Whose WWII? forwarded

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 20 Feb 1995 08:31:17 CST

I read this post on a local faculty net here at UIC. I was stunned by it. The
author, Burt Bledstein, is a historian who thinks like an anthropologist. He
also periodically embarrasses administrators by publishing how big THEIR raises
are. So you know that this guy can't be all bad. I am forwarding Burt's post
because I think that many of you might enjoy it.

======================================================================= 83
From: Burt Bledstein <bjb@UIC.EDU>
Subject: A Prospective View of Hiroshima from Iwo Jima Day

A Prospective View of Hiroshima from Iwo Jima Day

Controversy swirls around the Smithsonian's aborted exhibit of the Enola
Gay. As culturally defined, an "event" occurs in a specific period of time, is
experienced by particular sets of players at varying levels of importance, and
is witnessed at the broadest reaches by audiences, generally self defined
(Walter Winchell's radio audience, for instance). Finally, the historical
interpretations and commemorations follow. By definition they are revisionist.
(This June's commemoration of D Day, for instance, focused exclusively on the
phenomena of GI Joe's perspective from the beach, but rarely mentioned the
generals back on the ships whose flawed tactical decisions were related to the
visual gore being witnessed on Omaha.)
For a well-known historian to argue that a retrospective view of an event
is better informed, more deeply perceptive and useful for understanding than
contemporaneous accounts and experience is arrogance. It invokes the least
desirable connotations of the phrase "academic." My own rule of research
follows: start with the journals, diaries, contemporary accounts, how people
first experienced what was happening, and then move onward and outward. Don't
neglect the witness, and don't assume that only socially constructed
propaganda is driving that witness as dupe.

I grew up in Southern California (L.A. High School, class with Dustin
Hoffman and Johnny Cochran). Long Beach, San Pedro, and San Diego were among
the disembarkation points for the south pacific. Many veterans decided to
settle in a prospering L.A. after the war.
Like my high school class which included Asian-Americans of many
nationalities, Mexicans, Blacks, working class whites, Jews--L.A. was a multi-
cultural environment. (My mother was an Okie who went west on Route 66 in
1936; my father a Hoosier driven out to the west coast by the KKK.)
Especially regarding the Japanese-Americans, after the tragedy of internment,
they appeared to do well in the southern California economy. They were my
friends at every level of schooling, and mutual patrons with my father in
business transactions. If there were deep grudges and hatreds within the
population, it was pretty well suppressed. (In California one can find most
anything to support a case by looking only at the mass media). Red-baiting was
far the more popular activity.

My youthful memories were permeated by the war. Members of my immediate
family patched the holes in the thin skins of B29s on Guam, slugged it out to
the death on Okinawa, took a severe wound from a land mine in Burma, never
recovered fully from bad jungle fevers, died in the V.A. hospital along
Sepulveda Blvd. and were buried in the large adjacent military cemetary.
Two themes consistently laced their war memoirs. SNAFU: "situation
normal all fucked up" (the U.S. military was always more to be admired from a
distance). And respect for the "Jap" soldier, a superior jungle and island
fighter, willing to starve, die, or martyr himself before surrender, dedicated
beyond anything drafted and enlisted American soldiers could comprehend.
Technology like flame throwers capable of a three minute blast mounted on
tanks gave the Americans an advantage in the fighting. In brief bursts, U.S.
casualties were horrendous: 80 to 90 percent on first waves assaulting
beaches, thousands in a few brief weeks on obscure islands.
Never can I recall personally hearing or reading that the Japanese
military and people lacked determination, persistence, or skill. In 1945 the
world was glutted with death. And invading the home islands meant more of it.
The numbers were irrelevant. None were thinking about a fifty year
retrospective on a new weapon. I suspect few would today under similar

Finally, neglected in this discussion about the Enola Gay and Hiroshima
has been the considerable scholarship at the time on Japan. Best known became
Ruth Benedict's, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword; Patterns of Japanese Culture
(1946). She had been writing on race, racism, science, and politics throughout
the war years. Personality and National Character studies was an accepted
genre in contemporary anthropology and sociology. Of course these studies
reflected bias. However, when scholars today trivialize many of the serious
efforts at analysis at the time as political propaganda only in support of a
policy or only articulating "public opinion" it serves to raise similar
questions about our enterprise and credibility today. Who needs us if all
scholarship is politics and all politics is partisanship. Who needs us if the
retrospective view wipes away the subjective experiences of the moment itself
when the event was given shape, in this case a spectacular mushroom cloud.

Burt Bledstein
A Comment Posted on H-Ideas: February 19, 1995