, my other life -- not the TomDispatch one that's consumed me for the last 14 years -- has been editing books. I have no idea how many books I've edited since I was in my twenties, but undoubtedly hundreds. Recently, I began rereading War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, perhaps 33 years after I first put pen to paper (in the days before personal computers were commonplace) and started marking up a draft of it for Pantheon Books, where I then worked, and where I later ushered it into the world.

As it happens, however, my history with the author of that book dips significantly deeper into time than that. I first met Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower in perhaps 1968, almost half a century ago. We were both graduate students in Asian studies then, nothing eminent or prize-winning about either of us in an era when so much of our time was swept away by opposition to the Vietnam War. Our lives, our stories, have crossed many times since, and so it was with a little rush of emotion that I opened his book all over again and began reading its very first paragraphs:

"World War Two meant many things to many people.

"To over fifty million men, women, and children, it meant death. To hundreds of millions more in the occupied areas and theaters of combat, the war meant hell on earth: suffering and grief, often with little if any awareness of a cause or reason beyond the terrifying events of the moment..."

That book -- on World War II in the Pacific as a brew of almost unbearable racial hatreds, stereotypes, and savagery -- would have a real impact in its moment (as, in fact, it still does) and would be followed by other award-winning books on war and violence and how, occasionally, we humans even manage to change and heal after such terrible, obliterating events. John's work has regularly offered stunning vistas of both horror and implicit hope. He's an author (and friend) who, to my mind, will always be award-winning. So it was, I have to admit, with a certain strange nostalgia that, at age 72, so many decades after I first touched a manuscript of his, I found myself editing a new one. It proved to be a small, action- and shock-packed volume on American global violence and war-making in these last 75 years. In doing so, I met on the page both my old friend who had once stood with me in opposition to the horror that was America's war in Indochina and the award-winning historian who has a unique perspective on our past that is deeply needed on this war- and violence-plagued planet of ours.

So many years later, it felt like a personal honor to be editing and then publishing his new work, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, at Dispatch Books. If it's a capstone work for him, it seemed like something of a capstone for me as well, both as an editor and, like all of us, as a historian of myself. Tom

Memory Loss in the Garden of Violence
How Americans Remember (and Forget) Their Wars
By John Dower

Some years ago, a newspaper article credited a European visitor with the wry observation that Americans are charming because they have such short memories. When it comes to the nation's wars, however, he was not entirely on target. Americans embrace military histories of the heroic "band of [American] brothers" sort, especially involving World War II. They possess a seemingly boundless appetite for retellings of the Civil War, far and away the country's most devastating conflict where American war deaths are concerned.

Certain traumatic historical moments such as "the Alamo" and "Pearl Harbor" have become code words -- almost mnemonic devices -- for reinforcing the remembrance of American victimization at the hands of nefarious antagonists. Thomas Jefferson and his peers actually established the baseline for this in the nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines recollection of "the merciless Indian Savages" -- a self-righteous demonization that turned out to be boilerplate for a succession of later perceived enemies. "September 11th" has taken its place in this deep-seated invocation of violated innocence, with an intensity bordering on hysteria.

Such "victim consciousness" is not, of course, peculiar to Americans. In Japan after World War II, this phrase -- higaisha ishiki in Japanese -- became central to leftwing criticism of conservatives who fixated on their country's war dead and seemed incapable of acknowledging how grievously Imperial Japan had victimized others, millions of Chinese and hundreds of thousands of Koreans foremost among them. When present-day Japanese cabinet members visit Yasukuni Shrine, where the emperor's deceased soldiers and sailors are venerated, they are stoking victim consciousness and roundly criticized for doing so by the outside world, including the U.S. media.

Worldwide, war memorials and memorial days ensure preservation of such selective remembrance. My home state of Massachusetts also does this to this day by flying the black-and-white "POW-MIA" flag of the Vietnam War at various public places, including Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox -- still grieving over those fighting men who were captured or went missing in action and never returned home.

In one form or another, populist nationalisms today are manifestations of acute victim consciousness. Still, the American way of remembering and forgetting its wars is distinctive for several reasons. Geographically, the nation is much more secure than other countries. Alone among major powers, it escaped devastation in World War II, and has been unmatched in wealth and power ever since. Despite panic about Communist threats in the past and Islamist and North Korean threats in the present, the United States has never been seriously imperiled by outside forces. Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America's adversaries.

Asymmetry in the human costs of conflicts involving U.S. forces has been the pattern ever since the decimation of Amerindians and the American conquest of the Philippines between 1899 and 1902. The State Department's Office of the Historian puts the death toll in the latter war at "over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants," and proceeds to add that "as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease." (Among other precipitating causes for those noncombatant deaths, U.S. troops shot most of the water buffalo farmers relied on to produce their crops.) Many scholarly accounts now offer higher estimates for Filipino civilian fatalities.

Much the same morbid asymmetry characterizes war-related deaths in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War of 1991, and the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq following September 11, 2001.

Terror Bombing from World War II to Korea and Vietnam to 9/11

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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