The philosophy of war primarily revolves around two subjects: political and racial power. Throughout history, the goal of war has been—and continues to be—to forcefully control an inferior group for the purpose of power and superiority. It sometimes becomes a matter of simple racial supremacy and the primal urge to dominate. Furthermore, considering the nature of war, combatants are forced to categorize groups into us versus them where “our people” and “the enemy” are easily identified as either worthy or unworthy of human obligation. Consequently, once the enemy has been removed from the accountability of humane treatment, limitations are erased and the line between morality and a sense of duty are blurred. During World War II, the Japanese were one of those dominating countries who ignored any restrictions that composed the basis of natural rights. As Geoffrey Wallace points out, prior to 1949’s Geneva Conventions, protection for prisoners of war from abuse did not exist; consequently, there were few constraints on prisoner treatment. In 1943, the Japanese exploited prisoners of war to build the Death Railway from Bangkok through Burma. Australian, British, and Asian prisoners were forced to work underneath the brutal rule of Japanese soldiers, guards, and officers. The line was completed in just one year, but it sacrificed the lives of more than 12,000 prisoners at a death rate of 20 percent (Yap 320). Facing extreme conditions of disease, starvation, and labor, the prisoners were forced to build miles of tracks to satisfy the Japanese’s perceived military necessity. In the 2014 Booker Award winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North,
Richard Flanagan illustrates the horror of these men’s experiences and takes the reader on a journey that unveils the causes and consequences of human violence and brutality. Flanagan offers several possible, underlying causes for this human violence, but he highlights one: men are often violent to assert and maintain their power.
Throughout this book, Flanagan uses one character, Choi Sang-min, to demonstrate how the pressures of Japan’s extreme, hierarchical society—represented through the camp’s regime—forcefully maintain a masculine identity. This masculine identity represents a combination of traits that visibly portrays power and dominance. Flanagan argues that when an identity is finally found, either by birth or through power, one fears to lose it. Whether an emperor, a soldier, a guard, or a prisoner of war, each position has some sort of hierarchical identity in this camp. Naturally, there is usually someone more superior and more powerful, like a soldier, that a mere guard, for example, can never match. To overcome this restraint to his power, the guard would then attempt to force his superiority on someone beneath him as a result of his perceived necessity to display his masculinity. Choi Sang-min, one of the guards assigned to this project, has had trouble dealing with his identity all of his life. Primarily, he has had troubles with his cultural identity; Flanagan says, “he had many names—his Korean name, Choi Sang-min, the Japanese name…Akira Sanya, his Australian name…the Goanna—he realized that he had no idea who he was” (309). Not only did he feel like he belonged to no specific cultural group, but he was also unable to grasp his position in society. Furthermore, Flanagan’s depiction of Choi Sang-min reveals that the Japanese were not only brutal toward foreigners, but they were also violent toward individuals of other Asian nationalities. Of Korean descent, Choi Sang-min was seen as the dirt beneath the Japanese’s shoes; he was treated insignificantly and inhumanely. When he beat the prisoners of war, however, he felt like he finally became something. He found his
masculine identity: “However briefly, he felt he was somebody while he was beating the Australian soldiers who were so much larger than him, knowing he could slap them as much as he wanted” (287). When he was given unlimited permission to torment the prisoners, Choi Sang-min felt overwhelming power and a sense of identity that he had been deprived of for a long time. In front of the Japanese, he is nothing. However, in such a situation, when he is beating the prisoners, he finally becomes something. Out of fear of losing his newfound identity, he desperately clenches onto whatever power he is granted. As a result, Choi Sang-min submerges himself in a fearful mentality that forces him to be violent to avoid returning to the bottom once again. Flanagan illustrates this psychological process: “the more he bashed them [,] the less of men they became… [and] how much more of a man he knew he was” (289). In other words, in order for him to have his own identity, the prisoners must have none. Choi Sang-min’s brutality compensates for his fear of inferiority and elevates his self-worth and masculinity. Through Choi Sang-min’s upheaval, Flanagan represents the mental pressure placed upon a person of inferior status and its potential dangers. Sometimes, a man refuses to accept the concept of being subordinate to another and as a result attempts to salvage his remaining dignity by expressing his limited power through violence against somebody beneath him. Flanagan points out that in a society where someone is either superior or inferior, power becomes the most valuable asset, and when someone, considerably inferior, is given such power, there are no limits to the extent to which this asset is fought for—even if it means to torment and kill.
As the plot of Flanagan’s novel is revealed, fear of appearing weak and losing power before a racially inferior group, the foreign prisoners and Korean guards, becomes one of the most prominent themes that fuels the severe brutality exerted by the Japanese. Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning explains this relationship: the violence and “the dehumanization of the
other contributes immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitated killing” (162). This distinct separation between “our people” and “the enemy,” a racial separation, creates a psychological barrier that disrupts the humane treatment of “the enemy”; John Dower asserts that World War II, especially in the Pacific, was “a race war” which revealed the “prejudice [that]…was fueled by racial pride and arrogance” (4). The proud Japanese see everyone, except for themselves, as inferior and weak. As a result, they treat the prisoners and the non-Japanese guards like animals—unworthy of human treatment. This distinct separation between the Japanese and everyone else instilled in the Japanese the notion that they did not have to treat the prisoners as humans. Flanagan emphasizes this racism through characters like Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura, who are responsible for several violent acts as a consequence of their own humiliation and weakness. Colonel Kota, a master beheader, has spent most of his career attempting to control his soldiers by inducing their fear. When he attempted to behead the Australian prisoner Darky, however, he was not able to. Kota viewed himself as weak; he felt humiliated in front of a worthless Korean guard and inept Australian prisoners. Flanagan writes that Colonel Kota felt “shame at having forgotten a haiku and thus having been unable to behead the prisoner—and this in front of a Korean guard” (252). In retaliation for his humiliation and shame, Kota “found the Korean sergeant.. [and] slapped him hard a few times” (252). Through this interaction, Flanagan strongly illustrates the deep hate that the Japanese felt toward “the other.” The inability of Kota to accept any form of weakness before the eyes of an inferior demonstrates the lengths to which the Japanese would go to preserve their dignity.
Similarly, Flanagan uses the camp commander Nakamura to show the violence that emerges from a self-perceived weakness before a racially inferior group. When Darky, one of the leading Australian prisoners, is receiving a beating, Nakamura intends to interrupt the lengthy
abuse. But as Nakamura prepared himself to walk towards Darky, his foot got caught in the mud and he fell. Mortified by his humiliation in front of prisoners, soldiers, and fellow officers, he harshly beat the Korean guard responsible for Darky’s punishment. Not only did he appear weak in front of the Japanese soldiers, individuals of lower hierarchical position, but also before racially inferior Korean guards and prisoners. Flanagan stresses that Nakamura was “humiliated, enraged, [and] muddy” and that “as an officer he felt insulted” (259). Although this embarrassment certainly would provoke a sense of weakness before anyone, Flanagan’s emphasis on the fact that it occurred in front of a Korean guard contributed to the violence that followed. As Christopher Browning argues, violence, in certain situations, stems from racism and its dehumanization and belittlement of an individual’s worth. In Flanagan’s novel, the Japanese consider everyone else racially inferior and undeserving of equal treatment; as a result, they do not view them as worthy of humane treatment. As Flanagan illustrates throughout his novel, a self-perceived superior race, like the Japanese, often fears to appear weak in general, but they are especially fearful of appearing weak before anyone they deem as racially inferior, a situation which often produces racial violence.
During war, it becomes essential for the combatants to distinguish between “the enemy” and “our people.” Once this identification is made, the enemy is then removed from the restrictions of humane treatment and instead becomes the target for elimination. The removal of this barrier, therefore, encourages dehumanization and lack of concern for “the enemy’s” worth. During World War II, the Japanese captured thousands of prisoners to build the Thai-Burma Railway. These prisoners, forced to labor in extreme conditions of starvation and disease, had to suffer through the brutal and merciless treatment of the Japanese. The Japanese, who believed they were following the greater good and serving the betterment of Japan, consistently displayed
their thirst for power through violence and cruelty towards the prisoners. In his novel, Flanagan highlights this violent psychology through characters such as Major Nakamura, Choi Sang-min, and Colonel Kota. He argues that a possible, underlying motive for such violence originates in the fear, particularly common to men, of losing power. In Japan’s hierarchical society, power and superiority were prominent factors that contributed to one’s sense of identity. Therefore, any sort of weakness displayed before a racial or societal inferior would lead to violent retaliation. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan highlights the brutal lengths to which people will go to satisfy cultural expectations and elevate their self-worth. When given power and an allegedly superior motive, the Japanese erased all obligation of humane treatment and became soldiers of an indomitable army willing and eager to do whatever they could to succeed. The psychological factors, cultural forces, and gender identity Flanagan sees causing Japanese soldiers’ violence were common in the 20th century and, unfortunately, persist today.
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men. Penguin, 1992.
Dower, John W. “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Pantheon, 1986.
Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Vintage, 2013.
Wallace, Geoffrey P.R. “Welcome Guests, or Inescapable Victims? The Causes of Prisoner
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Yap, Felicia. “Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees of the Japanese in British Asia.” Journal
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