In A Nutshell
Government-initiated dehumanizing campaigns during World War II were so successful that the conflict in the Pacific theater was one of the most vicious ever recorded in human history. American soldiers, taught to revile the Japanese, would not merely kill their enemies, but defile their corpses as well. They even kept “souvenirs,” particularly gold teeth and severed ears.
The Whole Bushel
Since time immemorial, leaders have used a form of brainwashing on their citizens during times of war. The enemy is dehumanized through propaganda campaigns until they are no longer seen as people but as objects. They are no longer a “him” or “her,” but an “it.” This becomes psychologically necessary for soldiers fighting in the trenches—a mentally stable mind could not handle the killing if it spent too much time focusing on the humanity of opposing troops, as people with their own families and friends.
This campaign was particularly effective during World War II in the Pacific theater. American soldiers went to war against the Japanese with their hearts full of hate. The surprise “sneak” attack on Pearl Harbor provided the perfect opening. The mass media featured them as caricatures—monsters with yellow skin, slanted eyes, and enormous buckteeth. The US Navy even released a film that detailed the capture of the island of Tarawa that described the Japanese as “living, snarling rats.” Not people, but as vermin that needed to be wiped out.
There was such a massive gulf between physical appearance and culture that the Pacific part of the war was far more savage than anything going on in the European theater. Americans took very few prisoners, preferring instead to slaughter their enemies. The bodies were commonly desecrated. In Okinawa, soldiers were seen urinating into the mouths of dead Japanese. Like serial killers, they took “trophies” from the corpses, ripping gold teeth out of their mouths and hacking off their ears to be pickled. There were reports of soldiers taking souvenir skulls, using ants to strip away the flesh, or cooking the heads to clear off the meat. Customs officials found returning soldiers coming home with human bones in their luggage.
Shockingly enough, even Life magazine got in on the act. In February 1943, they published a horrifying picture from the Battle of Guadalcanal, which featured a charred Japanese human head propped up on a tank. A year later, they published another photograph (perhaps even more unsettling) of a young American woman at a desk with a skull on it. The chilling caption beneath read: “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”
As these horrifying acts violated 1929’s Geneva Convention, the American military top brass tried to intervene, but their efforts largely fell on deaf ears. The Japanese media had a field day with this information, but the fact remains that their soldiers were no more humane. They were known to frequently cannibalize the bodies of enemy troops. Because of instances like these and more, many historians believe that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was for the best. While tragic, their death toll was miniscule compared to what would have happened if an invasion of mainland Japan had become necessary.
Show Me The Proof
University of California Press: Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead
Life: Behind the Picture: ‘Skull on a Tank,’ Guadalcanal, 1942
LA Times: War is hell
Humanities and Social Sciences: A Heterology of American GIs during World War II
The Independent: Japanese troops ‘ate flesh of enemies and civilians’