by Robert J. Collins
I had a mind-jolting experience the other day.
Most educated people recognize the significance of history’s lessons and the importance of wisdom gained from events of the past. History helps form public consciousness which in turn becomes part of the framework for making moral, or at least informed, decisions in the future.
Ignorance, it is said, dooms us to stupidity re-runs. (There’s a more elegant way of phrasing that, but I forget the exact expression ) Besides. I don’t buy into that thought entirely.
Take war, for example. More words have been written about warfare than any other aspect of human behavior—from the Peloponnesian Wars to today’s adventures in Kosovo.
Jason and his Argonauts went after the Golden Fleece, not to trade it for olives, but to take it by force. Hannibal crossed the Alps, not to test the efficacy of elephants versus Jeep Cherokees, but to fight a battle. For Whom the Bell Tolls did not involve tourists at a picnic. Americans were not in Viet Nam directing traffic.
A great deal of history has been written, re-written and written again about those events, and yet the folly of war continues. In fact, the longer ago a war took place, the more romantic it becomes in our collective memories. (Alexander sure was Great! And so young.)
The point remains, however, that war is a savagely gruesome business. People—fellow humans on this third rock from the sun—are capable of doing awful things to each other.
If knowing history helps us “just a little bit” in plotting the future, don’t we owe it to ourselves to make the effort to learn from our mistakes? I sure as hell hope so; otherwise I’m outta here. (We only go around once, you know.)
We are now experiencing a spate of attempted “revisions” to what is generally accepted as the history of World War II (or “The Pacific War,” or whatever that mess from the late 1930s to 1945 is called). Until recently, most of the focus has been on events that occurred in Europe.
It is to Germany’s credit that atrocities committed against Jews and other minorities within the Nazi sphere were officially recognized and the issues were addressed. Not everything regarding apologies and reparation have been perfect—and the Germans will be the first to admit that hut the chaos surrounding events at the time add complexity to the process. Attempts are still being stolen from victims. The key, however, is that the Germans are not ducking the issue.
Of course, whackos periodically come up with theories that fuel the flash fires of public opinion. “There appear to be no remnants of cyanide molecules in the stonewalls at Auschwitz therefore the Holocaust never happened.” (They were baking strudel in those ovens?) But flash fires quickly disappear—they do not burn with the intensity of the embers of solid historical research.
Even now, Austria’s freedom Party, creeping up in popularity, is twisting knickers in the German (and European) establishments because it harkens back to the 1930s ultra-right movement embracing racism and xenophobic attitudes. The situation is being watched because the party’s leader genuine populist who speaks to the frustrations of those outside the entrenched establishment An attempt at keeping things in perspective, nevertheless, is being made.
When we look at things in Japan regarding the history of World War II (or “The Pacific War,” or whatever it’s called), the picture is different. Does anyone around here have a clue? I mean, really? Comfort women? They brought it on themselves. (And they should have known what they were getting into when they “signed up.”) “Besides, many of them were well, you know, ahem… Korean.”
And Japanese tea ceremonies in China? Iris Chang, an American of Chinese descent, wrote in The Rape of Nanking of the devastation suffered by her ancestors when the Japanese invaded. That atrocities were committed is not news—the fact that the invading army ran amok then and there is well established to the satisfaction of reasonable historians and analysts.
But what gives revisionists a leg up on all this is the point that Ms. Chang may have gotten a number or two wrong. (I mean, “400,000 humans savagely raped and slaughtered?” She’s off by a lot. Thousands maybe.)
Meeting in Osaka recently, the brave new nationalists came up with a bit of reasoning that even Marx would approve. (Groucho, that is.) “Since there were no contemporary newspaper accounts of the mass genocide, it didn’t happen.” (Contemporary newspaper accounts? In a city being overrun by invading hordes? The reporters must have been out covering a soccer match.)
(Incidentally, revisionists, try this: Since the place is now called “Nanjing” and “Nanking” no longer exists, it means that…)
What bothers me is that these people are not seen as whackos on the fringe of reality. Otherwise decent citizens sit gawping like baby bird – waiting for worms of exoneration to be dropped into their trusting mouths. (“Maybe we Japanese didn’t behave too badly after all? Mmmm, those worms are goooood, and I feel a lot better about things now.”)
But what about the realities of history? Without that awareness, whackos don’t even become whackos The point of all this is my mind-jolting experience.
A couple weeks ago, I was asked to give a talk on the subject of “writing ” Attendees at the event were students at one of the better-known universities in Japan. For no real reason, during a discussion period, we got to talking about World War II (or “The Pacific War,” or whatever it’s called), and I began picking up vibes that struck me as peculiar.
We were talking about literature emerging from wars, and that writing from the perspective of a victim was usually easier In dramatize than writing from the perspective of the victor. I sensed an element of satisfaction with this conclusion. These people want to be writers.
On a whim, I asked a young man to identify the specific cause of World War II (or whatever) vis-a-vis Japan and the United States.
He hesitated, looked down at his desk, studied his hands, and sucked a great deal of wind. So did most other people in the room. It is difficult to be asked for a direct answer to a direct question in front of peers— I understand that.
Finally, the young man came up with an answer. The relief sweeping the room was almost tangible. Potential embarrassment, not just for the young man, but for the whole group, was avoided. The question was asked, and answered. A hurdle was crossed. People went back to looking at me normally.
The young man had said that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima started the war with the States.