WWII beheadings put us in awkward position in condemning ISIS

Before we weigh in too loudly on the barbarism let loose in the Middle East, we should spare a thought for our own history, writes Paul Malone.

The barbaric beheadings in the Middle East have rightly drawn condemnation from around the world, but before we Westerners place ourselves on a pedestal of moral superiority we should perhaps recall our own history.

We may not wish to remember it, but it's not that long ago that British, Australian, New Zealand and United States service personnel supported, or at the very least turned a blind eye to such practices.

It's now nearly 70 years since the end of World War II and much is forgotten about attitudes of the day. 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott might choose to recall the honoured place Australians gave Japanese submariners killed in the attack on Sydney Harbour, but that was not the dominant feeling. During and after the war the Japanese were portrayed as evil, cruel tyrants, justifying any action against them. 

In this climate, and just to our north, allied soldiers fought alongside native tribesmen who took trophy heads. Such actions may not have been common and are certainly not lauded in the military records, nor featured in the heroic television documentaries of special operations in South East Asia; but they did take place.

Take, for example, the account of actions in operation Semut 1 in Borneo. According to American author Judith Heimann, two Australian guerrillas and Iban tribal allies went to a Japanese outpost on a tributary of the Limbang River. Two of the Iban hailed the Japanese on the verandah, complained of malaria and asked for quinine. On reaching the verandah they pulled out their bush knives and lopped off two Japanese heads. The Australians shot two other Japanese. At the next longhouse, Iban alerted by slit drums had already tied up four Japanese soldiers. After the Australians arrived the prisoners were taken across the river and shot. The Iban then took the four heads.


Further down river, another three Japanese were killed and beheaded. When Australian Sergeant Fred Sanderson sent a note to his commanding British officer, Tom Harrisson, reporting the beheading, Harrisson replied: "The civil authorities and the mission people will not like this".

Heimann also notes three wartime incidents in Semut 3 operational territory, in which Iban killed Chinese non-combatants and soldiers and took heads. Downed American airmen were well aware that heads were being taken. At the Belawit airstrip where they were evacuated, native people perched fresh heads on poles along the strip.

It should be noted that in post-war years these actions did not disturb the Australians or the American airmen. The enduring memory of returned service personnel was of the POW camps, the Thai-Burma railway built by captive labour and of the Sandakan death marches where Japanese initially held about 2,500 prisoners of war and, with the threatened arrival of the Allies, chose to march them inland through the jungle to Ranau. Stragglers were gunned down, with only six – all Australians escapees – surviving to tell the tale.

The Semut operations, which in military terms were a great success, were kept secret in the years after the war. Altogether the Borneo interior force was estimated to have killed 1500 Japanese troops and auxiliaries and taken 240 prisoners. This was accomplished by a total, at its highest, of 82 special operations personnel and about 2000 natives, at a cost of about 30 native deaths and no special operations men.

The head-hunting which was revived during the war had a long history in Borneo. The British white rajahs banned the practice, but in mounting expeditions to bring law and order to the tribal interior, they at times allowed members of their own forces to take trophy heads. 

It should be noted here that not all tribal people engaged in the practice. The jungle nomads, the Penan, had no such custom and chose to avoid conflict where possible.

For other tribal people, heads were an essential part of their religious ceremonies, as an old Kayan leader, Aban Jau, tried to explain to a British administrator in the late 19th  century. How, the old warrior asked, could he pass over the Great Tree Trunk that bridges death, if no head had been taken on his behalf and there was no one to accompany his soul across the mountain to the shades of Apo Laggan?

As far as I know the modern-day killers have no such requirements. But they do claim Allah/God backs their killings, making them all the more dangerous. What they hope to gain by displaying their barbarous behaviour for all the world to see is not clear.

The statement accompanying the James Foley beheading called on the Americans to end air strikes on Iraq. But surely the murderers could not be so stupid as to believe that even a series of such murders would lessen the number of air strikes. If anything they would provoke the Americans to take further action. Some argue that that is precisely what the Islamic State wants. 

Increased American action would enable IS to claim Western oppression of Muslims and that would help them attract a new wave of recruits. This sounds a bit too involved and conspiratorial to my mind. In the case of Khaled Sharrouf, who posted a photo of his son holding a severed head, there is evidence of schizophrenia and previous amphetamine, LSD and ecstasy consumption.

Were they in a civilised society many of the other killers might well be considered mad. Unfortunately they have been let loose with armaments which combined with their extremist ideology is wreaking mayhem on anyone and everyone they consider unacceptable.

Paul Malone's just published book, The Peaceful People - The Penan and their Fight for the Forest, recounts the history and practices of the non-violent Penan nomads of Sarawak.