May 2005

Arts & Letters

Explaining the unexplained

By Phillip Knightley
Cameron Forbes’s ‘Hellfire’

There comes a moment after a war when the politicians who made it and the generals who fought it and the soldiers who survived it have died or are dying and the truth finally emerges. We are in the middle of that moment now with the war between Australia and Japan, 1941–45. A spate of revisionist histories, of which Cameron Forbes’s huge ambitious Hellfire (Macmillan, 560pp; $45) is one, have been published and more are on the way. In geopolitical terms the importance of the war is enormous. Those four traumatic years, over-shadowed at the time by the fact that the whole world was at war, decided the shape of how we live today.

Those four years marked the end of empires, of alliances, of loyalties, of illusions. We were reminded in the most brutal fashion that, given the right circumstances and conditioning, our civilised facade can give way to a primitive, murderous compulsion, that no act of atrocity is beyond our imagination. As is common in all wars, each side portrayed the other as the guilty party and explained the behaviour of its soldiers by painting them as animals, as less than human, incapable of normal feelings or decency. But in 1941–45, how much of this racist nonsense was true and how much was propaganda? Were Japanese prisoner-of-war camps really such hell-holes? Was the Thai–Burma railway really a death line? Were Japanese guards all monsters? Were no atrocities committed by Australians?

This is delicate ground. The Japanese PoW camp experience created many an Australian World War II hero and many a legend almost as potent and nation-forming as Gallipoli. Who cannot be moved by Tom Uren’s account of Major Allan Woods reciting Banjo Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” to 600 other PoWs, reminding them of what it meant to be Australian; or by Uren’s own story of his political radicalisation in the camp? “We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old and the rich looking after the poor.”

Uren contrasted the Australian way with the British way. “About 400 men from British ‘H’ force arrived at the camp after us. The officers selected the best tents, the non-commissioned officers the next best and the men got the dregs. Soon after they arrived, the wet season set in, bringing with it cholera and dysentery. Six weeks later only about 50 men marched out of the British camp, and of that number less than half survived. Only a creek separated our two camps but on one side the law of the jungle prevailed and on the other our collectivism.”

It turns out, as we should have expected, that it was all more complex, less black and white, than we have been told. You can sense Forbes’s surprise as he unearths new versions of old events, subtle variations of historically accepted incidents and, above all, explanations for people’s behaviour, never before properly understood in the chaos of war. This is a complicated story to tell with shifts between narrative, analysis and gut-wrenching description of human suffering. Forbes’s style is up to it, apart from occasional staccato lapses – sentences of one word, for example – early on. What distinguishes this book from others on the same topic is its breadth, its detail, its objectivity.

Forbes begins at the beginning. The American claim that Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to western influence and trade in 1853 turns out to be another American expropriation of history. Twenty-two years earlier the whaling ship Lady Rowena, home port of Sydney, sailed into Hamanaka Bay in northern Japan for repairs. Captain Bourn Russell led an armed party ashore, took what he needed, torched a village and looted a temple. Then he sent a letter to the emperor, via a captured Japanese, urging the benefits of trade and asserting that Europeans were “infinitely farther advanced in the Arts and Sciences and Civilisation” than the Japanese. The relationship between the two countries was off to a volatile start. And in a blink of history’s eye they were at war: Japan in pursuit of oil and rich pickings from European colonies in south Asia; Australia because Britain was at war, and where Britain led Australia followed, even if it was to disaster.

Forbes covers the Singapore debacle at length but I doubt this will be the last word on the subject. British and Australian historians have been arguing bitterly for 60 years over what went wrong and who was to blame. The real culprits, of course, were imperial arrogance, racism and hubris. Lee Kuan Yew, a future prime minister of Singapore but then a student at Raffles College, was sitting on a parapet of the college’s administrative block with a friend early on the morning of January 31, 1942, when they heard an enormous explosion. Retreating Allied troops had blown up the causeway linking Singapore with mainland Malaya. Lee turned to his friend and said: “That’s the end of the British empire.” At the time it sounded ridiculous, but the young man had got it right.

There is no need here to go into too much detail about the treatment the Japanese inflicted on their prisoners. It was appalling: prisoners were under-fed, denied basic medicine, beaten, abused, shot and beheaded, with only occasional acts of kindness and compassion revealing there were at least some decent Japanese. It is more interesting to try to understand why the Japanese behaved the way they did.

Prisoners are a burden to any modern army, and in this case especially so to the Japanese. They had been successful in the Malaya campaign by being mobile, travelling light, existing on minimum rations. They were strangers in an alien land, their supply lines were stretched and, despite their stunning initial success, they were uncertain of the eventual outcome. Caring properly for thousands of prisoners was their last priority, especially when they despised these prisoners for surrendering rather than dying in battle, as the Japanese soldier had been indoctrinated to do. As one Japanese officer said to an Australian army doctor: “You have in the past spoken somewhat boastfully of the Geneva convention and humanity. You must remember that you are our PoW; you are in our power; and that … international law and the Geneva convention do not apply if they are in conflict with the interests of the Japanese army.”

Were Australian soldiers any better? Forbes writes that captured Japanese soldiers were bayoneted. Wounded Japanese soldiers were shot. Other accounts tell of bodies being mutilated for souvenirs. Forbes quotes an Australian academic, Mark Johnston, who has studied wartime attitudes and concludes that in their brutality towards each other the Australians and Japanese had something in common. Officers – as we should have guessed – were treated differently. General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the conqueror of Malaya, packed General Arthur Percival, the man who surrendered Singapore, off to a comfortable PoW camp with 30 tins of butter, 30 tins of cheese, 150 bottles of beer and two bottles of sherry – “a small token of my personal interest in your welfare”.

And so to the greatest atrocity of the war: the Allied atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. US President Harry Truman said the bomb would be used on a purely military target and “not on women and children”. But the American military had already decided the bomb would be dropped on a Japanese city as soon as it was ready because they needed to know its effectiveness. The Allies won the war and visited victor’s vengeance on the Japanese in the guise of war crimes trials. Earl Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia command, warned that “nothing would diminish our prestige more than if we appeared to be instigating vindictive trials against individuals of a beaten nation”. No one paid him any heed. Many of the trials were cursory and many legally dubious. One Japanese guard was sentenced to 20 years after a hearing that lasted only 80 minutes, and he was probably the wrong man. At one stage the Australians were hanging up to seven Japanese a day.

Time heals. Australians brought back Japanese war brides and thus helped bring about the dismantling of the White Australia Policy. Some PoWs sought out the Japanese who had been their guards, and there were many reconciliations. Japan and Australia are now trade partners and enjoy friendly relations. The war between the two countries was a terrible period in history. This excellent account sets it all in stone: the suffering, the bravery, the heroism, the mateship. But surely the time has come to let it go.

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