Best Defense

Book excerpt: On soldiers’ use of racist language in the Asia-Pacific wars

The Allies [in WWII] often used analogies involving animals or insects that lived underground to describe the Japanese.

Cover of The Soldiers of Empire, by Tarak Barkawi. (Cambridge University Press)
Cover of The Soldiers of Empire, by Tarak Barkawi. (Cambridge University Press)

The Allies [in WWII] often used analogies involving animals or insects that lived underground to describe the Japanese, like “fanatical little rats.” Their ubiquity offers an opportunity to consider what work such analogies might do in soldiers’ narrations, how else they may be read than simply as evidence of racial hatred. General Slim was fond of an ant simile: “The Japanese were ruthless and bold as ants.” During the war he told his officers, “[p]icture yourself fighting man-sized ants … [the Japanese have] all the qualities and faults of the fighting ant.” At Chatham House after the war, he told a conference that the Japanese were neither men nor animals but soldier ants. Here, in addition to its racist connotations, the soldier ant functions as a way to think about how the Japanese actually operated and fought.

The Japanese constructed elaborate bunker systems, skillfully camouflaged and often connected by tunnels. Due to Allied air and artillery superiority, they had to dig deep to survive. Admiring their bunkers, one British officer thought of the Japanese as a colony of intelligent (but unclean) rabbits. The Japanese failed to vary many of their tactical procedures and routines, lacking flexibility and initiative. In the view of many British officers, their march discipline and security arrangements were atrocious. Many a noisy Japanese column was ambushed, or easily avoided, as desired. Accordingly, they could be thought of as a colony of ants that has fixed ways of going about things, and which is consequently vulnerable. Japanese “habits were consistent, and [their] reactions easy to gauge.” If one knew these vulnerabilities, the Japanese could be stomped on and killed as if they were ants.

These constructions drew upon racist tropes to be sure, the Japanese a combination of the primitive and the modern, a breed of mechanized savages working in mindless, mass unison. At the same time, these analogies oriented officers and troops to elements of Japanese tactics and behavior, and provided an idiom to discuss battlefield events. For an Indian major, “sheep” seemed an adequate description for the weary, hungry, diseased, and defeated Japanese he saw pulling out of Imphal, who then fell like flies under his automatic fire. The result of one stratagem, another officer remarked, was a “glorious slaughter of Japanese who ran screaming from their coverts only to be shot down in scores … like … a rat hunt.” Observing the fighting for Mandalay Hill, General Rees reported: “At first the Japanese resisted, very like hornets, but when they saw the game was really up, then they scattered and ran like rabbits.”

Imagery of this kind arose from battlefield experience. But it also worked to shape battle, as soldiers acted as if the Japanese were insects to be stomped on. More than just a racist propaganda construction, the Japanese as ants, rats, and so on formed part of a lingua franca for the British, Indian, and imperial troops fighting in Burma, at once descriptive and prescriptive. Consider in this vein Brigadier Calvert’s idea of Japanese soldiers as “cornered beasts,” or Brigadier Fergusson’s “slippery eels.” To see the Japanese in this way was practical advice for soldiers about to fight an enemy who often resisted until dead, and who fought on even when hopelessly overwhelmed. At the same time, this language and way of thinking about the situation — commended to soldiers as battlefield guidance from their commanders — played its part in reproducing the no-quarter combat it warned about. Tipped off to regard their enemies as dangerous until dead, Allied soldiers were unlikely to offer the Japanese chances to surrender, or to succor their wounded. The guidance impelled soldiers towards a harsh but practical response to a tactical situation they were likely to encounter. The irony is that the advice helped reproduce the merciless fighting that made it necessary. As the Japanese knew they were going to be killed anyway, why not take an Allied soldier with them?

Adapted, with permission of the author, from Tarak Barkawi, Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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