News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

First Thoughts on Japan at War: An Oral History

The short oral history contained within, and entitled Qualifying As a Leader, caught my attention. I quote from it in the following:

· "Heads should be cut off like this," he said, unsheathing his army sword.... "Yo!" The head flew more than a meter away. Blood spurted up in two fountains from the body and sprayed into the hole. The scene was so appalling that I felt I couldn't breathe... When my turn came, the only thought I had was "don't do anything unseemly!" I didn't want to disgrace myself. I bowed to the regimental commander and stepped forward.... I unsheathed my sword... I steadied myself, holding the sword at a point above my right shoulder, and swung down with one breath. The head flew away and the body tumbled down, spouting blood. The air reeked from all that blood.... at that moment, I felt something change inside me. I don't know how to put it, but I gained strength somewhere in my gut.... some of the officer candidates slashed the head by mistake. One prisoner ran around crazily... everyone got covered with blood as we butchered him. We returned to our companies. Until that day I had been overwhelmed by the sharp eyes of men when I called the role each night. That night I realized I was not self-conscious at all in front of them. I didn't even find their eyes evil anymore. I felt I was looking down on them....

· A new conscript became a full-fledged soldier in three months in the battle area. We planned exercises for these men. As the last stage of the training, we made them bayonet a living human.... The soldiers dashed forward to bayonet their target at the shout of "charge!" Some stopped on their way. We kicked them and made them do it. After that, a man could do anything easily. The army created men capable of combat. The thing of supreme importance was to make them fight. It didn't matter whether they were bright or sincere. Men useless in action were worthless. Good soldiers were those who were able to kill, however uncouth they were. We made them like this. Good sons, good daddies, good elder brothers at home were brought to the front to kill each other. Human beings turned into murdering demons. Everyone became a demon within three months. Men were able to fight courageously only when their human characteristics were suppressed. So we believed. It was a natural extension of our training back in Japan. This was the Emperor's Army.

I left in the part about the Emperor's army because it relates to previous posts and it's good to keep in mind the religious underpinning to this popular/populist slaughter. (Just as it's good to keep in mind the animism at the roots of official Chinese paranoia and urban legends, and likewise for Pauline Christianity and attitudes that condition Western paranoia)

As to the slashing and butchery, it's not how one would do it these days, but you can see the point. George Orwell pointed out in Homage to Barcelona that many partisans in the Spanish Civil War, including himself, refused to fire their weapons. This was particularly the case when the enemy was not shooting at them and instead on the way to the latrine, delivering mail, or just careless watching the sun go down. Orwell's humanity and pacifism were in part what got him a bullet through his neck. He didn't blast the blighters when he had the chance. Once the Spanish Civil War had begun, not using weapons appropriately caused the war to malinger on and on instead of being settled with short shrift.

Paul Fussell wrote about US Army statistics for men in WWII firing weapons in combat and presented this reader with the surprise that only about 15% were doing any shooting. Post-war, I believe, the training format was reorganized and now stresses crushing recruit character and rebuilding it to facilitate military's goals. In other words the US military, facing the same problem as the Japanese military, came up with a less brutal training format so its soldiers pull their triggers and shoot more often to kill.

Anyway, it was a different uglier time, in this and many other ways, and I'm glad not to have been a part of it. (Though, no doubt, the next generation will say the same about today's world too) The Japanese Army's training methodology of the time was certainly primitive and barbarous. But all things happen for a reason. Unless you're literally unreasonable.

When it comes to part-time patriots, most blame their enemies (usually imaginary and invented for convenience) for being, not what they are or can be in future, but for what they were (again, a matter of convenience because it's impossible to change the past). However, the sort of person who shouts shame! shame! is typically a moral genius with no proposal in pocket nor in the pipeline for changing the present or future. That's not his or her bees wax. Because it's not their forte. Intellectually speaking, it's sawdust and yesterday's news between their ears. They're blank cartridges. For, after all, if you have an active mind and imagination, why would you settle for guilt trips? No challenge. Too easy. Boring. And it puts you in good graces with a gang of lofty frauds, the sort of fence-sitting sloganeers that ought to be the sort of enemy one is judged by and puts one in a positive light.

Naturally, investigating bad behavior in detail and then proposing and perhaps even executing a methodology which will persuade baddies to change their behavior and show them the benefits of doing so is likely to work much better.

Either way, all this comes back to determinism. I'll be glad to take part in pogroms of scapegoating from safe distances when I'm satisfied that a boy growing up in a French-speaking middle-class home is free not to be male, a native French speaker, and grow up with middle-class values. Similarly, blaming the Japanese of that era for being the Japanese of that era is a nonstarter if you're trying to understand what happened and why. Of course if one is more interested in facilitating one's will to power, getting a leg over the competition, and finds thinking a discouraging snobbish pursuit then the blame game will do just fine.

Either way, fortunately those days are long gone. In Japan that is. In a previously reviewed book, Thunder from the East, one of the authors goes into detail about his first-hand experience with the way some village Indonesians dealt with the Asian financial crisis of 1998. They grabbed strangers in their villages, accused them of being sorcerers causing the collapse. Now that they had been snatched up by human hands the sorcerors were now incapable of turning back into wild beasts, their preferred form, and were disposed of on the spot. They were summarily decapitated. This happened in many parts of Java.

And these were/are not gangsters or any other form of evildoer, to cop a clumsy term, but instead were "good sons, good daddies, good elder brothers at home." The BBC around the same time carried an audio interview with an Indonesian woman who gaily introduced why her brother was going out and slaughtering sorcerers with his watermelon stabber. She was very upbeat, giggling and gabby. Cheerful abettors of murder defending what they do in a confident and articulate manner, cleaning the stables of human rats as it were, is the kind of thing that sticks to the brainpan for a while.

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