The study of diary writing is an investigation into the phenomena of self-discipline – that is, how individuals participate in the act of defining (subjectifying) themselves and the world around them. On the one hand, by using language, which is by nature public and dominated by centers of authority, servicemen invited the state, mass media, and military inside their minds even more thoroughly through the act of writing diaries and embracing them as true accounts of their lives than if they had never written anything. On the other hand, they were responsible for writing the diary. By selecting the content of their diaries, servicemen exercised agency in the construction of their sense of self. Wartime diaries thus present of view of subjectivity that cannot be seen through a study of schools, hospitals, media, or prisons and are thus important sources for understanding why individuals willingly sacrificed so much for state and nation. The diary was both a site for discipline and evidence of a disciplinary process: it was a battlefield where the inarticulate desires of the individual and the well-spoken demands of authority conducted a daily struggle.
The cynical view is that wartime diaries were, for the most part –since in all armies they were subject to review by higher authorities- disingenuous mimetic performances that tell us little about their author’s authentic feelings about the war. The evidence suggests, however, that soldiers did write about war according to what they believed was truthful; sometimes that included messages from authorities trying to influence their behavior, but other times soldiers rejected those attempts. That so many men could, even with such impressive and thorough discursive fetters, stray so far from the political; objectives of the state, mass media, and the media shows that those disciplinary mechanisms have a tenuous grasp over our identities and rely on our support for their effectiveness.
In spite of the of the efforts on behalf of the state, mass media and the military, all of which held great sway over many prior to arrival, on the battlefield, servicemen ultimately tried to write according to what they saw and felt, drawing from diverse linguistic sources. This is why they used voices that were often wounded, despondent, and seething with volatile language. Their diaries changed as their sense of self did, like organisms that struggle to survive in radically new environments. Or, to put it in another way, the diaries are the remains of the increasingly divergent paths upon which they set out –like boot prints in mud or scars left by stray rifle fire.
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One might be tempted to believe that only men with a predisposition to act violently were able to convince themselves in their diaries that such behavior was acceptable but this was certainly not the case. Even as U.S. forces gained momentum and the Japanese caused appeared increasingly hopeless, many Americans whom we might consider less tempted to commit violent acts were surprisingly ruthless in their persecution of the war. Army Chaplain Charles V. Trent, though a Christian spiritual guide, has no apparent mercy for the lives of his enemies, just as any Buddhists priests told Japanese servicemen that their heroic deaths would catapult them into the Pure Land. Trent valorized his unit’s killings. He faithfully marked the number of “good (meaning ‘dead) Japs in his diary of the Admiralty Islands campaign and took particular relish in imagining the Japanese “scattered, ineffective remnants living like animals in an inhospitable tropical jungle.” Despite postwar historical narratives that attempt to write out extreme violence on the part of Americans, servicemen and veterans recorded these acts constantly. “This was combat,” one veteran recalled
“ Man killing man. A nightmare that I can’t believe really happened. Bearded boys turning into animals, carrying dried Japanese soldiers ears around in their gear. Jap fingers jammed into spent .45 ammunition casings (hung around their necks). American marines strapped to palm tree trunks slashed to ribbons by Jap officers . . . even hoping that by some stroke of good luck, we may even be photographed standing over a few dead Japanese with rifles held in the crook of one arm –with the satisfied smile of the big game hunters.
Servicemen embraced extreme violence without any clear correlation to class, religion, region, education, or prewar occupation, and they even came to inflict it on their friends. Report of beatings and killings among “allies” and “comrades” were as common in the U.S. Armed Forces as they were in the Japanese. Still, the worse violence was saved for the enemy, and they justified this behavior in their diaries. John Gaitha Browning, an artist and a former Boy Scout, wrote of a U.S. infantryman who decapitated with one blow a “stubborn and smart” Japanese prisoner. Was this shocking for him?
Not at all. It is done often, as I saw with my own eyes, so I have no reason to doubt a word of the story. The irony of the whole thing was that just the same day I had read a memorandum on our bulletin board that gave a hair-raising account of an American soldier having his head cut off with a samurai sword. It had been taken from the diary of a Japanese sergeant killed near Hollandia and said in part: “My only humiliation was that I had to take two strokes.” My, my! You should practice with a machete , Mr. Moto . . . War is war, and the Geneva Convention is a long way from the front line. There is but one law here, KILL, KILL, KILL!
Americans were no different than their counterparts in East Asia.
Not surprisingly, servicemen’s descriptions of brutal battlefield reality were often deemed by the U.S. military to be injurious to public views of the heroic armed forces. The savagery of the marines, in particular, almost never reached American ears during the war; this was a conscious act among those responsible for censoring correspondence. Lieutenant Meeks Vaughn, of Tennessee, however, felt compelled to keep a personal record of all the things he saw and heard that never made it back to the United States. Fiji scouts serving with the marines, on one occasion, found their men strangled and stabbed to death by Japanese forces so, when they captured there Japanese, they skinned them alive. Initially Vaughn did not believe a lecture he heard, in which an intelligence officer attributed Japanese refusal to surrender to U.S. brutality: “Jap soldiers’ failure to surrender is due largely to fear of torture following surrender. And its his belief that this has taken place – principally by the marines although Army has done so as well. Army has taken steps to stop this, but marines have not. None of this is supported by any evidence.”
News of U.S. Marines’ brutality eventually reached Japanese forces, and even the skeptical Vaughn subsequently reported that two to three thousand Japanese servicemen offered to surrender to the army under the condition that marines were removed from the island. This offer was refused, and many marines took prisoners from GIs in order to shoot them. Despite the “strategy of truth” that the Office of War Information adopted, the message from the state was a blend of facts with inspiring and reassuring cultural beliefs, blurring what was true with what people wanted to believe was true. The victorious American army felt compelled to shield citizens at home from its conduct abroad in a manner similar to that of the Japanese army in China.
This “shielding of citizens” from the brutal facts of war had consequences for the reintegration of veterans into post-war society. An analysis drawn from a variety of genres, all of which could be referred to as memory writing”, including immediate postwar diaries, court testimonies, articles and literary works, surveys, recorded interviews, oral histories, commercially published diaries, letters and other texts has been made. Arranged chronologically this analysis shows that, for the most part, the “voices” of the past were audible less according to changes in the wartime generation’s willingness to speak and more according to the postwar community’s willingness to hear.