[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I have a special offer for you today. John Dower has agreed to sign and personalize copies of his magnificent new Dispatch Book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, for any TD reader who contributes at least $100 ($125 if you live outside the United States) to this website. This is a book that has been praised by Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Andrew Bacevich, Marilyn Young, Juan Cole, Adam Hochschild, James Carroll, and Ariel Dorfman. It’s a historian’s classic vision of how our violent world has actually worked these last 75 years. This offer will only be available for a limited time, so check out our donation page today by clicking here. Otherwise, remember that you can simply buy a copy of the book at Amazon (which, if you use this link, gives TD a few extra cents at no cost to you) or at publisher Haymarket Books at a significant discount by clicking here. Tom]
Our lives are, of course, our histories, which makes us all, however inadvertently, historians. Part of my own history, my other life — not the TomDispatch one that’s consumed me for the last 14 years — has been editing books. I have no idea how many books I’ve edited since I was in my twenties, but undoubtedly hundreds. Recently, I began rereading War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, perhaps 33 years after I first put pen to paper (in the days before personal computers were commonplace) and started marking up a draft of it for Pantheon Books, where I then worked, and where I later ushered it into the world.
As it happens, however, my history with the author of that book dips significantly deeper into time than that. I first met Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower in perhaps 1968, almost half a century ago. We were both graduate students in Asian studies then, nothing eminent or prize-winning about either of us in an era when so much of our time was swept away by opposition to the Vietnam War. Our lives, our stories, have crossed many times since, and so it was with a little rush of emotion that I opened his book all over again and began reading its very first paragraphs:
“World War Two meant many things to many people.
“To over fifty million men, women, and children, it meant death. To hundreds of millions more in the occupied areas and theaters of combat, the war meant hell on earth: suffering and grief, often with little if any awareness of a cause or reason beyond the terrifying events of the moment…”
That book — on World War II in the Pacific as a brew of almost unbearable racial hatreds, stereotypes, and savagery — would have a real impact in its moment (as, in fact, it still does) and would be followed by other award-winning books on war and violence and how, occasionally, we humans even manage to change and heal after such terrible, obliterating events. John’s work has regularly offered stunning vistas of both horror and implicit hope. He’s an author (and friend) who, to my mind, will always be award-winning. So it was, I have to admit, with a certain strange nostalgia that, at age 72, so many decades after I first touched a manuscript of his, I found myself editing a new one. It proved to be a small, action- and shock-packed volume on American global violence and war-making in these last 75 years. In doing so, I met on the page both my old friend who had once stood with me in opposition to the horror that was America’s war in Indochina and the award-winning historian who has a unique perspective on our past that is deeply needed on this war- and violence-plagued planet of ours.
So many years later, it felt like a personal honor to be editing and then publishing his new work, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, at Dispatch Books. If it’s a capstone work for him, it seemed like something of a capstone for me as well, both as an editor and, like all of us, as a historian of myself. Tom
Memory Loss in the Garden of Violence
How Americans Remember (and Forget) Their Wars
By John Dower
Some years ago, a newspaper article credited a European visitor with the wry observation that Americans are charming because they have such short memories. When it comes to the nation’s wars, however, he was not entirely on target. Americans embrace military histories of the heroic “band of [American] brothers” sort, especially involving World War II. They possess a seemingly boundless appetite for retellings of the Civil War, far and away the country’s most devastating conflict where American war deaths are concerned.
Certain traumatic historical moments such as “the Alamo” and “Pearl Harbor” have become code words — almost mnemonic devices — for reinforcing the remembrance of American victimization at the hands of nefarious antagonists. Thomas Jefferson and his peers actually established the baseline for this in the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines recollection of “the merciless Indian Savages” — a self-righteous demonization that turned out to be boilerplate for a succession of later perceived enemies. “September 11th” has taken its place in this deep-seated invocation of violated innocence, with an intensity bordering on hysteria.