Book Review: War Without Mercy

In his award winning work War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986) historian John W. Dower explores the racist attitudes prevalent on both sides in the Pacific War of 1941-1945.[1] Dower exposes the hypocrisy of the belligerent powers in which both were equally guilty of racist attitudes while accusing the enemy of the same thing.[2] The author accurately depicts the bigotry and barbarism of both sides during the war. He asserts that it was precisely these long held beliefs that led to the “dehumanization” of the enemy resulting in an “obsession with extermination on both sides.”[3] Racial hatred, Dower contends, was the root cause of the many atrocities committed by combatants on both sides.[4] While the author makes a convincing revisionist argument and provides an in depth look at how each side viewed the other through the lens of race, his work is also tainted by his own partiality as a Japanophile, having dedicated most of his life’s work to the study of Japanese history and culture.[5]

Dower attempts to be equitable in his treatment of both sides. However, the information that he cites suggests that Americans were more racist than the Japanese. He also misrepresents some primary source accounts of barbarism, such as those of 1st Marine Division veteran Eugene Sledge in his memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by omitting information and making it appear as though such acts were more accepted than they actually were. Dower goes to great lengths to point out that American propaganda and leaders painted the Japanese as vermin and yellow apes. On the other hand, the Japanese depicted Westerners as devils or demons that still had humanlike faces. The author asserts that the simian imagery used to depict Japanese was an extension of American racism manifested in the treatment of other non-white groups. He reinforces the idea that these were deeply ingrained racist sentiments in the American psyche with quotes from George Washington who called American Indians “beasts” and Theodore Roosevelt who agreed that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”[6]

While the author correctly identifies racism as a factor in the rabid anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, he mistakenly identifies racism as the main cause of the merciless nature of Pacific fighting.[7] Rather, the behavior of Anglo-American fighting men in both the Pacific and European theaters was largely predicated upon that of their enemy. Pacific combat rapidly degenerated into a no quarter grisly war of mutual annihilation based on two factors: the Japanese policy of fighting to the death, and unwillingness on the part of the Japanese to abide by accepted rules of warfare.[8] From 1890 on Japanese children recited daily an oath of willingness to die for the Emperor – a fact that Dower ignored in his work. The fanatical willingness to fight to the death, a concept utterly alien to the Western mind, was not born of racist ideology rather it was inculcated into the Japanese fighting man from a very young age.

Dower describes ad nauseam the savagery of the Pacific battlefield, emphasizing the behavior of American servicemen who collected body parts, teeth with gold fillings, and committed other heinous atrocities. Again, the author cites racism as the root cause of such deplorable behavior on both sides. This, however, was also largely a reaction to the Japanese style of warfare. Anglo-American forces learned, as Eugene Sledge put it, that “the Japanese fought to win” with no holds barred.[9] Japanese shot at combat medics on New Guinea prompting them to remove red crosses and dye bandages green.[10] On Guadalcanal Japanese soldiers played dead and killed Marines as they passed by.[11] Japanese soldiers mutilated the corpses of the dead.[12] The most terrible fear among Anglo-American servicemen, one expressed in nearly every memoir, was to be captured by the Japanese who routinely tortured prisoners. Ray Bailey, an American soldier on New Guinea described how the Japanese brutally tortured a captured comrade within earshot of American lines, and how only the day before they had taken a prisoner for whom he “never felt any hate.”[13] Bailey recalled “but after that, everyone vowed they would never bring in another Jap prisoner.”[14]

Contrary to Dower’s assertions that warfare of this type was restricted to the Pacific Theater, there are examples of Anglo-American forces acting similarly in Europe. Historian Antony Beevor noted in his work D-Day: The Battle for Normandy that the fighting in Normandy was “pitiless on both sides.”[15] He documents numerous incidents in which Anglo-American soldiers committed war crimes. Many of these incidents occurred while fighting against fanatical Waffen-SS units who refused to surrender and used the same no holds barred tactics that the Japanese did in the Pacific. The 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division slaughtered 187 Canadian prisoners.[16] Canadians in response killed most of the SS soldiers they encountered.[17] Germans employed treacherous fighting tactics such as pretending to surrender and machine gunning approaching enemy soldiers.[18] They also shot defenseless paratroopers in trees or as they landed. Paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions massacred German prisoners and military policemen had to keep them away from German prisoner pens lest they take lethal revenge. On at least one occasion they killed German prisoners while in transit back across the channel.[19] There are also documented instances of American soldiers collecting ears, fingers, or otherwise mutilating corpses.[20] One 79th Infantry Division soldier slaughtered a room full of wounded Germans because “the only good German was a dead one.”[21] By no means did the American fighting man in the Pacific have a monopoly on brutality; Anglo-Americans in both the East and the West reverted to such behavior when they felt justified in doing so regardless of race.

U.S. Army chaplain, Father Francis L. Sampson, administering last rights to men of the 101st Airborne Division during D-Day operations. Note corpses are wrapped in silk parachutes, indicating that they had not had a chance to release themselves from chutes before they were killed. Likely as not they were gunned down whilst still defenseless.

Dower’s work is powerful in that it illustrates the foolish narrow-mindedness of the time and challenges us to recognize and confront historical and contemporary racism. However the work should be recognized for what it is – new left revisionist history. He has influenced other new left historians such as Mark Favreau, who cites him liberally in his revisionist work A People’s History of World War II.

[1] “John W. Dower Ford International Professor of History, Emeritus,” MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, accessed June 6, 2018,

[2] John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 8.

[3] Ibid. 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “John W. Dower Ford International Professor of History, Emeritus.”

[6] Dower, War without Mercy, 150-151.

[7] Ibid, 34, 79, 92.

[8] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (Free Press. Kindle Edition, 1985), Kindle Locations 685-708.

[9] Eugene B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Random House Publishing Group. 2007), 44.

[10] James Campbell, The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea-The Forgotten War of the South Pacific (Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition, 2007), Kindle Locations 2853-2854.

[11] Richard Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (New York: Open Road Media, 2000), 80. Sledge, With the Old Breed, 118.

[12] Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, A Marine Tells His Story (Uncommon Valor Press. Kindle Edition, 2015), Kindle Locations 1222-1228.

[13] Campbell, The Ghost Mountain Boys, Kindle Locations 2863-2866.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 67.

[16] Ibid. 180.

[17] Ibid. 432.

[18] Ibid. 160.

[19] Ibid. 208.

[20] Ibid. 68-69.

[21] Ibid. 220.