Tears in the Darkness

Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman’s Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath is described by the Publishers Weekly as “a gripping narrative of the 1942 battle for the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines,” by Kirkus Reviews as an “[a]ssiduous account of the Japanese conquest of the Philippines in World War II and the fate of the American garrison there,” and finally by Richard Pyle of the Associated Press as

A new account of the Bataan Death March, in which more than 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were victims of appalling barbarism, a particularly grim episode of World War II following Japan’s invasion of the Philippines.

Tears in the Darkness is marketed as “an altogether new look at World War II that exposes the myths of war and shows the extent of suffering and loss on both sides.” Bryce Christensen writes in an advanced review:

Unlike historians who have spotlighted the titans—MacArthur and Wainwright, Yamashita and Homma—who matched strategies in the Philippines in 1942, the Normans focus on the ordinary soldiers who bore the brunt of the wartime savagery.

Tears in the Darkness, a The New York Times book review enthuses:

is authoritative history. Ten years in the making, it is based on hundreds of interviews with American, Filipino and Japanese combatants. But it is also a narrative achievement. The book seamlessly blends a wide-angle view with the stories of many individual participants.

But while there is no question to the integrity, “extremely detailed and thoroughly chilling treatment” of the historical facts presented in the rigorously researched book, there is also no reason for us to promptly accept the efforts to privilege the book as “popular history’s final say on the subject.”

In the new book, the Normans’ gaze is basically focused on the ordeals faced by the Americans involved in the Death March, particularly on the figure of Ben Steele. The Christian Science Monitor comments:

The book seamlessly blends the history of the war with the stories of people like Steele who lived through it. It could just as easily and appropriately have been titled “Ben Steele’s Story.”

Striving to give the other side of the conflict, the couple also presents previously untold accounts of some Japanese soldiers “who struggle to maintain their humanity while carrying out their superiors’ inhuman commands.”

But where are the Filipinos, the “collateral damages” of conflicting American and Japanese imperialist interests?

Victorious American colonizers stand over the bodies of fallen Filipinos. More than 1.4 million Filipinos died during the Philippine-American War.

The Great Depression that struck the advanced capitalist nations in the 1930s directly led to the Second World War of the next decade as these very same nations scrambled to redivide the world among them to escape the economic crisis. The fascist powers Germany, Italy, and Japan fought against the Allied imperialist nations (US, France, UK, etc.) for the acquisition of colonies and semi-colonies that will serve as new sources of cheap labor and natural resources and new dumping grounds for their surplus products.

The Philippines was thus dragged into the war by virtue of its being a US colony.

This deafening absence is no reason to dismiss the book outright, however. While it may not be “popular history’s final say on the subject,” the book still presents one more vantage point from which insights can be taken.

A Japanese force of 43,000 seasoned troops began the invasion of the Philippine islands eight hours after the Japanese fleet attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The US preparations against the looming Japanese invasion of the Philippines, however, were at best haphazard. Falling back skirmish after skirmish, the American command finally gathered the remaining US troops and Filipino volunteers in Bataan and Corregidor in January 1942. Ninety nine days later, the Normans write, “more than 76,000 Americans and Filipinos under American command laid down their arms.”

The sick, starving, and bedraggled prisoners of war were rounded up by their Japanese captors and made to walk sixty-six miles to a railhead for the trip to prison camp, a baneful walk under a broiling sun that turned into one of most notorious treks in the annals of war, the Bataan Death March. […]

As the events of 1941‒1942 passed into the hands of historians, both the battle for Bataan and the death march became symbols, the former as a modern Thermopylae, a stirring last stand, and the latter as a crucible of courage, the courage to continue on a walk to the grave.

…but when the dross of propaganda and myth is skimmed from the surface of history, what’s left, in this case, is an example of the miscarried morality and Punic politics that underlie every appeal to arms—the bad leadership, the empty promises, the kind of cruelty that crushes men’s souls. (4-5)

"KILL EVERYONE OVER TEN" is US Gen. Jacob Smith infamous order to his troops during the Philippine-American War.
"KILL EVERYONE OVER TEN," American Gen. Jacob Smith ordered his troops during the Philippine-American War.

And indeed, American and Filipino troops battling side by side (but with the latter as the leading man’s sidekick of course) and sharing the experience of brutality under the Fascist Japanese military occupiers sealed the image of America as the colonized people’s benevolent big brother.

The vicious violence of subjugation (half a million Filipinos killed during the Philippine-American War and so on) was erased from the Filipino people’s collective memory primarily by way of the US colonial administration’s introduction of a public educational apparatus that molded the Filipino people into docile and passive colonial subjects.

The bond formed between the American and Filipino troops during the Second World War only furthered this erasure. This amnesia and attendant “colonial mentality” survives up to the contemporary period of neocolonialism (the indirect control of foreign imperial powers over the Filipino people’s political, economic, and cultural life). ■


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