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Dehumanization and War Atrocities

World War II engulfed every aspect of life in the United States. The climate that was created by World War II affected every aspect of a person’s life, from the films people watched to the jobs people held. During World War II, the United States transformed into a war machine. The United States was not the only nation to fully transform its society and base its culture around warfare during World War II. America was hardly the only country to truly transform its society and culture around warfare during World War II. Countries like Germany and Japan also directed their national rhetoric to represent its militaristic ideals. Germany, for instance, used bars as a place to spread different political messages and wartime information. The war created politicization in places that it did not traditionally exist, like bars.[1]War dramatically shaped the political landscape in Germany, as soldiers were known to go into bars to discuss what had happened on the battlefield and in concentration camps, leaving no space untouched by the reaches of warfare.[2]German military tactics during World War II exemplified how total warfare led to the desensitization and dehumanization of many civilian groups. Total war allowed for military superpowers such as Germany and the United States to perform heinous acts against humanity, such as dropping atomic bombs in Japan and the attempted extermination of Jewish people. Warfare created an environment where dehumanization and genocide was acceptable.

World War II set a precedent that permitted the Japanese to be ostracized from United States society. This type of behavior surrounding the war can be witnessed in most aspects of society in the United States. John Dower’s War Without Mercy depicts the harsh rhetoric that surrounded the Japanese during World War II, both at home and abroad. After Pearl Harbor, Dower explained that there was a significant “rise of racist anti-Japanese myths that overrode rational intelligence”.[3]After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the stereotype that all Japanese people were spies developed. Warfare is powerful because it has the ability to shape the culture of the time and the public perception of certain groups, like the Japanese. World War II created a culture of paranoia after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Citizens of Japanese descent were ostracized from society and forced into internment camps. This shifted the culture because US citizens were being taken from their homes and being forced into internment camps. The government rhetoric that appeared after Pearl Harbor shaped the public perception of Japanese people living in the United States. This shows how closely related culture and warfare were and still are today.

The United States military created a plethora of propagandist educational films to show newly recruited soldiers during World War II. Films like “Know Your Enemy: Japan” were displayed to soldiers in order to justify total warfare or to “educate” soldiers on their enemy. The intention of having soldiers view films like “Know Your Enemy: Japan” was to provide justification for fighting the Japanese, as well as supply information regarding the Japanese people that the United States was waging war against. These films directly addressed race and dehumanized the Japanese through the film’s use of certain tones, subliminal messaging, and rhetoric attempting to sway the opinions of soldiers toward the opposition in various battles. The creation and forced viewing of these films, by the United States military, represents the “winner takes all” attitude employed by the US during World War II. The films constitute a close relationship between warfare and culture, by commissioning propagandist film for the general population’s consumption.

Frank Capra’s film “Know Your Enemy: Japan” attempted to explain as many aspects of Japanese society, culture, military, and religion, as possible, in order to wage war against them. The film begins by saying that although the United States and Japan will never actually understand one other, the United States should attempt to learn as much as possible about the Japanese, since they are living amongst us.[4]“Know Your Enemy: Japan” carefully examines the differences between Japan and the United States in a way that negatively affects the U.S. perception of the Japanese. For example, the film goes into great detail explaining the idea of Shintoism. The film describes Shintoism as a “mad fanatical doctrine” that dictates all actions in life for the living as well as the dead. The documentary emphasizes one of the main doctrines of Shintoism and a fundamental aspect of the Japanese military, which is the idea that the superior Japanese should extend their empire throughout the eight corners of the world.[5]The film blames Shintoism and Hakkō Ichiu for the actions of the Japanese military and many of the apparent conflicts between the United States and the Japanese.[6]Capra depicts the Japanese as culturally behind the United States, and uses this as a justification for United States intervention.[7]The film makes it seem as if it was created to teach about the culture of Japan in an effort to avoid military conflicts. In reality, “Know Your Enemy: Japan” highlights cultural differences between the U.S. and the Japanese in order to create an environment where it was acceptable to wage war against the Japanese. Films like “Know Your Enemy: Japan” were commissioned in order to perpetuate a negative perception of the Japanese, especially towards American military personnel.

The war in Vietnam created a hostile environment and a shift in the national culture for those living in the United States in the seventies. The film “Sir, No Sir!” accurately depicts the integration between warfare and the culture of a nation. The war in Vietnam was highly contested by a large number of civilian and military personnel. As a result of the United States declaring war in Vietnam, troops and civilians created protests and displayed their distaste for the war in Vietnam. One ex-soldier in the film stated that “he was doing his job well, but he knew he wasn’t doing what was right.”[8]After having this moment of realization, this soldier, like many others decided to reject his duty in order to do what he felt was right. The rejection of service or orders often resulted in prison time for that soldier.[9]An act as small as carrying an anti-war sign as a soldier could result in a long prison sentence.[10]The war in Vietnam affected and restricted many freedoms of soldiers that were guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Vietnam affected the judicial system, rights of citizenship, and the overall mood in the country during that time. The war in Vietnam is similar to World War II because of the massive dehumanization and violence that occurred to the people of Vietnam and its surrounding nations. The United States created a total war environment in Vietnam as it dropped bombs on civilian territories, used Guerilla Warfare tactics and “Finding Charlie” to attempt to destroy every aspect of Vietnamese society that it could.[11]One key similarity between World War II and Vietnam were the massive amount of civilian casualties that occurred as a result of the wars. One example of extreme violence that occurred in Vietnam was the 1969 U.S. bombing of Laos that resulted in over six thousand civilian deaths.[12]

The concept of “total war” was demonstrated by US involvement in World War II. Not only can total warfare be seen by the United States during World War II, but from many other global superpowers as well. Countries like Germany orchestrated heinous war crimes during World War II. Though the United States did not create concentration camps for systematic mass murder during World War II, the US did drop two atomic bombs on Japan at the conclusion of the war. The United States placed citizens of Japanese descent in interment labor camps during the war and ostracized a large portion of its citizens for accusing them of espionage. Warfare allowed members of the military and the United States government to excuse horrible acts of racism and murder towards the Japanese. Warfare created a justification for the murder of millions of Japanese citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to the atomic bomb. Warfare allowed and justified the exclusion of millions of US citizens. The conduct of the United States during World War II was horrendous and has been largely overlooked as it has been often seen as necessary to end the war.

[1] Westermann, Edward. “Drinking Rituals, Masculinity, and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany.” Central European History Volume 51, Issue 3 (2018), 371.

[2] Westermann, “Drinking Rituals, Masculinity, and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany.”, 367-389.

[3] John Dower, Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, (New York, New York, Pantheon Books: 1986), 100.

[4] U.S. War Department. Know Your Enemy Japan YouTube Film. Directed by Frank Capra and Joris Ivens. United States: PBS, 1946.

[5] U.S. War Department. Know Your Enemy Japan YouTube Film. Directed by Frank Capra and Joris Ivens. United States: PBS, 1946.

[6] U.S. War Department. Know Your Enemy Japan YouTube Film. Directed by Frank Capra and Joris Ivens. United States: PBS, 1946.

[7] U.S. War Department. Know Your Enemy Japan YouTube Film. Directed by Frank Capra and Joris Ivens. United States: PBS, 1946.

[8] Sir, No Sir. Directed by David Zeiger, 2005.

[9] Sir, No Sir. Directed by David Zeiger, 2005.

[10] Sir, No Sir. Directed by David Zeiger, 2005.

[11] Patrick Chung, Modern Military History, 1815- present, 4.30.19.

[12] Patrick Chung, Modern Military History, 1815- present, 4.30.19.

[13] Horne, Madison. “The Pictures That Defined World War II.” A&E Television Networks, July 6, 2018.

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