Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What We're Reading: Tears in the Darkness

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.

It may be a good thing that every once in awhile we get a vision of hell, especially the hells that are real and of human contrivance. Tears in the Darkness is the story of the terrible mistreatment and atrocities suffered by American and Philippine prisoners of war at the hands of their Japanese captors.

The Philippine Islands fell to the Japanese shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. At the time, the Philippines were a commonwealth and protectorate of the United States. There was a relatively large United States military presence on the islands at the outbreak of WWII commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, but it was not large enough or prepared to withstand the Japanese assault on the islands, and the United States was not able to reinforce troops or supplies quickly enough at such a distance to prevent the early defeat of American forces. Those troops were routed and driven back to the Bataan Peninsula near Manila. MacArthur was commander of American forces in the Pacific, and he was ordered by Roosevelt to leave the islands. Soon after his departure, his subordinates were forced to surrender American and Philippine forces on Bataan to the Japanese.

It was the sixty mile or so trek of prisoners from the end of the Bataan peninsula to railheads north that became known as the Bataan Death March. The Japanese were not prepared for the surrender of so many troops and did not have adequate transport. They were eager to get the prisoners off the peninsula in preparation for their assault on Corregidor, the island just off the tip of the peninsula and the last stronghold of American forces. The transport they had available they dedicated to the staging of military resources at the tip of the peninsula. The American and Philippine forces had surrendered after a prolonged siege, and they were physically in a war worn state and poor health. They had been cut off from adequate food supplies and their starvation and lack of adequate medical attention made them especially vulnerable to the ravages of sickness and tropical disease. Many were in no condition for a rapid forced march to the north.

Upon surrender, many prisoners were summarily executed. Japanese guards and soldiers robbed prisoners of their personal belongings. During the march there was little or no water for the prisoners as they marched under the hot tropical sun. If there was a pause on the march, prisoners were deliberately left exposed in the hot sun. There was no medical assistance for the sick or wounded, of which there were many, and if other prisoners tried to help them they were beaten, beheaded, or shot. Those who were too ill to continue the march were left by the side of the road or shot to death. When they were transported in train cars after reaching the railhead, they were packed into cattle cars so tightly that many suffocated to death, and the same occurred when prisoners were transported in the holds of merchant freighters to prison camps in Japan. The camps where prisoners were held had very little in the way of food or medical supplies and prisoners starved and disease spread. Parties of prisoners were pressed into hard labor for Japanese logistical and construction projects, where at night they had no shelter and were exposed to torrential rains.

The power of this book is achieved by the Normans weaving together an extensively researched historical narrative with the personal story of one of the American soldiers who was in the Bataan Death March and held in prison camps in the Philippines and Japan. The central “character” of this history is Ben Steele, a Montana native who after the war became an artist and during his career drew a large number of sketches portraying scenes of his experiences during his imprisonment. The Normans interviewed him over the course of nine years, and checked back with him frequently for information and reminiscences on particular events. The combination of the art, detailed historical overview, and personal history make this a particularly powerful testimony of the horrors of war. It also makes clear, like Max Hastings’ Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (previously reviewed in this blog) and John Dower’s award winning study War Without Mercy, that the particular viciousness of the war in the Pacific theater grew out of profound cultural difference between the combatants and out of a deep seated racism that could be found on both sides.

The Normans end their book with a discussion of the war crimes trials held in Manila at the end of the war, where major Japanese generals in the Philippines campaign were tried by military courts, found guilty, and executed by firing squad. Far from some resolution and feeling that justice was done, this too is an unsettling and moving account as we watch political agendas, feelings of bitterness and the desire for revenge, the desire to affix blame, and the hope of establishing principals of justice and accountability meet in a tangled process of inquiry and decision we call justice. The conflux appears touching and quixotic in the context of war and its terrible violence and loss. It has been said that the truth is the first casualty of war. Perhaps justice is the last. Soon now the events on Bataan will not be a history held in living memory. Tears in the Darkness makes it clear why it must remain in our collective memories.

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