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When I was a young man, my hometown in the Midwest was introduced to pay television. Warner Cable introduced Star Channel, the direct precursor to The Movie Channel. It offered 10 movies a month, with just one offering a day, shown six times in a row, starting at 9 AM. It changed my family’s life.
Dad was a steelworker and money was always tight. If we were going to pay for something as extravagant as cable TV we were going to watch. So, on many nights, dinner moved to the living room and we watched movies while we ate. It was the first time I had ever heard the F-bomb come through the television (Chinatown) and also the first time I ever heard it pass the lips of my mother.
The latter was during a showing of Tora! Tora! Tora! 20th Century Fox’s retelling of the events of December 7, 1941. As the Japanese made their bombing run, a very familiar female voice behind me left off a string of expletives that would have made a longshoreman blush in embarrassment.
I was appalled. The hatred and racial animus that came from the woman who gave me life was a shock and I couldn’t wrap my 14-year-old head full of mush around it.
It remained a mystery to me until a few years later, when I discovered my mother’s high school year book from 1944. When I opened it a half dozen small yellowed newspaper clippings fell to the floor. Several were torn and their edges fixed with Scotch tape.
The headlines were simple and direct: “Local Marine Killed,” “Local Grad Lost at Sea,” “Services set for Local Pvt.” These weren’t abstractions in a history book: this was flesh and blood, young men that she had known and maybe loved, all of whom had their futures sealed on a December morning on an island thousands of miles away from this grimy little steel town in Northeast Ohio.
My stance towards my mother’s lingering hatred softened. The older I got and the more I learned about the brutality of those that served the Emperor of Japan it disappeared completely.
In his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene Sledge recounted coming across the desecrated bodies of his fellow Marines:
As we moved past the defilade, my buddy groaned, “Jesus!” I took a quick glance into the depression and recoiled in revulsion and pity at what I saw. The bodies were badly decomposed and nearly blackened by exposure. This was to be expected of the dead in the tropics, but these Marines had been mutilated hideously by the enemy. One man had been decapitated. His head lay on his chest; his hands had been severed from his wrists and also lay on his chest near his chin. In disbelief I stared at the face as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth. The corpse next to him had been treated similarly. The third had been butchered, chopped up like a carcass torn by some predatory animal.
My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I had ever experienced.
Hatred, however, has a way of becoming self-consuming. To our credit as a nation, we extended forgiveness. Not just of Japan, but to her German allies as well. That didn’t mean we had to forget, but it probably helped the 12 million Americans that wore their country’s uniform during the war to move forward. If anything was learned from the post-war world of 1919, it was that revenge was not a policy for peace.
The Japanese have not been as successful in atoning for their 20th Century sins as the Germans, in part because many of their victims, especially the Chinese and the Koreans, have resisted accepting any formal apology. What can anyone do when enough is never enough?
Lately we’ve seen some of that in play on our own streets. There’s an element in the professional grievance industry that will never be satisfied. No policy is acceptable, no piece of legislation goes far enough, no amount of wealth transfer satisfies past debt.
In that sense, the so-called powerless actually hold all the power. Only they can end the hatred, just as only I held the power to forgive my mother, to try to understand her and return her to the perch she had previously held.
Unfortunately I don’t hold out much hope. It’s a lot easier to forgive one than to forgive millions, especially when there’s political power to be gained. As long as human nature itself remains unchanged, we’re still in for a long, tough slough.