Since at least the late 60’s, there has been an effort in academe and in Hollywood to make all cultures morally equivalent. More recently, there has been an effort to make “indigenous cultures”—whatever that means—morally superior to Western civilization. I was thinking of all this when I read an interview with Clint Eastwood that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Eastwood was promoting his new movie, Letters From Iwo Jima, which, he claims, will portray the battle for the island from the Japanese perspective. Drawing a moral equivalency between the Americans and the Japanese, Eastwood emphasizes that Americans committed atrocities. “Well, that happened a lot,” proclaims Eastwood. “I talked to so many Marines who were there, and I’d say: ‘What did you do with the prisoners?’ And they’d look at me and go: ‘We didn’t have any prisoners.’ And I’d say: ‘Oh. OK.’”
Hold on here, ol’ Clint. Aren’t you leaving something out? Japanese atrocities were standard operating procedure, following a policy that was promoted and endorsed by the government of Japan and ran through the ranks from generals to privates. On Guadalcanal, the beginning of the American island campaign in the Pacific, the Marines learned this the hard way. When unarmed U.S. Navy corpsmen, who are the Marines’ equivalent of Army medics, ran to treat fallen Japanese soldiers screaming for aid, the wounded Japanese would detonate grenades. Japanese snipers used the red cross on the corpsmen’s medical bags as targets. It was not long before there were no more red crosses on medical bags and no more unarmed corpsmen rushing to the aid of fallen Japanese. Similarly, the Japanese staged fake surrenders that initially lured Marines to their deaths. The Marines stopped attempting to take prisoners for good reason. The Japanese were fighting to die. The Americans were fighting to live.
Eastwood says Letters From Iwo Jima will depict Japanese soldiers extending kindness and aid to a captured American, another perversion of reality. Why not show what happened to a real Marine who was captured in the real battle for Iwo Jima? Ralph Ignatowski, a close buddy of flag-raiser Jack Bradley and, like Bradley, a Wisconsin boy, was 17 when he joined the Marines and 18 when he landed on Iwo. “Iggy” was captured by the Japanese during the fighting, dragged into a cave, and tortured for three days. His teeth were hammered out, tongue cut out, ears cut off, eyes gouged out, limbs broken and nearly severed, and his penis sliced off and stuffed into his mouth. Perhaps, the Japanese had to evacuate the cave in a hurry—his head had not been decapitated, as was typical. This was all graphically described in the book Flags of Our Fathers but is almost entirely absent in Eastwood’s movie of the same name. I don’t expect to find it in Letters From Iwo Jima, either.
To include in his movies what the Japanese actually did to captured Americans would cause Eastwood problems with his moral-equivalency paradigm and destroy his box-office receipts in Japan. The latter is of no small concern. After three months in release, Flags of Our Fathers, which cost more than $90 million to make, had grossed only some $34 million domestically. American audiences apparently smelled a rat. Meanwhile, the movie had taken in $21 million overseas, mostly in Japan. Eastwood is counting on Japan to make Letters From Iwo Jima a hit. He appears in publicity photos wearing the uniform cap of the Japanese army.
Suspecting that some will question his portrayal of the Japanese, Eastwood claims to have no illusions about the nature of the enemy in the Pacific and to have read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Nonetheless, he euphemistically says, “I’m not trying to make them all out as powder puffs. The Japanese were tough, a tough enemy to have.” Tough, is it? At Nanking, the Japanese killed upward of 300,000 civilians, including raping and then decapitating and dismembering as many as 50,000 Chinese girls. Japanese soldiers received supplemental sword and bayonet training by tying thousands of Chinese to posts and practicing thrusts and slashes. Chinese babies were tossed into the air and, as their trajectory brought them back toward earth, caught on the ends of Japanese bayonets. The Japanese bet on the sex of babies in the wombs of pregnant Chinese and then split open the women’s bellies and pulled out the fetuses to see who won. Two Japanese sergeants engaged in a contest to see who could decapitate the most Chinese. Tokyo newspapers posted the numbers daily. There are photographs of all this with Japanese officers and enlisted personnel smiling and cheering. China claims the Japanese killed 30 million Chinese in World War II, mostly civilians.
The Bataan Death March demonstrated that decapitation was not reserved for Chinese. Riding in open cars by the long line of marching American prisoners, Japanese officers swung their swords at will and decapitated or dismembered those unlucky enough to be within range. A survivor of the Death March, Lt. Col. William Dyess, an Army Air Corps pilot, described the decapitation of a fellow American pilot:
Before we could grasp what was happening [the Japanese officer] had swung his sword. I remember how the sun flashed on it. There was a swish and a kind of chopping thud, like a cleaver going through beef. The captain’s head seemed to jump off his shoulders. It hit the ground in front of him and went rolling crazily from side to side between lines of prisoners. The body fell forward. I have seen wounds, but never such a gush of blood as this. The heart continued to pump for a few seconds and at each beat there was another great spurt of blood. The white dust around our feet was turned into crimson mud. I saw the hands were opening and closing spasmodically. Then I looked away.
Evidently, Clint Eastwood has looked away also.