As if to launch a preemptive strike on the pieties of official ceremonies, the self-conscious gravity of documentaries, and the high-tech confections of Hollywood, John Gregory Dunne has written a piece for the May 7 issue of The New Yorker, an acid-penned article called "The American Raj: Pearl Harbor as Metaphor."
Like his wife, Joan Didion, Dunne is a superb writer motivated above all by a hatred of cant, hypocrisy, and self-serving naivete. Whatever the subject of a particular work by Dunne, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, the ultimate purpose is the same: to show How Things Really Are, to rub his readers' noses in it, and to expose the falseness of this or that comfortable illusion.
The primary illusion Dunne intends to expose in the New Yorker piece is nothing less than the myth of American exceptionalism. That is the master lie, so to speak, from which many smaller lies follow. Hence his title, "The American Raj," which one would have thought was clear enough. But just in case some reader misses the point, Dunne's piece appears under a kicker, "Annals of Empire," which drives the lesson home: the United States rules over an empire, gotten by hook or by crook, just as the British did in India. The American sense of a distinctive national virtue is repugnant, and dangerous to boot.
Take the case of Pearl Harbor. In his deft, sardonic narrative, Dunne pictures the U.S. Navy of that era (prewar and wartime too) as a "feudal" domain in which the ethos of the American Raj appeared in an especially concentrated, virulent form. "Implicit in the idea of a Raj," Dunne writes, "is a subject people, a question of color." So the Navy, and particularly the Navy in Hawaii, was characterized by a smugly vicious racism. Dunne quotes from memoirs by Navy brass, newspapers of the period, and similar sources that speak contemptuously of the "mixed blood" hordes that contaminated Hawaii.
In a one-paragraph aside, Dunne argues that "racial condescension was matched by arrogance in tactical matters"; the U.S. fleet was woefully unprepared for the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor because the Navy systematically underestimated the Japanese, and did so because as Americans they were convinced of their racial superiority. The implication is that the arrogant racist American dunderheads more or less got what was coming to them when the Japanese planes appeared on the horizon early in the morning of December 7, 1941.
But that is not his main thrust, and quickly we move into territory familiar to readers of Dunne's fiction, as he retells the story of the notorious Massie case, which began in September 1931 with the alleged abduction and rape of a Navy wife by five "half-breed hoodlums." Apart from the moral issues—the handling of the case reflected racial condescension and arrogance in full measure—the story is full of the sort of bizarre detail Dunne relishes (as in his extraordinary account of the Teena Brandon case, published several years ago in The New Yorker), and the savage gusto of the telling rather overwhelms the ostensible point of the anecdote.
What was that point, exactly? No doubt there are Americans somewhere to be found who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the reprehensible deeds that are part of the national heritage. Still, wouldn't the much more common view be that yes, America is far from perfect, but in the conflict between the American empire and the Japanese empire, say, or the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, as Ronald Reagan called it, there was no moral equivalence?
Is it relevant, for instance, to consider what the Japanese occupiers in the early 1930s—the time of the Massie incident—were routinely doing to Koreans, whose country they had taken over just a decade or so after the United States took over Hawaii? Would it be relevant to compare notions of racial, ethnic, and national superiority as found in the American popular press of the 1930s, and reflected in the U.S. Navy, with similar sources from Japan during the same period?
Not at all, Dunne might say. His case doesn't require idealizing the Japanese; he merely needs to expose the myth of American virtue. I wonder. The differences between the empire of the Stars and Stripes and the empire of the Rising Sun seem quite profound. Acknowledging the import of those differences does not entail an uncritical, arrogant Americanism, but it suggests that the traditional understanding of Pearl Harbor is fundamentally correct.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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Dunne's article isn't available at The New Yorker's site.
Recent articles about the Pearl Harbor attack include:
Pearl Harbor veterans tell stories — Associated Press (Apr. 28, 2001)
New video of Pearl Harbor attack uncovered — KITV, Honolulu (Apr. 14, 2001)
Pearl Harbor packaged as popcorn fare for Japan — Reuters (Apr. 11, 2001)
Was Pearl Harbor really a surprise? — The Japan Times, January 29, 2001)
National Geographic's site has a fancy multimedia Pearl Harbor area.
The Pearl Harbor movie site promises to have survivor stories and more history about December 7, 1941.
BlueJacket.com offers a history piece on "What the Pearl Harbor Chaplains Were Doing."
Here's a live Webcam of what's going on at Pearl Harbor right now.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)
How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)
To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)
Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A Salon.com essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)
Had Morse No Code? | Like much popular art, the finale of Inspector Morse functions like a dream of the collective unconscious. (Feb. 26, 2001)
Beware the Women! | A conspiracy theorist claims the church is becoming too "feminized." (Feb. 19, 2001)
Return to the Father's House | Touchstone magazine examines God the Father and human fatherhood. (Feb. 12, 2001)