Dark Pasts, Bright Futures: Reconciling WWII Human Rights Violations through Art
“Art shows us who we think we were, who we are, and who we are on the brink of becoming.”
It is a common point of frustration and complaint among young American scholars in Germany that the Nazi regime is erased from public discourse and apparently public memory. I remember quite clearly, one day after a lecture in my DAF (Deutsche Als Fremdsprache) Twentieth Century German History course at Universität Stuttgart with other foreign exchange students, a diatribe among my colleagues as we walked back to the S-bahn. One of the young men was incensed by the way the professor had glazed over direct questions about the hateful, inhuman Nazis.
The rant is a familiar one to any American holding even a passing acquaintance with modern day German society. My mind drifted to a previous semester’s reading while still in the United States: Harald Welzer and several others had tackled this cognitive distancing with a book entitled “Opa war kein Nazi” or “Grandad wasn’t a Nazi” in 2003. My lingering impression of that work was the enormity of reconciling the image of your loving grandpa, who spoils you nonstop, with someone who may have committed atrocities or at least turned a blind eye to them.
Past hurts are often the deepest. How do we tend to them?
Memorial Day Sunday, May 25, 2014: Christ of the Hills Church, Hot Springs Village, AR
After applauding for the men and women who had served in the military, the congregation of this Methodist church began singing a patriotic hymn, and my eyes wander over the people around me as the familiar words tumble out of my mouth with rote certainty.
Some of these individuals were members of the G.I. Generation and fought in World War II. I had recently viewed The Railway Man in the theater, a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Based on an autobiography, the protagonist Eric Lomax had suffered inhumane indenture and torture at a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The Japanese beat the prisoners. The Japanese treated the prisoners as slaves. A young Lomax was waterboarded on screen. His psyche was shattered by what he experienced in the War. Much of the frame of the story takes place in the years after the war as the survivors carry on with their lives. One of Lomax’s friends and fellow comrade from the FEPOW camp, described their common struggle with “battle fatigue.” (“Battle fatigue” is the antiquated term for the psychological difficulty soldiers have with reacclimating to civilian life after traumatic experience. We now refer to this as PTSD.)
When we surrendered, the Japs said we weren’t men. Real men would kill themselves or die of shame, but we said “No. We’ll live for revenge.” But we didn’t. No, we don’t live. We’re miming in the choir. We can’t love. We can’t sleep. We’re an army of ghosts.
Stellan Skarsgård as Finlay, The Railway Man
Hatred and revenge tear at the minds of the survivors of the war. They don’t escape the memory of the inhumanity of man. Tragically, this story is not unfamiliar to the American audience. While The Railway Man is a film based in autobiography, other permutations of the same story have come to the silver screen with a perhaps disturbing regularity.
In 1983, David Bowie (well known to my generation for handsomely daring a young girl to traverse “through dangers unknown” to protect her baby brother) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (well known to American Otaku for his breathtakingly beautiful orchestral compositions) starred in the Japanese-British film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post, this film even-handedly shows the psychologically destructive force of war on both captor and captive in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp. In the film, all men are oppressed by the experience, reducing them to their basic emotions. Sex, shame, violence, hunger, grief, self righteousness, and survival are all touched upon in a disorienting pace. Once again, the white POWs struggle with the Japanese concept of honor and shame in the face of human rights violations: the trailer remarks, “They were all honorable men, but oh what deeds could be done in the name of honor.” This film once again showed the American audience atrocities committed by the Japanese on Allied forces, but it wasn’t the first major motion picture to do so.
The Bridge On the River Kwai premiered in 1957, won seven Academy Awards, and is a considered classic in American film. Based on a novel of the same name by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, a white officer played by Alec Guinness pridefully bears starvation and entrapment in an enclosed cage as he refuses to give up the rights guaranteed to himself and his men in the Geneva Convention. The most fantastic and exaggerated telling of the goings-on in labor camps, the men prisoners arrive at the camp whistling a cheerful tune, and at the end of the movie, depart in the same manner. The captive Lieutenant Colonel bests the Japanese Camp Commandant through pure stubbornness in the face of darkness and death.
These three films, while the chronologically first two are based on novels and the third based on autobiography, are remarkably similar. All three are set in prisoner of war camps. The Railway Man is set in a construction camp for the Burma railway, which is the same railway to traverse the bridge over the river Kwai in that film. Despite the fact that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence mostly takes place in the hospital wing of a labor camp, human rights violations are a reality for the captives.
These three films touch on our legacy of pain from World War II. Our past hurts are the deepest. Their scars invisible, hidden to the casual everyday observation, only to be drawn out in these works of art. The men who lived these circumstances survive still. How do we honor their sacrifices? How do we acknowledge their suffering with dignity? How do we show them respect, but by looking unflinchingly at what they have endured for our sakes? For our freedom? For our prosperity?
How do we rectify the horrors committed on us in the past? One answer to this unanswerable question is to acknowledge and remember the horrors we committed on others. In 2011, I first heard George Takei drumming up interest in his self-proclaimed “legacy project”–a musical reflecting his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. Growing up on the East side of the United States, I have no memory of learning about Japanese internment in my primary education. My first acquaintance with it was in a human rights course in college, and I gained more awareness from visiting museums in Oakland and San Francisco when I lived there shortly in the winter of 2005. The barbarity of our own government towards its citizens hovered in the periphery of my mind, but I was all too aware, then, of my peers’ ignorance of this truth.
Now, Americans are much more familiar with this uncomfortable part of our past, and, thanks to Takei, interment is in our society’s consciousness. The latest, and perhaps largest, incorporation of internment into our popular culture was season 3B of MTV’s most popular young adult television show, Teen Wolf. Running January through March of 2014, this season’s story arc incorporates elements of Japanese culture and folklore into the previously established Western supernatural myth structure. A mainstream, young adult audience was presented with the world of oni (Japanese demons), kitsune (trickster fox spirits), yakuza (mobsters), and more. This introduction makes future stylistic or cultural influences from the land of the Rising Sun more accessible and familiar to them. Furthermore, the crux of the season hangs on events that occurred at a World War II Japanese internment camp in California. “The Fox and the Wolf” (episode twenty-one of season two) is an episode conducted almost entirely in flashback, showing the young viewers the hardships endured by displaced Japanese at the hands of often corrupt if not unnecessarily violent military personnel. At one point, the white captors steal much-needed medicine from the internment camp to sell on the black market. For the first time in American television, historical human rights violations by representatives of the US government are presented to a teenage audience. These young people will not only grow up with a more realistic image of our country but also more mature patriotism towards it.
Teen Wolf is not the only piece of popular culture that has ridden the wave of awareness of Japanese internment. On Independence day of this year (2014,) the edutainment giant TED released an article listing ten pop culture artworks reflecting this dark chapter of America’s past. Perhaps the most surprising entry is a song written by a former member of the band Linkin Park telling the story of a family being in an internment camp.
The main antagonist of the aforementioned season of Teen Wolf is an ancient evil spirit possessing a teenage boy. The spirit wreaks havoc on the community, and “draws its power from pain and tragedy, strife and chaos.” In several occasions, it goads characters to draw from past hurts and anger to break into violence. This spirit in many ways symbolizes the destructive force of hatred in societies. “Sometime the hating has to stop,” says Eric Lomax, as he pieces his life back together, confronting the revenants of his traumatic memories from World War II, emerging from the experience in friendship with the Japanese soldier who was his captor in the POW camp.
How do we address the horrors of the past? Reconciliation is the hardest part of conflict resolution. Honesty is not easy. It is not easy to remember the wrongs we have visited on others while someone perpetrates atrocity. Dialogue is not easy. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” The way to honor the pain of the past is to strive not to be inhumane in retaliation to inhumanity, but rather to seek the humanity in every person, no matter his/her actions.