CHESTER HAS MOVED!: Occupations up close and personal

Monday, December 20, 2004

Occupations up close and personal

Last week, National Review Online featured a five-part series of excerpts from Stephen Vincent's book, "In The Red Zone," the story of his time spent traveling through Iraq. The excerpts are very interesting and the book looks promising. (See link in sidebar.) Here are the links: Steven Vincent's In the Red Zone on National Review Online, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V Yesterday we were reading a bit of John Dower's work on the US occupation of Japan, "Embracing Defeat." (See link in sidebar.) We were wondering if something of the Japanese experience might be relevant to that of the Iraqis. Dower, whose work earned every possible book prize imaginable, including a National Book Award and a Pulitzer, has this to say about the Japanese experience:
I myself find the concrete details and textures of this extraordinary experience of a whole country starting over absorbing, but they do not strike me as alien, exotic, or even mainly instructive as an episode in the history of Japan or U.S.-Japanese relations. On the contrary, what is most compelling from my own perspective is that defeat and occupation forced Japanese in every walk of life to struggle, in exceptionally naked ways, with the most fundamental of life's issues – and that they responded in recognizably human, fallible, and often contradictory ways that can tell us a great deal about ourselves and our world in general.
What else does Dower say in his introduction?
The ease with which the great majority of Japanese were able to throw off a decade and a half of the most intense militaristic indoctrination, for instance, offers lessons in the limits of socialization and the fragility of ideology that we have seen elsewhere in this century in the collapse of totalitarian regimes.
In his travels in Iraq, Vincent notes the way that Iraqis often would take a conspiratorial view of the reasons behind their present circumstances:
From denouncing U.S. soldiers, it was a short step for the cop to declare his support for Saddam, anger at the "infidel" and hatred for Zionists, the whole ascending scale of rage climaxing with his view of Iraq as the victim of a worldwide conspiracy.
Similarly, Dower notes about the Japanese,
. . . the preoccupation with their own misery that led most Japanese to ignore the suffering they had inflicted on others helps illuminate the ways in which victim consciousness colors the identities that all groups and peoples construct for themselves.
Vincent notes the same attitude at work in Iraq:
Iraqis refuse to accept that their society allowed a monster like Saddam to take power. Instead, they see him as an aberration, as if he were a maniacal gunman who suddenly burst into their homes, seized their families, and terrorized their neighbors, until the police finally stormed in and captured the lunatic. Now, standing amidst the ruins caused by the raid, they say to their rescuers, "It wasn't our fault this madman got in here. Thanks for getting rid of him — now, how soon are you going to repair our house?" They overlook that from 1968 to 1980, Iraq lived happily under the control of the Nazi-inspired Baath Party, while reaping the benefits of an oil-rich economy. (How many times did I hear how wonderful Baghdad was in the 1970s?) Not until Saddam seized complete control of the nation in 1979 and launched the war on Iran — and then on the Kurds, and then on Kuwait, and then on the Shia — did they realize they belonged to a madman. But by then it was too late.
Dower paints quite a portrait of the dynamism that seized Japan during its occupation – a facet of life in Iraq that has already been noted a great deal:
. . . it was in this atmosphere of flux and uncertainty that the Americans proceeded to dismantle the oppressive controls of the imperial state. it remained for the vanquished themselves to fill this new space, however, and they did so in often unexpected ways. Support for socialist and communist agendas exceeded anything the Americans had anticipated, as did the explosive energy of the nascent labor movement. Mid-level bureaucrats emerged as initiators of serious reform. Prostitutes and black-market operatives created distinctive, iconoclastic cultures of defeat. Publishers responded to a huge hunger for words with publications that ran the gamut from sleazy pulp magazines to incisive critical journals and books as well as wide-ranging translations of Western writings. portmanteau concepts such as "love" and "culture" were discussed obsessively, and the adjective "new" was coupled with promiscuous abandon to almost every noun in sight. Private attachments supplanted the old state-enforced dictates of public morality. Connoisseurs of decadence emerged as popular critics of the unsavory wartime cult of "wholesomeness." New heroes and heroines were discovered and idolized, new celebrities rocketed to pop-culture fame. Messianic religions flourished, and pretenders to the throne emerged. Millions of ordinary people spoke out in community meetings and in letters to the press as well as in a small avalanche of communications to the occupation authorities. Tens of millions found themselves longing for material affluence of the sort their American overlords so conspicuously enjoyed.
Though Iraq's circumstances are quite different from those of Japan, there seem to be more than a few similarities between their situations and the reactions of both populaces. We've noted before that while Saddam had quite a personality cult, and the police-state to enforce it, he did not have the same clearly-defined ideology that past totalitarians had -- that is to say, that while Saddam's state was quite adept at terrorizing its own people, it was not so much so at indoctrinating them into some sort of fascism that took root. Otherwise, our war with Iraq would have been more of a total war, and we would not say we were liberating Iraq, we would easily say we were occupying it (Vincent spends quite a bit of time discussing the semantics of the liberation/occupation, especially in Part V above.), just as we did with the Japanese. Nevertheless, the same sorts of mentalities and Sturm und Drang seem to apply. Arthur Chrenkoff, an Australian blogger who grew up in Eastern Europe (and is a Friend of Chester), posted about post-totalitarian-stress-disorder a bit back, and his thoughts are quite relevant to this discussion as well.


Blogger Brian H said...

Do you think the infinitely nosy and intrusive American public will "put up with" that kind of chaotic evolution in Iraq's case? It's so ADHD it will never be able to tolerate long evolutions and stages of development. "It's been six months! Why isn't everything fixed?"

December 21, 2004 at 6:43 PM  
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October 25, 2005 at 3:28 AM  
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