Monday, April 29, 2013

War Propaganda and Afterwards

"The evil that men do lives after them." When Shakespeare put those words in the mouth of one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, he was speaking for all generations. In one way or another, the evil we have been taught lives in each of us. Some of it lives in me, however subconsciously.

In my defence, let me take you back to the dark, desperate days of the Second World War. This impressionable young boy living in downtown Toronto hears nothing but bad news. Every one on the street agrees it's all the fault of the Germans and the Japanese. Nazi Germany is rapidly taking over much of continental Europe. They are in Africa. Their submarines are sinking ships in Canadian waters.  England is about to be invaded.

Following their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese are advancing in China and southeast Asia. Australia is bombed, and will soon be invaded. We hear that a Japanese ship destroyed a lighthouse on Vancouver Island. Other Japanese invade westernmost Alaska. Canadian soldiers, only a few years older than myself, are being killed in places no one on the street had ever before heard of, like Hong Kong. My school atlas tells us where it is.

Coming from a central European background, I knew what Germans looked like. And a German family lived across the street. They looked like us. But the Japanese were a different story. I had never seen one in my life. They were from a different world.

Because of the war, a war started by the Germans and Japanese, food is rationed: meat, butter, sugar, tea, coffee, gasoline, car tires. People talk about the black market. I see it as a very dark place where the rich can buy all the food and gasoline they want. The other black I hear about is blackout. When the sirens go off, men wearing white helmets with the letters A.R.P. (Air Raid Patrol) across the front walk the streets, telling us to turn off all our lights.

We are getting ready to be bombed by the Germans or the Japanese. I wasn't sure which enemy would get here first. I did not like the idea of my home getting destroyed. My 16-year-old friends must register with the government, to get them ready to join the military.

The tide slowly turns. Street talk is about air raids on the Germans. This pleases me because I feel it's better we bomb them than they bomb us. Because I don't know them. The relentless propaganda gets me and all my friends to loathe the Germans and the Japanese.

The Japanese, I am taught to despise absolutely. I am told, and I believe, they could commit every atrocity they are accused of: torture, killing unarmed soldiers, forced labour by prisoners, starvation, execution and sex slaves.

This anti-Japanese sentiment lingers so strongly in my mind that, one day some forty-five years later, as I enter a downtown department store, I stop cold. I stare wide-eyed at the enlarged Japanese face smiling down at me from the many banners scattered throughout the main floor. I am looking at the face of Alfred Sung, a Canadian fashion designer of Oriental descent. His products are being featured by the store.

But what fills memory's eye is the smiling face I vividly remember from many anti-Japanese propaganda films, comic books and magazines. It's the face of that pilot machine-gunning innocent civilians fleeing the invading Japanese army. It is the face of that Japanese officer about to torture a prisoner. It is the face my generation was taught to hate.

War propaganda taught us to hate the face of the blond German soldier, the one whose mouth wears a perpetual sneer, one who even in defeat flaunted a false sense of superiority.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The good news is two-fold. I like to think that all of my generation knows it was brainwashed. And that life's experience has taught us how to deal with it, and to accept everyone equally. The other good news is that just as young minds can be taught hate, they can be taught love and caring and understanding. Let us pray that is what we all, friends and foe, give to the next generation.

No comments: