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Pride During Wartime

I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter From Asia comes from Tokyo. We recently did a story about the World War Two battle of Iwo Jima, and along the way were reminded of the saying by philosopher George Santayana: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Our story was about the Clint Eastwood film - Letters From Iwo Jima - which was nominated for an academy award for best picture. We sought out MIT History Professor John Dower, who studied Japan before, during and after the war for his Pulitzer Prize winning history called Embracing Defeat.

Who thought Eastwood got it just right? An American telling Japan's story? According to Professor Dower, "[Eastwood] was able to have a distance in time and see that those people in Iwo Jima, those fighting people, were all human beings first, and then Americans or Japanese second."

According to an old newsreel, to America, the war was a moral crusade against evil. Americans were horrified at the atrocities of the Japanese. But Dower says, "One of the things that appalled us when we worked on Japan - and rightly - was Japanese atrocities and the abuses of prisoners... The abuse of prisoners was terrible."

Nine hundred Japanese were executed in war crimes trials, mostly for torture. According to Dower, "We ourselves are committing torture, we practiced torture which was something that we Allied powers executed Japanese for at the end of World War Two... We are doing something we thought barbaric people did, and it's horrendous. And if you protest, you are called 'not patriotic'. That's exactly what happened in Japan."

Here's another lesson from history; Japan's leaders realized in 1943 that the war was probably lost. Japan could not withstand the sheer might of the American war machine. It wanted to stop its war of choice, it just didn't know how to. And according to Dower, it's a lot like today.

"We've now gotten into an escalation - a war where you couldn't pull out," says Dower. "That's what happened in Japan. Once you get in, you can't get out because pride is on the line, rhetoric has placed you there."

Reasonable people might argue with Dower, but his is history's lesson about a country that sent its soldiers to fight and to die long after its leaders knew winning was no longer an option.

By Barry Petersen

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