Beyond Barbed Wire

Beyond Barbed Wire, Kit Parker Films production, is a thought-provoking, emotional look at one of the most controversial events in American history.  The film takes a personal look at the Japanese-Americans affected by the American government’s short-sighted, knee jerk reaction to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and other targets in the Pacific that kicked off America’s direct involvement in World War II.  The message is amplified by the primary focus of the documentary, those Japanese-American men who – despite the humiliation foisted upon their families – still felt duty and honor bound to fight for their country.

This is one of those incidents in American history that has always intrigued me.  And so, it was another foray to the Horsham Library looking for cheap music (Read: Free!) and something interesting to watch.  The interment of Japanese- Americans holds a fascination for me for the following reasons:

  • Only Japanese-Americans were ever interred in large numbers during World War II.  This despite the early war whispers of atrocities being committed by Germans on Jews and other “undesirables”.  Never were German- or Italian-Americans interred nor were they prohibited from fighting against their ethnic homelands. 
  • As the above would suggest, the racial implications are quite telling at a time when most Americans did not even know where Pearl Harbor was located.  Oriental cultures and their people were unfamiliar to most Americans.  Even in areas along the Pacific Coast where Americans of Japanese descent had been living for decades, they were often misunderstood or outright distrusted due solely to their racial and cultural differences.
  • These events occurred during the Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the most socially conscious, socially activist and – some might say – socialist Presidents.  In every other facet of the war’s management, execution and victory, Roosevelt is rightfully praised; which makes it all the more confounding how this suspension of liberty for a people both innocent and in many cases generations removed from direct contact with their ethnic homeland was allowed to occur.

Beyond Barbed Wire focuses on the Nisei (Japanese descendents born in the U.S.) who fought in Europe and in the Pacific theatres of war.  Both the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion served with distinction in France and Italy respectively.  Their actions overcame initial resistance expressed by American military leaders to trust Japanese-Americans to fight during the war.  In fact, Japanese-Americans were prohibited from fighting in the Pacific against hostile Japanese forces  (unlike the the welcomed participation of German and Italian-Americans in Europe).  Many other Japanese men, fluent in their native tongue, were recruited or ordered to serve in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as spies and translators.

Many of these men came from families that were stripped of homes, businesses and all the comforts of normal American life.  The distinction made between Japanese living on the Mainland as opposed to those living in Hawaii is a story unto itself.  Hawaiian Japanese were treated differently than those on the Mainland.  Many Hawaiian Japanese had no idea what was happening to their Mainland cousins.  One of the interesting segments of the film deals with the visit of a group of Hawaiian Japanese to a Mainland interment camp.  The contrast is powerful.

It is very easy to become misty-eyed over the emotional stories being told and written by the slowly disappearing Greatest Generation.  Those men and women who set aside personal lives, goals and the safety of civilian life to rescue Europe and the peoples of the Pacific.  The stories of war’s horrors, of friends lost, of emotional traumas so difficult to imagine – for those of us who have never had to face war - are magnified by the realization that many of these aging Japanese warriors volunteered despite the way their country treated them and those they loved.

I continue to find this moment in history both troubling and extremely gratifying.  Beyond Barbed Wire is well worth the investment of one’s time to gain an appreciation for a vastly under-appreciated segment of America’s Greatest Generation!

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Review: “Decision Points” by George W. Bush

At times I have been accused of being an apologist for former President George W. Bush.  Rightfully so, I must add.  That’s why I have been looking forward to reading Bush43‘s memoir, Decision Points

The book starts out with a frank, introspective look at Bush’s struggle to overcome his problem with alcohol.  Most telling was his failure at Laura Bush’s urging to remember a day when he had not had a drink.  Unable to do so, he begins to realize that he just might have a problem.  From my perspective, it was a surprising way for an ex-President to kick off his memoir.  But it conveyed the obvious importance that struggle was to his future success.  It also helps to understand his reliance on Laura’s strength and wisdom.  They were married just three months after they met!

Of course the linchpin event of George Bush’s presidency was the attack of September 11, 2001.  Through all the smoke, fire and loss of life from that day comes the one pledge that overshadowed the rest of his presidency.

Yet after 9/11, I felt my responsibility was clear. For as long as I held office, I could never forget what happened to America that day. I would pour my heart and soul into protecting the country, whatever it took. (page 151)

This is the prism through which one must view his subsequent decisions and actions, both here and abroad.  Afghanistan was a no-brainer; but going into Iraq was a dicier decision that resulted in a major distraction from the Afghan operation.  

However a decade after Operation Desert Storm, the Saddam Hussein situation required a solution.  The international community, the U.N., and the Clinton Administration had been convinced that Hussein had WMDs; and the reliance on no-fly zones was not the solution to Hussein’s cruelty, oppression, and perceived threat to the region.  That no WMDs were found does not diminish the validity of these widely held beliefs.

President Bush’s 9/11 pledge also explains the decisions to house captured terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, The Patriot Act, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the development of the Bush Doctrine and the Freedom Agenda.  And no matter where you stood on the pro-con scale as the Bush Administration enacted these measures, they are still in place two years after President Barack Obama entered The Oval Office!

The book’s tone is straight-forward and conversational.  My impression was that the book read much the way his speeches and national addresses sounded (minus the ill-timed gaffes).  Those who regarded President Bush as a fumbler and stumbler would be impressed by GWB’s efficient style.  I found the book to be an easy and enjoyable read.

The common thread throughout the book is how Bush43 approached the problems and decisions he faced.  Oft times criticized for not being naturally inquisitive, he relied heavily on experts and leaders in applicable fields of research and study – both from within his administration and in industry and academia – when facing complex issues and problems.  And when it came to making a decision, GWB viewed all situations through his strongly held core values.  Although he was not pretentious in his religious beliefs, his beliefs were the foundation of those values.

And yet President Bush was capable of making sound value-based decisions that were not restrained by the desire to pander to his political base.  An example was his decision on stem cell research.  Despite the fervent wishes of the religious right, GWB was adamant in his commitment to seek out all sides of the controversy.  His final decision was based on several factors: stem cell research offered the potential for monumental breakthroughs in medical research; research was already progressing on several dozen stem cell lines (per the National Institute of Health), and the number of lines in development were plentiful for current and future medical research.  His decision to allow federal funding for existing stem cell lines, while affirming the dignity of human life and preventing the use of federal funds for future stem cell harvesting was a practical and compassionate solution to a difficult problem.

If the measure of a good compromise is the reality that neither side is entirely satisfied with the solution, then George Bush certainly hit the mark with stem cell research.  A good leader can never be burdened with the concept that he must please everyone all the time.

Several other aspects of the book were very interesting; some surprised me:

  • As Governor of Texas, GWB was renown for his ability to work across the aisle.  Something that was essential as a Republican Governor with a State House and Senate headed by seasoned and well-respected Democrats.  In fact, Bush and Lt. Governor Bob Lubbock - a Democrat – respected each other to the point where Lubbock not only endorsed Bush for his second term as Texas Governor, he predicted that Bush would be the next President of the United States!
  • Laura Bush was a real cutie when she landed GWB!  (See third page of the first photo section.)
  • The Bush Administration committed $15 billion over 5 years to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.  After a 2003 visit to AIDS-ravaged Uganda, Bush was inspired to push the country to do more in fighting the disease.  He envisioned the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as a medical version of The Marshall Plan.  In addition to testing, counseling and treating tens of millions for AIDS, there was also considerable commitment to eradicate malaria.
  • During the 2008 presidential campaign and the banking crises that resulted in the Toxic Asset Recovery Program (TARP), Republican candidate for president, Arizona Senator John McCain insisted that The White House host an emergency meeting of both candidates, the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate, and the Bush Administration.  Expecting McCain, who instigated the meeting, to address the issues and how Congress could support TARP, the President was astounded at McCain’s silence in contrast to Barack Obama’s succinct analysis of the program.

In my opinion, anyone interested in politics and government whether a supporter or critic of President George W. Bush would enjoy reading a Commander-in-Chief’s view of his eight years in The Oval Office. 

DISCUSSION TOPICThe Bush Doctrine included the concept that America’s interests would be maximized by promoting freedom and democracy wherever possible.  It supported fledgling democracies in the Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.  And it lent encouragement and support for dissidents and reformers in places like Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

“America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

Given the uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, etc., can the argument be made that the Bush strategy of supporting democratic reforms in that region has been much more successful than illustrated by the novice democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Happy Fred Korematsu Day!

(In a shout out to Jon, a debate counterpart on another website, the following was posted in response to his request for comments on California’s observation of Fred Korematsu Day on January 30.)

It (internment) was a travesty perpetrated on Japanese-Americans during WWII.  And it reflects – to a point – the mindset from the 1940s that Orientals were a lesser race of people.  It’s especially appalling given the experience of German and Italian-Americans during the same period.  But it’s not that easy – in my opinon – to fully comprehend or to condemn.

On one hand, you can rationalize to an extent the treatment of the Japanese in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor.  Their race was viewed as being sneaky and ruthless, due to the nature of the Pearl Harbor attack contrasted with the false negotiations Tokyo held with Washington in the weeks leading up to the attack.

It’s also somewhat easier to comprehend when you read what the Japanese were doing in areas they had already conquered, like China.  If you get the chance, pick up the book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.  The Japanese were doing some nasty, nasty stuff in their own belief that THEY were the race superior to all others.

So I don’t think it’s as easy to dismiss the fear, distrust, and ethnic animosity that was present especially after thousands of Americans died in a surprise military attack.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was reprehensible treatment of fellow Americans, many of whom either fought or sent sons to fight in defense of their U.S. homeland despite – in some cases – family still living on the Japanese islands.

It was a horrible event during horrible times.

For Anglo veterans of the Pacific in World War II, many never got over what they experienced fighting the Japanese.  I recall a day out golfing with a good friend in the late ’80s/early ’90s, when we pulled up the 10th tee after the turn.  A group of older Anglo gentlemen were already on the tee, waiting for a group in the fairway to clear out.  One of the gents came up and – by way of apology – stated that they were waiting for “the gooks” to move on.  Being the smartass, I replied, “”You mean those Oriental gentlemen?”  And despite the fact that you could not determine from where we stood whether they were Japanese, Korean, Chinese or whatever, he dismissively snorted, “Not if you were in the Pacific during WW2!” 

For another perspective – though fictional – read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.  It deals with the real discrimination that Japanese- American World War II veterans faced in the years after the war ended.  A national award winner, it’s also an enjoyable read!