Friday, 24 January 2014

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?

So, Hiroo Onoda, almost the last Japanese soldier to surrender after WW2, has died, aged 91.  Not so extraordinary, you might think, unless you know that Onoda finally surrendered his sword to the President of the Phillipines in 1974.  For younger readers, WW2 ended in 1945.  For innumerate readers, that's a period of twenty-nine years in which a lone Japanese officer refused to believe that the war was over, and Japan had lost.

Tales of Japanese soldiers emerging in tattered uniforms after hiding in the jungles of the Pacific for years after the official end of WW2 were once the stuff of popular culture, what has come to be called a trope.  In the 1960s, comics like Mad Magazine could raise a knowing laugh by portraying cartoon Japs hidden behind an office aspidistra plant.  It was behaviour utterly incomprehensible to our modern Western minds, and thus best defused by humour.  The equivalent today, I suppose, would be Osama bin Laden -- now you see him, now you don't.

Why did they do it?  Why spend decades surviving in a state of constant predatory alertness, watching your few comrades die off one by one, raiding and occasionally slaughtering hapless villagers, and ignoring all attempts at persuasion to go home, including  leaflets dropped from the air?  Simple:  they had been ordered not to surrender, and it was a matter of honour to follow that order.

"Honour" of that robotic, idiotic sort is not something we should feel we have lost in most of modern Europe, but which we have grown out of -- transcended, even -- like a belief in an all-seeing, judgmental deity, or the mystical sanctity of the Monarch.  In this first year of what will become an inescapable four-year commemoration of the First World War, we are being reminded of the improbability of hundreds of thousands of contemporary young Brits following the orders of their social "betters", and walking, running, or crawling into the jaws of a certain, painful death.  We can take the prospect of mass mutiny for granted, I think.  That's if any significant numbers could be persuaded to wear a uniform in the first place.

This is not decadence, this is progress.  When I was young, it was assumed that, like my father and grandfather, I would face conscription into the latest sequel in the "World War" franchise and -- in between games of "army" in the woods, playing with toy soldiers, and learning elementary drill in the Cubs -- I gave some serious thought to how I would react to that prospect.  I was conflicted: Vietnam and draft-card burning gave one alternative model, but Paris in May '68 gave another.  Was I a pacifist, or merely in the process of choosing sides?  Life as a bearded partisan holed up in the woods with Mollie the Red certainly appealed to me rather more than regimented square-bashing.

It has been with a mix of relief and disappointment that I have never had to face that choice.  For this, we have unmilitary institutions like schools, universities, supermarket supply-chains, and the European Union to thank.  It seems sensible people in business-wear with flip-charts, mission statements and a bottomless appetite for jaw-jaw have saved us all from the bloody alternative.

This disinclination for mass slaughter does leave us vulnerable, of course.  Honour-bound idiots are lurking in our midst, like those Japanese soldiers behind the rubber-plant, and wish us principled harm.  In the main, and despite genuine concerns about civil liberties, I think I am happy for the intelligence services to monitor the doings of anyone who has, or is in danger of developing, that robotic frame of mind that places an idea -- honour, religion, nation, political ideology, whatever -- above common humanity, and who would rather spend angry decades alone in the jungle than say, "Sod this for a game of soldiers, boys, let's all go home!"

PRINCE HENRY: Why, thou owest God a death.


FALSTAFF: ‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg?  No.  Or an arm?  No.  Or take away the grief of a wound?  No.  Honour hath no skill in surgery, then?  No. What is honour?  A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?  He that died o’ Wednesday.  Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why?  Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1
Close the wall up with our English dead, you say?  Nah, been there, done that.  Fill it yourself this time, mate.

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