Offbeat 07 October 2016
I go on World War Two binges from time to time. I grew up separated from that event by a few decades, so it featured large in childhood, in the form of the small war comics, stories in annuals, movies and running around with sticks, pretending to mow down entire battalions with one burst of machine gun.
I got back into the World War groove again this year, with a bunch of the cheap DVDs, then started watching some documentaries on Youtube. Last night I watched a series about the war in the Pacific theatre.
One of my great uncles was there, at the time. As far as I know he was captured in Manila, and then did the Bataan Death March. I was told that he survived because he was a doctor, more valued as a human being, and was treated slightly better than the captured troops who, according to the documentary, were killed on a whim by the Japanese, for entertainment. The documentary shows a hospital in Manila where doctors and patients were massacred. I wondered if he worked there, or if he was elsewhere in the city.
I sit here with one or two of the heirlooms that came to me from him, via my mother, an embroidered peacock in a frame, and an old wooden lamp with a carving of a Chinese peasant as its base. I was told, in the space of a few years his hair turned white.
I found the story interesting, but I did not take it seriously until I mentioned to my mother that I had a Japanese acquaintance. I saw her pale and a look of revulsion cross her face. At that point the story became real, but it also became unreal. I had to contend with my mother’s emotion, but I also had to contend with the likable nature of my acquaintance, who would not in anyway threaten anyone, let alone my great uncle.
Watching the documentary brought home to me the way stories travel in families and down generations. But the stories have no significant basis in current reality. The only connection that they have to the present is the perpetuation of the dark emotion in the here-and-now.
That perpetuation opens the door to the past.
As I watched my mother’s reaction, I immediately began to assess my acquaintance in terms of my great uncle’s story. It took a while to disentangle myself from it. When I explained the character of my acquaintance to my mother I could not alter her opinion.
The documentary was very graphic. It showed war crimes on both sides, with victims in between. You can watch it on Youtube. It’s a four-part series called Hell in the Pacific.
I understand that there are people who do not know me personally, but instinctually hate me for what I represent. I am white. I speak English. I have an Afrikaans surname. I have to hold myself in check as well. If someone with a visible characteristic, maybe curly white hair for instance, robs me, then I will notice that characteristic in the context of the moment and the imprint will serve as a warning signal: be wary of people with curly white hair. That negative emotion is one short step away from stereotyped hatred.
One of the most interesting things about the documentary was its cold, hard look at how stereotypes were intentionally created to fan the fire of hatred and produce more aggressive approaches to warfare. The stereotyping took place on both sides. Yet there were exceptions among the combatants, and victims in between.
In all of my thinking, there has been some reverberation of learning the lessons of history. The general idea seems to be not to make the same mistakes. But the lessons of history can easily be interpreted the wrong way. We can learn to hate on the basis of a stereotype that echoes through the years, and events that bear very little relation to the current reality. There is a definite case to be made for ignoring the lessons of history under these circumstances, finding the way back to the blank slate. Reconciliation seems to be the only place to begin. But for now I will go with what I have, the understanding that hatred is par for the course, and need to avoid it personally.