Victor Davis Hanson

Sixty-five years ago, on April 1, 1945, the United States Marines, Army and Navy invaded Okinawa. The ensuing three months of combat resulted in the complete defeat and near destruction of imperial Japanese forces on the island just 340 miles from the mainland.

The victory proved the most costly American campaign in the Pacific. Some 50,000 Americans were killed, missing or wounded. The incredible carnage would help persuade the American government to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in hopes of avoiding an even more horrific invasion of the mainland.

Okinawa and the war in the Pacific are back in the news these days with the airing of a 10-part HBO series, "The Pacific" -- a companion story to the 2001 series "Band of Brothers" about the American advance from Normandy across the Rhine into Germany.

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But recently in hyping "The Pacific's" upcoming airing, the actor Tom Hanks, co-producer of the fine new HBO series, made some unfortunate -- and ahistorical -- remarks.

"Back in World War II," Hanks said, "we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different."

Yet the Pacific war was about far more than being "different."

Indeed, before and after the war, race was not a determining factor in American and Japanese relations. The two nations in World War I were partners against the Germans and Austrians. And during World War II itself, we joined Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and other Asians to stop Japanese aggression -- often fueled by its own particular notion of Japanese racial superiority. In the aftermath of World War II, the Americans helped rebuild Japan, and once more were allied with it against the communist Soviet Union.

And despite the deplorable internment of Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent during the war, racial difference still does not in itself account for the horror in the Pacific -- or why we were there in the first place.

We entered the war, of course, because of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor -- which angered Americans even more than Hitler's aggression in Europe. Nazi barbarity for over two years had still not provoked the United States to enter the war -- given that none of our own territory had been attacked, much less in surprise fashion at a time of peace.

Conditions on the battlefield in the Pacific most certainly account for the horror of the war there.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.