Photo by Jack GouldHeartstrings? Tugged. Eyes? Misty. Lump? In our throats. With what are we swollen? Pride. That seems to be the condition in which HBO hopes we will find ourselves after watching the new 10-part World War II miniseries Band of Brothers. The fact-based series premiered Sunday night and will follow the adventures of a group of soldiers from basic training through the end of the war in Europe. And it promises to observe all the pieties associated with the cult of the "Greatest Generation."
For several years now, it has no longer been enough to acknowledge that those who fought in World War II faced tremendous danger and hardships in order to defeat their country's enemies. Now they didn't just fight and win a war; they saved the world. Everyone who served is a hero, no questions asked. The war has been simplified into good on one side and evil on the other. It was Democracy vs. Tyranny, although that interpretation means ignoring that it was the Soviet Union that did most of the fighting against their former nonaggression allies, the Nazis. But no matter: ambiguities are out, and stirring simplicities aimed at organs lower than your brain are in. Portraits of the war created by actual World War II veterans—like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead or Joseph Heller's Catch 22—are now overshadowed by hagiographies produced by wannabe veterans, such as Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and Steven Spielberg's exercise in special effects and sentimentality, Saving Private Ryan.
The opportunity Band of Brothers presents for cheap and easy patriotism will prove hard to resist, so by the end of the series, we should all be knee-deep in Greatest Generationism. If you begin to feel overwhelmed by this presentation of history as a pageant of relentless heroic purity, head for the shrine to OC's most famous World War II vet, Richard Nixon.
Normally, one would go to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace to view distortions of history, not to overcome them. But just as multiplying two negative numbers yields a positive, the Nixon Library can help you gain a clearer perspective on the Greatest Generation. But don't go inside. Just take a few moments to contemplate the fountain on the edge of the parking lot. It will help restore the necessary complexity to the story of those who fought in World War II. Provided, that is, you understand what you are looking at: a plaque on the fountain reveals that it was a gift from Ryoichi Sasakawa of Tokyo.
The fountain is an ostentatious donation from a man with a taste for brutality who mixed crime with right-wing politics to a man of similar bent whose craven nature kept him from embracing his crimes. Sasakawa was bolder than Nixon. As Scott Anderson and Jon Lee Anderson note in Inside the League, their book on the World Anti-Communist League (a cesspool in which fugitive Nazis, Latin American death-squad leaders and Jesse Helms swim together), Sasakawa was known to proclaim, "I'm the world's wealthiest fascist."
Born in 1899, Ryoichi Sasakawa became extremely wealthy as a young man speculating in rice futures. Already involved with extreme right-wing nationalist groups, in 1931 he set up his own paramilitary group modeled after Mussolini's Black Shirts—Il Duce was a man he openly admired. With cash and muscle, Sasakawa became a power in Japanese politics. He championed Japan's war of conquest in Asia and later the wider war in the Pacific.
But ideology was not his sole motive. In a March 1994 article in Asia Inc., Hans Katayama points out Sasakawa's other motive: "When the Pacific war broke out in 1941, Sasakawa . . . bought as many mines in Japan as possible and sold strategic material to the military for profit."
While war profiteering was sweet, it wasn't where the real money was. "As the [Japanese] Imperial Army pushed deeper into China," Katayama wrote, "Sasakawa went along for the ride, ransacking gold, diamonds and other valuables."
Following Japan's defeat, Americans in the occupying army stripped Sasakawa of his Chinese loot and jailed him in 1945 as a Class A war criminal.
But a 1946 military-intelligence report quoted by the Andersons neatly predicted his future: "He is a man of wealth and not too scrupulous about its use. . . . He is not above wearing any new cloak that opportunism may offer."
Three years later, the Americans released Sasakawa. By then, the very real and bloody crimes the fascists had committed paled in comparison with the fears communism was stirring up in the overheated American imagination—fears that would be shrewdly exploited by such political up-and-comers of the Greatest Generation as Congressman Richard Nixon of Orange County, California. Once they had saved the world, the Greatest Generation turned to men like Sasakawa to help them run it. In Europe, the U.S. recruited Nazi war criminals as intelligence agents; in Japan, many such criminals were released from prison and returned to politics to form a bulwark against the rising Red menace.
Until his death in 1995, Sasakawa remained a figure of great importance in the shadowy place where mainstream right-wing politics, fascism and crime meet. After his release, he became one of the first and most generous financial backers of Japan's illiberal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), still the dominant party in national politics. (Another backer was the CIA.) Sasakawa never abandoned his old beliefs. He founded the Zenai Kaigi (National Council of Patriotic Organizations), a group dominated by an odious combination of right-wing terrorist leaders from the '30s and yakuza bosses.
It was only fitting that the Japanese mafia be represented in Zenai Kaigi: the yakuza were very important to Sasakawa's postwar fortunes. By working with them and the LDP, Sasakawa gained one of Japan's three national gambling monopolies, a concession that eventually made him more money than his looting of China.
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Sasakawa eventually came to crave respectability and tried to buy it. He made a great show of contributing large sums to charity while quietly financing neo-fascist groups in Japan and around the world. In one attempt to help establish a reputation as a fervent lover of peace, he even contributed a large sum to the building of Jimmy Carter's presidential library.
But Carter was no Nixon; that move still looks like mere public relations. The gift of the fountain at the Nixon Library & Birthplace was almost certainly heartfelt; Nixon was much beloved in Sasakawa's circles. In 1973, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Sasakawa's partner in politics since the 1960s, staged a three-day fast and prayer vigil on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., imploring God not to stay the hand of Congress then seeking to impeach Nixon. (Nixon, of course, was not impeached; he resigned instead in disgrace. The Lord does move in mysterious ways, it seems.)
The world is a more complicated place than the one that appears in Steven Spielberg's movies, in Band of Brothers, or in books written by newscasters. What Nixon wrote in his book Six Crises about Eisenhower also applies to the generation Ike led into battle: "Eisenhower was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized." True. Nixon added that he meant that "in the best sense of those words." And so do I.
Band of Brothers airs on HBO. Every Sun., 9 p.m. Through Nov. 4.