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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Pacific's' Tom Hanks: The right wing's new boogeyman

Poor Tom Hanks. He was purring along, sounding like a younger version of Hal Holbrook in Douglas Brinkley's positively reverent Time magazine cover story--the one where Brinkley calls Hanks "American history's highest-profile professor"--until the penultimate graph of the story, timed to tout HBO's new series, "The Pacific," which debuts Sunday night at 9 p.m. That's when disaster, of a kind, struck. After spending thousands of words paying tribute to the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Pacific theater (like Hanks' dad, who was a naval mechanic there), Hanks suddenly veered off course, going from being a gauzy celebrator of the importance of studying history to an unruly political activist.


"Back in World War II," he told Brinkley, "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. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?" In a separate interview, Hanks referred to the war in the Pacific as one of "racism and terror."

Well, that was enough to set off alarm bells everywhere in the right-wing blogosphere. It was bad enough that the worshipful tone of the Time cover aroused dark suspicions among media critics about the whole thing being a hype job, since Time and HBO are sister companies both owned by Time Warner. But conservatives were in an uproar, no doubt made worse by the fact that "Green Zone," the Matt Damon film opening this weekend, is already a subject of right-wing attacks for its critical portrayal of Bush-era American bungling in Iraq.

But World War II is sacred ground, so the fact that Hanks--who has been treated with respect from the right in the past, largely thanks to his "Band of Brothers" series--was using the greatest war of all as a way to disparage today's war on terror was viewed with horror. In a blog post titled "Is Tom Hanks Unhinged?," Pajamas Media's Victor Davis Hanson got right to the point: "Hanks' comments were sadly infantile pop philosophizing offered by, well, an ignoramus. Hanks thinks he is trying to explain the multi-faceted Pacific theater in terms of a war brought on by and fought through racial animosity. That is ludicrous."

The New York Post's Kyle Smith was also up in arms. Responding to another Hanks quote, where the actor-producer said that the only way to complete one of the island-hopping battles against the Japanese was "to kill them all," Smith offers this retort: "Does Hanks think the War on Terror is about killing all Muslims? Or is he saying the Muslims want to kill all Christians, as indeed the Koran invites them to do? Could it be that Hanks thinks it is the U.S. that deployed 'racism and terror' in the cause of defeating an enemy that attacked us? ... He is genuinely interested in U.S. history and yet when he reads about the heroism, the moral authority and the sacrifice something shorts out in his soggy liberal mind."

Brad Schaeffer, writing on FrumForum, also got in a few digs, writing: "Perhaps the most ignorant observation Mr. Hanks makes, however, is his comparison to our modern day war against terror. To make the claim that we are waging war on Islamofascists because, presumably, we view Muslims as 'different' not only is an insult to the nation but betrays a stunning ignorance of contemporary history.... So in answer to Hanks' question: 'Does [killing those different from us] sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?' I can answer that--NO!" 

I certainly have no intention of dragging all of us through a complex history lesson here, but I suspect that both sides have fair points here. It seems totally disingenuous for conservatives to argue that the war on terror hasn't inspired all sorts of bigoted and ignorant attacks on innocent, devout Muslims, especially when a host of right-wing wack jobs, in an attempt to discredit and demonize Barack Obama, have based their argument around the claim that the president was himself Muslim.

On the other hand, I think Hanks is on dangerous ground trying to compare and contrast our attitudes toward the Japanese during World War II with our attitude toward today's bloodthirsty terrorists. As some of the conservative commentators have pointed out, the Japanese military had plenty of racist tendencies of its own, having waged a brutish war against its Chinese neighbors long before it launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

All war is hell, just in a different form for each generation. And its always difficult to judge whether horrible deeds, done in the heat of battle, were right or wrong. On the wall of my office I have a photo of my Uncle B.B., who also fought in the Pacific. The picture was taken in New Britain, near the Solomon Islands, after his unit had landed there in 1944. In a letter that accompanied the photo he explained: "We had pushed all the Japs back into an enclave known as Rabaul and left them, without supplies, to starve until the end of the war."

I don't think he said it with pride or with any regrets. War wasn't so complicated back then. Men like my uncle figured they were doing what they had to do to survive. But today's wars, fought so far away and with such harder to define goals, aren't so simple, which is probably why Tom Hanks should have just stayed on safe ground and stuck to talking about history, instead of trying to wrestle with how it might apply to today's battles. When you talk about war today, everyone wants to pick a fight with you.  

Photo: Tom Hanks. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press

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I agree with your take, Mr Goldstein.

One reason the mantra of 'Kill them all' became prevalent is because the Japanese military just wouldnt surrender. Also, the Japanese government had spun a horribly racist image of Americans to its citizenry. They were taught to believe that we were savages that would murder and rape. Thus, on Saipan, hundreds of civilians committed suicide rather than surrender to Allied forces.

It was a pointless and tragic war that Japan had no chance to win.

Mr. Goldstein,

I think you get it pretty much correct except for one point. I have yet to hear of a single Christian suicide bomber walking into a mosque or market filled Muslims.

For Mr. Hanks to cast racial aspersions regarding our 'war on terror' is certainly his right. However, he might want to make his next mini-series about Bosnia where American and other multinational forces saved tens of thousands of Muslims from slaughter by the local 'Christians.'

Sorry Tom. Trying to analyze historical motivation without having adequately studied the historical context, mores, and belief is a lot like...well, Glen Beck!

I do hope that Hanks was taken out of context. If not, his comparisons are not factual. After we were attact, we were out to get the Jps and now we want to get the fringe of Muslims that want to kill us and our way of life. This frenetic fringe has already changed our lives forever. I don't have the answers but what are supposed to do?

If this author had bothered to read very much history himself, he would likely know what apparently Tom Hanks realizes, that war is not about a "good" side verses a "bad" side but rather, it is about often sincere soldiers doing their supposed "patriotic" duty to murder the other side of sincere soldiers in turning, doing their supposed patriotic duty. The seeds of war invariably trace back to individual human greed and frustration, just as Jesus said. And, just as Jesus said, the only way to eliminate war is to lay down our swords, a concept easily understood by the average 5th grader, yet apparently lost on millions of modern intellectual midgets of military might.

So, only "Right-Wing Wack Jobs" find what Hanks said objectionable?

Calling the imperial Japanese war against China "brutish" is akin to calling the Nazi war on Russia "brutish" -- a staggering understatement. Twenty-million Chinese were killed by the conflict with Japan, seventeen million of them civilians. Unfortunately, over 99% of Americans, including Tom Hanks, have never even heard of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which is a major reason why somebody like Tom Hanks can make such ignorant statements.

You should at least be able to explain what the Meiji Restoration was, and trace the rudimentary contours of imperial Japanese history prior to Pearl Harbor, before you comment on the moral righteousness of the American war effort that brought down imperial Japan. People like Tom Hanks have no idea what the Japanese empire was.

It's true: WWII America was a more racist America. The internment camps at Manzanar, etc., Jim Crow laws, et al attest to that, as does the fact that the Civil Rights movement even had to occur 20 years after WWII ended. But I don't think we took any more pleasure in killing "Japs" than we do Muslims or anyone else, and these wars were never racially started - though they were almost certainly racially charged. The one way that the war in the Pacific IS like the war on terror is that they both started the same way: Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor on 12/7/1941, and Al Qaeda attacked us in New York, Washington D.C., etc. on 9/11/2001.

On a side note, I love when people attack us then cry foul when we kick their tails!

I don't necessarily agree with everything that Tom Hanks has to say, but if you don't think that racism had even a small part in our decision to conduct ourselves and wage war they way we did, you are ignorant of the facts. Why weren't people of German descent put in concentration(oops, I mean internment)camps during the war? Why did we not drop the A-bomb on Germany as well as Japan? We could have tried to intimidate the USSR much more by bombing Germany, which is closer to Moscow, than bombing Japan. Granted, the US did bomb Germany, but mostly factories, oil refineries, railroads, etc. It was the Brits that bombed the German civilian targets for the most part. BTW, the US blockaded Japan before Pearl Harbor and they saw that as an act of war and warned us to relent. We didn't and they attacked. Maybe the end justified the means for us, but to say that racism had no part is absurd.

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