Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle
Smoke, that’s what I’m in pursuit of: Tokyo in ruins just after the war, the Japanese valleys smoky with spray from the crooked rivers, the smoky taste of summer sake clear as water, all that cigarette smoke from the GI bars, the smoky sex from the Japanese panpan girls with their long red fingernails, my uncle’s smoking thievery, the smoke of the 1973 fire in the National Archives, which burned all the records of so many military men and their mistakes, the smoke of cremation, how bodies disappear when they can’t be buried, and the smoke of silence, of words unsaid.
-Terese Svoboda, from Black Glasses Like Clark Kent
Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan is the 2007 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Terese Svoboda is author most recently of the novel Tin God. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, The Paris Review, and others. She is the author of nine works of prose and poetry. Black Glasses is partly the result of her tenacity and determination in researching her uncle’s story, her research taking her as far as Japan. The book touches on a multiplicity of issues surrounding World War II whose roots extend into today’s military and political climate. The implications to the current wartime environment—that of Operation Iraqi Freedom—deserve scrutiny. Svoboda’s experience sheds light on a side of military operations that few will admit to and none have publicly examined.
Cynthia Reeser: How much do you think the American military has changed from World War II to contemporary times, where we now have situations like that of Abu Graib in 2004?
Terese Svoboda: MacArthur and Bush both used censorship to keep the public from knowing what was going on in the military. Some censorship is understandable: you don’t want the enemy to know where you are or what you are doing, but some censorship simply prevents the government from correcting the injustices that unchecked power begets. That many of MacArthur’s records are still censored makes it almost impossible to correlate vets’ stories with official records. New technology promises that individual soldiers can now act as the eyes and ears for the public but cases like Pat Tillman, the ex-NFL linebacker who blogged about the injustices in Iraq and then was killed by “friendly fire,” show that this is not always the case. Abu Ghraib is an exception where technology—the camera—worked to reveal military malfeasance and break past the censorship around it.
CR: I find this memoir very eye-opening, possibly touching on an event that does not seem to have been investigated before, given that evidence was so hard to come by. Is this the first time information on these executions has entered into the public eye?
TS: Only Professor J. Robert Lilly at the University of Kentucky has researched and written about executions during WWII, and only in the European theater. The Death Penalty Information Center keeps a tally of military executions as they receive information at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did=180&scid=32.
CR: You parallel the situation in Abu Graib with that in an occupied Japanese prison. Do you think there is more of an openness about harsh practices and events taking place in the military now than there were during WWII?
TS: I parallel the situation in Abu Ghraib with that of an American stockade in Japan filled with American GIs—not a prison filled with Japanese POWs. Most people find it hard to believe that MacArthur would order executions of his own men months after we won the war, and on Japanese soil, yet five ex-MPs remember it happening. But, as in the case of Agent Orange, veterans’ memories don’t count for much in the military. If there hadn’t been actual photo documentation about Abu Ghraib, we would never have known about it. Only now, three years after the incident, has the press discovered—despite her insisting on the contrary—that Condoleeza Rice also knew about the torture. I don’t think that’s very open.
CR: I’m always interested in structures, and I particularly like the way you chose to set up the structure of Black Glasses. It allows your voice and experience to color your uncle’s story, and in this sense, was revelatory of your investigation and its nuances. Was this structure planned, or did it come about organically?
TS: Thank you for your compliment about structure of the book. It was hardly planned! I had my uncle’s voice but it needed context, so I added my father and then myself. After I began to discover information that I thought wasn’t well known, I had to figure out how to weave it in. I do have a preference for provocation—I like to put one set of facts next to another and let the reader judge for himself. I am also fascinated with the process of uncovering the clues and thought readers would be too. Nancy Drew rules!
CR: At one point, your search becomes a quest, with somewhat spiritual implications. You write, “[I]n Shinto beliefs, it is important to put the spirit to rest, whether mine or my uncle’s.” Since you declared the task of researching for this memoir finished, have you been able to rest your mind from the search and the questioning?
TS: I can’t resist reading more books about the MacArthur period. With regard to his sympathy with veterans, I recently discovered he ordered a mounted bayonet charge with tear gas against WWI vets who were camped near the capitol for three weeks, waiting for their bonuses during the Depression. With regard to racial matters, he also refused to integrate his troops in 1948, disobeying a direct order from President Truman. I also continue to add new material to my blog at http://teresesvoboda.blogspot.com/2008/02/new-york-post-required-reading.html, especially about the rise in suicides for Iraq vets. I did come to an end of original resources to research and that is a relief. No more trips to the National Archives.
CR: Since the memoir has been completed, have you discovered any new information relating to the executions?
TS: After one of my chief informants, William M, read the book, he emailed to tell me that he had a framed certificate of appreciation from the MP battalion at Abu Ghraib for consulting with them about how POWs were treated in Korea.
CR: In the introduction, Robert Polito writes that the memoir is your “family romance in the guise of a revisionist American history—or is it American history as a revisionist family tragedy?” But then later you write, “Romance is not about truth.” Either way your story boils down to that search for truth in history, which seems inextricable from your family history. What do you make of this?
TS: Every family marks its place in history by citing its catastrophes. I think Polito is using “romance” to define the experience of love within a family. I am using it as a literary term, as a work that seeks to entertain rather than enlighten.
CR: There seems to have been a therapeutic benefit to your uncle in telling his story. But he seemed reluctant to speak until the end of his life, as so many vets do; of course, many never open up at all. You write that “the zeitgeist then was all about no emotion,” and later, about how talking of their experiences can help them to heal—a difficult thing for them to do given the era they were raised in. Do you think the benefits for them depend on whether or not what they have to say is well-received? Or does it have more to do with that guilt of witnessing, from which somehow they want to talk for absolution or remain silent to hide from shame?
TS: No one likes to bare his soul and then be told that what he’s revealed is unacceptable. My uncle’s voice betrayed no guilt when he taped his experiences in Japan. He was doing his duty. He did, however, leave the worst story to last and, although he was not implicated in the hangings, perhaps he felt, like many other witnesses to executions, that he was somehow guilty or at least helpless in the face of injustice. Thus the absolution.
Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan by Terese Svoboda
Graywolf Press, 2008