Here’s a weird one. In Call of Duty: World at War, there’s a whole thing where the Japanese are constructed as – I mean, I’m not even sure how to say this. The Japanese are constructed as sneaky jungle Asians. They’re portrayed as these slippery sneaky little fuckers, strongly associated with rats, rodents, and spiders. It’s a portrayal that accentuates fire as the appropriate tool for flushing them out, culminating of course in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Yeah, we’re doing one of those articles.
I guess I should start here with a little note about history and politics. Sometimes people get annoyed when you say that everything is political. One of the key complaints, which I’m sure you’ve heard, is where people go ‘how can X thing be political, it’s just a historical thing that historically happened.’ There’s a weird little bit of misunderstanding in here that is worth clearing up. Just because something is historical fact doesn’t mean that it can’t also be political. On the contrary, things that actually happened are usually more politically potent specifically by virtue of the fact that they did actually happen. Political actors love historical events, because historical events make their agenda seem objective and true – and if everybody thinks your agenda is objective and true, you’re probably going to get what you want.
So when we say that everything is political, all we’re really saying is that basically everything is used by individuals who’re trying to achieve certain goals. Whenever antifa get into a fight with fascists, you’ll always see stories doing the rounds about people on one side or another who got hurt. Someone will trip over and break their glasses and everyone will hold them up as an example of the heroic struggle against fascism (or against antifa, if you’re one of the bad guys). It can feel crass for people to politicize things – sometimes it feels cheapening when a tragedy is appropriated for some dickhead’s Cause. But at the same time, I think it’s naive to assume that there’s some True Neutral Non-Political perspective. Even my explanation about how everything is political has a political dimension. I’m trying to make you a more thoughtful and mindful human being by illustrating the underlying political agenda to something that might otherwise seem like a relatively neutral explanation. I want you to become more thoughtful and mindful because I think if you pay attention to the world, you’ll come to the obvious conclusion that my political views are the correct ones. And then you will join me, and together we will all clean up this fucking suburb that I live in. Why the fuck is it so dirty.
Of course, even if everything is political (which it is), that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of talking about Real Truth. It’s Really True that fascists are fucking awful. And I can give you a whole narrative here: Mussolini, Nazi Germany, neo-Nazis, Charlottesville, the whole package. The word ‘narrative’ here might make some people uncomfortable – there is a narrative attached to my views, but that doesn’t mean I’m automatically peddling something false or untrue. It’s not narrative as opposed to fact: it’s narrative and fact. Narrative is just part of how we organise meaning. What that all means, to come to the point, is that when we’re talking about something that’s just a quote-unquote historical fact, it’s worth glancing around to see if there’s any particular narratives making eyes at you.
Okay. With all of that preamble, let’s talk about spider trenches and flamethrowers. World at War has half the story set in the Pacific campaign in WWII. It’s America vs Japan. And throughout the campaign, the Japanese are portrayed as sneaky jungle Asians. They’re forever setting traps and ambushes, popping out of camouflage and sniping you from their sneaky treehuts. In the image above, they booby trap the bodies of dead American pilots – what bastards. At the climax of the American campaign, some Japanese soldiers pretend to surrender, but oh no they’ve got grenades and they blow your comrades up! Those sneaky sneaky bastards.
Fighting the Japanese in World at War ends up being sort of like playing whack-a-mole – you never know where they’re going to come from next. They have all these tunnels and bunkers and everything – like ants or something. You’ve got to fumigate. Burn them out. And this is where all our preamble comes into play. Historically, yes, the Americans used flamethrowers in the Pacific, because they trashed all the Japanese spider trenches – which, yes, were basically camouflaged holes they dug in the ground so they could shoot Americans from relative safety. In the crudest reading, World at War is just recounting historical facts. The Japanese dug tunnels, and the Americans used flamethrowers against them with significant results. Recording all that as historical fact is fine. But being historical fact doesn’t stop it from also being political. It doesn’t stop the game from wrapping those facts within a political narrative that also says some other things about sneaky jungle Asians.
For example, the whole dynamic between the American and Japanese soldiers is characterised as a dynamic between the civilised and the uncivilised. The Americans fight fair. They don’t use tricks or traps, they fight in a clean and honourable way – almost like medieval knights. The Japanese, on the other hand, fight dirty. They torture people. They lie. They carry out suicidal charges, kamakazi runs with bayonets. They meld into the jungle, using the terrain in ways that never really occurs to the Americans. They’re represented as much more ‘native’ to that jungle environment, as opposed to the urbane Americans. All of these things – the ambushes, the spider trenches, the secret tunnels – they build up to this pervasive suggestion that the Japanese aren’t fully human.
You get the clearest point of difference when comparing the Japanese against the Nazis during the Battle of Berlin. At one point, you actually find a group of German soldiers trying to surrender in the entrance to a subway station. They’re petrified, and you get to choose whether you gun them down or firebomb them. It’s all meant to be part of the Russian revenge for the slaughter at Stalingrad – but it’s a little bit grotesque. And some of the Russian soldiers even object to the violence: “These men are trying to surrender,” one says. There’s a sense that it’s not right, that the whole thing is just an awful mess – that higher powers have done something awful and that you’re just staring down the human cost of those decisions. That’s not an ambivalence that ever exists in the American/Japanese campaign. The Japanese are portrayed as sneaky jungle Asians. Sympathy is reserved exclusively for the fallen American soldiers, killed by dishonourable Japanese tactics. The Japanese are treated as subhumans, like rodents. You don’t fight them, you purge them. You flush them out with fire. The bomb, in that sense, is little more than the full stop at the end of the sentence. In this narrative structure, it’s the logical and justified climax to a campaign of eradicating sneaky jungle Asians with fire. That’s a bit fucking weird.