In the final scenes of Akira Kurosawa’s movie masterpiece ‘Kagemusha’, the huge army of Takeda marches forth to do battle with its feudal enemy. The Takeda clan’s old leader, the wise military strategist Lord Shingen, is dead, and everyone knows the army is doomed. They meet the massed musketeers of Tokugawa, who are protected behind earth and pallisade fortifications, and charge at them in three massive waves. One by one each wave is completely destroyed – killed to the last man.
This is an immensely powerful scene, involving thousands of extras, and evokes the tragic slaughter of so many battles — Waterloo, Gettysburg, The Somme, Omaha Beach. It especially brings to my mind the many battles of the Pacific War. In this vast amphibous offensive, in battle after battle from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, the Americans suffered extremely high casualties, up to 50 per cent in some cases. It says a great deal about the later battles that for every two American wounded, one man was removed from combat due to Battle Fatigue — in other words, these soldiers were being driven out of their minds by experiences they couldn’t endure.
In most of these battles the Japanese forces suffered 100 per cent fatalities. With the occasional exception of a few emaciated and shell-shocked prisoners, every Japanese soldier was killed. In some cases the men deliberately ended their lives in futile Banzai charges against superior American firepower. Those who were wounded commited suicide. The result, time after time, was the total annihilation of the Japanese defenders.
No other army in history has ever behaved like this.
Ironically, during the historical period in Japan portrayed in ‘Kagemusha’ — sometimes called the Warring States period — war was conducted according to rules, and there was never an occasion when a Japanese army was destroyed, not even nearly. The Takeda army was indeed defeated in battle, but suffered casualties of around 5 per cent. This was very light by the standards of our time and the 20th Century. Although ritual suicide was known in these days amongst the Japanese aristocracy, no army ever laid down its life en masse for its leader.
Honour and self denial
“Flowers dying gracefully on Hill 109, Will bloom again amid the Kudan trees”.
Last message from Major General Suzuki during the battle of Okinawa
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…”
Some sad and pretty Okinawan music.
‘The Peppermint Tea House’
, Shoukichi Kina
Also available here as individual tracks.
Listen via Amazon.com to a fragment of:
‘Subete No Hito No Kokoro Ni Hanna O’
We blandly and somewhat misleadingly refer to the the Japanese variety of totalitarianism as Militarism, because it was mainly driven by Japan’s army and naval officer class, but Japanese totalitarianism was complex, both as an ideology, part political part mystical, and in the unusually leaderless, almost anarchic manner in which it came to power and operated.
Before the revolution of 1868, Japan was a Buddhist society ruled by the Samurai class, Oriental knights who followed a chivalric code a little like the knights of Europe, and quite similar to the Stoic philosophy of ancient Rome. Bushido or The Way of the Warror was a stern philosophy of loyalty, self denial and honour.
The Samurai held the power of life and death over members of the lower classes, but he was also protector of the weak, with a duty to be honest, fair and just. He followed a higher cause than his own self interest, and in principle he would willingly face death rather than betray his master, his honour, or those whose care was placed in his trust. The true Samurai was selfless, restrained, self-denying and unconcerned with wealth and luxury. You can see evidence of this last principle in the extremely simple living conditions of Japanese nobles at that time, even the Shogun himself.
The Samurai class was overthrown by the revolution, but their history and myths were not discarded. Instead they were skillfully rewritten to serve new ideological goals. It is a chilling testament to the demonic power of totalitarian propaganda that a philosophy with much in it that is commendable could be transformed, with great subtlety, into an ideology that produced one of the cruellest and most murderous regimes in history.
In place of honesty, cleverly crafted lies infused society, even within the ruling factions of the Militarist government. In place of justice and self restraint, untold millions of Asians — including women, children and infants — as well as hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners or war, were murdered, tortured and enslaved.
Instead of defending the defenceless, the Japanese population was placed on the front line — and when the time came, they were sacrificed in the hundreds of thousands. On Saipan, as the Americans advanced yard by gruelling yard, a stream of Japanese civilians — including mothers with children or holding babies — were hurling themselves off cliffs to their deaths. During the Battle of Okinawa, one quarter of the civilian population of this beautiful tropical island perished.
Honourable self denial was transformed into a fanatical desire for glorious self destruction. Young Kamikaze pilots, scarcely more than boys, drank cheerful toasts to their deaths before taking off in aircraft packed with explosives.
The stern code of self restraint had become an insane and fanatical nihilism
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him,
And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.
And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew 8:5-9
If you brought a person from ancient Rome to the modern world — the kind of thing that happens in so many sci fi movies and TV shows — he would no doubt gaze with awe on our technological marvels and the amazing luxury of our daily lives. To him it would be so magical he might wonder if he had come to the land of his pagan gods. But if your time machine were to malfunction slightly, and you accidentally landed during one of the major wars of the 20th Century, your ancient man would say, ‘yes, this is the world I know.’
The brutal and bloody wars of the last two centuries would have been gruesomely familiar to him. Ancient people lacked our lethal technologies, but they lacked for nothing in the horror they inflicted on one another. Armies didn’t merely defeat their enemies — they destroyed them. Once routed an enemy would be pursued and massacred. Survivors and civilians would be sold into slavery.
This was the world that Christ came to heal.
And it was the world into which the early Christians were reborn, defenceless and despised. Like the Communists, National Socialists, Militarists and other totalitarians of our time, the Romans would have thought nothing of the mass murder of a religious minority if they imagined they might pose a threat to the authority of the state. They killed their military and political enemies with equal savagery.
The Centurion, who came to Jesus to selflessly beg healing for another man, would have been quite familiar with this sort of cruelty. Centurion was a high rank in the Roman Army. Low ranking Centurions were a bit like a Captain (in the American army, Major in the Australian army).
The Roman military was a harsh institution. Our Centurion says he has ordered men to come and go, but to have attained this rank he most likely had also led men in battle, perhaps during one of Rome’s civil wars, or against the Germans or Parthians, or in suppressing one of the many revolts that the Roman Empire experienced. He would probably have killed and ordered men to kill many times, and if he had been stationed in the Roman province of Palestine for any length of time, he would probably have killed Jews.
‘I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof’
Being an obviously thoughtful man, it’s quite possible that he was a to some degree a Stoic or influenced by that philosophy. Stoicism began among the Greeks and was widespread by Roman times. Like Bushido, it was a grim but honourable code befitting a militaristic society. A Stoic would seek to be virtuous, rational, self denying, just and honourable. He would be self controlled, not moved by emotion — his own or the emotional displays of others. He would try to endure misforture without complaint and would expect others to do likewise. He would be brave, would dislike weakness in himself or others, would try face death calmly, and like the Samurai follower of Bushido, he would commit suicide rather than face dishonour.
The warrior admires strength, because he understands that man is weak. As strong as he may seem alongside other men, he knows that the day may come at any time when he will look down in surprise at a deadly wound in his own body. That no matter how great Man appears, Death is greater.
After Christianity reached Rome in the early years of the Empire, the honesty, selflessness, faithfulness and bravery shown by the persecuted Christians had a profound effect on Romans of good character. Many or most of these would have been Stoics, and they must have seen in the Christians something they yearned for — not just a moral code they could admire, but the living spiritual power that the Stoic creed lacked.
The Stoics sought to cultivate inner strength to endure pain and death, but the Christians weren’t strong — they were meek and mild — yet they faced death and torment not just bravely, but cheerfully, sometimes ecstatically, with the power of Christ that is greater than Death itself.
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
— ‘Death, be not proud’,
John Donne (1572-1631)
Poem also quoted here.
The modern Centurion
‘Not of This World’, Zero Enmity
He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
The Gospel of Saint John 12:25
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The Gospel of Saint Matthew 5:3-10
Let’s climb back in our time machine and return to our own time. We’ll leave Roman Man where he is, but there’s one part of his world we’ll find when we get back, and that’s his Stoic beliefs, or a deeply assimilated, modern version of them. They’ve worn a little over the years, and become less sharply defined, a little cruder even, but disembarking in Australia (or in most other parts of the English speaking world), we’ll be returning to a society in which Stoicism still makes up a big part of our character.
Modest. Uncomplaining. Unselfish. Discrete. Self controlled. These are modern Stoic virtues we all admire.
But the other side of Stoicism, as in Roman times, is its inner hardness. We despise failure and weakness, in ourselves even more than in others. Living in a world of safety and luxury, perhaps we forget — which the Centurion would never have done — that we are all weak.
And, worse, after thousands of years, our Stoicism remains a philosophy that raises death as one of it’s undeclared gods. The Stoic man, who does not grumble in adversity, confronted with a situation beyond his strength to endure — the farmer who loses his land, the businessman who loses everything, the father who loses contact with his children, the tormented soul whose demons have exhausted him — will often turn to death before he turns to others.
Or the confused young man, who sees nothing to live for, shuns intimacy with his family, declines to confide in his friends, and pilots his car like a Kamikaze.
Bingo. Jackpot. Full house.
We were in our late thirties, and after years of trying naturally to have children, we undertook IVF treatment at the Freemason’s Hospital in Melbourne. Our IVF doctor asked us how we would feel if we had twins. I told her it would be ‘like hitting the jackpot’. Lo and behold, after only two or three short months we hit that jackpot, Mrs Y became pregnant with
Ultrasound scans are a profound experience for most parents, so we’d heard, and they were something we were looking forward to. Our scan operators at the Freemasons Hospital were a pleasant Asian man and an acerbic Anglo Australian woman, very different people but equally competent, and the advice they gave us was the same. The first indication all was not normal was around the time of our second or third ultrasound scan. It was a small shadowy shape on the monitor screen,
a flap of skin if I recall, that indicated Twin Two might be at higher risk of Down syndrome. This turned out to be true, she does have Down syndrome, but that is the least of the story.
We thought about this news briefly. There wasn’t much to discuss, it was only an indicator so nothing was certain, and whatever the outcome, a child Down syndrome would still be our child, and we would keep her. Perhaps we’re oversensitive, but we thought we noticed a certain disapproval at this decision. I remember the acerbic scan operator being quite tactless in her remarks that the sensible treatment for Down syndrome was termination, and to be quick about it.
We thought this was a callous attitude, so we took a dislike to this woman, but she would probably regard her attitude as a virtue, doing us a favour by presenting the orthodox medical position as firmly as possible. The assumption that Down syndrome is so hideous and dreadful that the child is not worth bearing — an obnoxious assumption in my opinion — is so widespread it has virtually reached the status of an established medical fact. Indeed, I now consider this whenever phrases like ‘medical consensus’, ‘established medical fact’ and ‘weight of medical opinion’ are used. I now now that ‘the weight of medical opinion’ is something quite lightweight indeed.
There is no hope, so just give up
…tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope…
More scans followed, as they always do, and more and more measurements were made — arms, legs, heads, and one set involving a cavity inside Twin Two’s growing brain. It seems as well as Down syndrome she now had ‘hydrocephalus’
(hydro: water, cephalic: concerning the head or skull), in other words ‘water on the brain’.
(Quick explanation: the brain grows from the outside inwards, and her’s was not growing at the normal rate. It was believed it was being inhibited by fluid pressure within this cavity.)
I think our doctors deserve some benefit of the doubt here, for reasons I will discuss later. All the same, as the weeks went on, what should have a thrilling activity for us was becoming a real chore. With each ultrasound, the bleak prognosis was more entrenched — Twin Two had hydrocephalus. If she survived she would be born with serious brain damage, and the underlying commentary remained, ‘you haven’t terminated her yet, what’s the matter with you? You’re running out of time.’
Twin One was doing fine, of course, and we always had that solace, but we’d tried for so long to have children and we couldn’t pretend she wasn’t there. (you don’t just discard a child, do you? Even a very very little one.) Twin Two was always on our minds. So young and already she was falling behind in the race. In our private moments we would talk to her, ‘come on, you can make it.’
Do you have any questions?
The next scene in our little drama took place at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Mrs Y had an MRI of her abdomen and its precious cargo, and we went to see Miss Maixner, Neuro Surgeon, to discuss its implications.
God has blessed our age with many technological marvels, and the MRI is one of them. It is a wonderful, detailed, three dimensional scan. Unfortunately, the news was getting worse and worse. We could clearly see every detail of Twin Two’s tissues and organs, and her sister’s too, for handy comparison. Unmistakably there was a large dark cavity within her brain, and it was plain to see it was different from her sister.
Miss Maixner was professional in her manner, and she was emphatic. The hydrocephalus was severe. Twin Two might die in the womb, she might even pose a risk to Twin One, there might be complications at birth, she would be unlikely to be able to live outside the womb, and if she didn’t die at birth or soon after, her brain damage would be so severe she would be a vegetable or not far off it.
Dead or a vegetable. Did you get all that? Any questions? Do you need me to repeat any of it?
Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak…
O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave:
thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
We were assailed by demons: confusion, sadness and despair. We were a typical modern couple in those days. We had always had friends to enjoy good food and drink with, but had never needed to lean on anyone but each other during life’s little ups and downs. This was something completely different. Mrs Y wouldn’t be consoled. She was deeply sad and would cry for long periods, and without warning at any time, night and day.
A woman is a delicate flower, so a man must be a rock. I tried to make myself a strong place to moor on, by holding my feelings tight and hardening my heart. I told myself she’s just a shape on a screen. She’s not here yet, so she’s not real yet, so there’s no need to become attached and there’s no need to feel any loss. I told myself a lot of things, and eventually the things I told myself became more and more bizarre.
While Mrs Y was sad night and day, but for me, as I’m sure with a lot of people, the days were not so hard. The sun shone, the birds sang and there was work and other people to distract me. But late at night I would wake up alone with my thoughts
and then the devils would come and whisper spiteful things.
Raised in a culture of admirable Anglo Saxon stoicism, I know the genuine hardships people have suffered in history, and that my little concerns are trivial, but the devils flapped invisibly around me in the dark and I just couldn’t see a way through it.
I was becoming overwhelmed. Despite having triumphed over a handful of life’s petty disappointments and frustrations, I discovered I wasn’t a Neitzchian superman in my own solitary universe. This little unborn girl made me realise what a selfish, weak and wretched creature is man — this man. I had cruel and callous thoughts, and feelings of guilt in response. Once I even made an unspoken suicide pact with Twin Two so Mrs Y and Twin One could live freely. (Did I mention the thoughts I had were bizarre?)
God had already seen what was happening, of course, although we didn’t know it. He sent us reinforcements in the form of some of His many human agents — new friends carrying His word, and old friends we never truly knew before. He sent sublime communications such as only the anguished mind can perceive — a word here, a phrase there, a soft voice from deep within, a peculiar coincidence at a special moment. I began to feel, tentatively, as if there was Someone there I could turn to.
So I prayed to Him.
Inside the circle
The Devil had the measure of us by now. We were weakening, too confused by now to really understand the medical implications of what was happening, and without the spiritual awareness to see things from a higher plane. We went as far as to discuss with the obstetrician about the procedure of ‘selective termination’. She told us there was ‘some’ risk to Twin One. I pressed her, but all she would say was ‘some risk’. The word ‘some’ really made me annoyed. What a vague term to issue forth from the great edifice of Science. Don’t we live in a world where every hair on every head can be measured to within a billionth of its diametre, where the beating wings of a butterfly in Bogata can cause a tempest in a test-tube in Toronto? Hadn’t the Mind of Man has encompassed the Universe? Can’t Great Science do better than ‘some’?
It was almost as if these people were just reading things out of a book or something.
The scepticism that always kept me apart from God was off its leash. I didn’t know what was happening, or what to believe, so why should I believe anyone?
God has a special form of strength he gives to really simple sinners, who are too foolish to accept the gift of real inner strength, and it takes the form of a pig-headed, mule-like stubbornness. My circle of certainties, that once encompassed so much — science, art, philosophy — had shrunk, until all that was left in it was me, Mrs Y and our own flesh and blood. Little Twin Two might be the one who would wreck our lives, but she was inside the circle — she was our flesh and blood.
All things seek their own element. Beasts live in the field, birds fly in the air, and insensitive clods are drawn to the medical profession. Into our tale now lumbers Dr Hunt, Neurologist, a gentleman who somehow managed to be aloof and oafish at the same time.
Mrs Y’s expanding abdomen had for a second time undergone an MRI scan, and we went back to the Royal Children’s Hospital to see Dr Hunt and discuss it with him. It didn’t start off well. We were greeted with a remark something like, ‘who are you and what do you want’. He hadn’t discussed our situation with Miss Maixner, or even looked at the previous MRI scan. He hadn’t read the file. He hadn’t even read our names.
The scan results were there. He looked at them while we looked over his shoulder. He read the summary of the previous results, and promptly declared that the condition was unimproved. In other words, get the flower bed ready, your vegetable is coming.
I’m still angry about this unspectacular piece of doctoring. We looked at the scan together, and I think he just came to the easiest and laziest conclusion. Needless to say, I have no medical training — being a mere man and not one of society’s lofty demigods — but unlike Dr Hunt I had actually carefully scrutinised the first MRI scan. It was obvious at a glance that this scan was very different. The cavity was much smaller, and the brain area much bigger. He ought to have been in less of a hurry to stomp out our unrealistic false hopes, and should instead have instead stomped down the corridor to his colleague’s office. That would be the minimum you’d expect from a medical professional wouldn’t it?
However, there may in fact be a simpler explanation, one that presents Dr Hunt in a much better light. I will explain it later.
Now the scepticism that had been growing regarding these medical professionals had a focus. It was obvious what was happening. The blind were leading the blind. One of the medical brotherhood had made a pronouncement, and all others had been obligated by Club Rules to repeat it. This buffoon was the proof!
Thank you Lord! Your messages to us may take some subtle and mysterious paths, but when they arrive they are unmistakable. Our encounter with a foolish doctor had transformed our fool’s hope into real hope.
‘That guy is an idiot. I don’t care what he thinks. Let’s get out of here.’
It was a big surprise after my daughters were born. We had stopped calling them Twin One and Twin Two of course. They both had pretty names. Twin Two came out second, all covered in blood, and cried — which was odd behaviour for one who was meant to lack the grey matter to survive.
She quickly found herself in an incubator. I went to see her, still confused, and afraid to become attached, since I didn’t know what her condition was. I remember thinking, ‘you sure do a lot of wriggling and grimacing for a vegetable.’
I’m sure an Angel was standing at my side, saying, ‘God has given you a miracle, your daughter will not die, and look — you can see she’s not a vegetable,’ but despite the evidence of my eyes I behaved like a slow witted fool. Even after she was brought back and put in a cot in the hospital nursery, it took me a long time to open my heart to her.
The truth is, for all my outward stubbornness I had tried to kill my feelings for her, and to open my heart up to her again was difficult.
During this time, Miss Maixner was diligent and professional. She was at my wife’s bedside as soon as the twins were born, and when Twin Two was whisked off to another hospital for tests and observation, she was there, checking, monitoring — and caring.
She did the right thing, although it appears her diagnosis was wrong. It appears that way. When she made her assessment, it was unequivocal, but then it was only half way through Mrs Y’s pregnancy and was based on only one MRI scan. So perhaps, although it appears she was wrong, she has some justification.
Because it appears that she was wrong.
Maybe all the doctors were all wrong all along, they were certainly surprised at our healthy little girl. It was almost funny over the first few days after she was born, all of them scratching their heads. Pleased, but perplexed.
It could be that because the vast majority of Down syndrome babies who are apprehended before birth have their lives terminated, there is no data from which to concoct theories of brain development for Downs babies.
That’s one rational conclusion.
But another possibility exists, built upon a foundation deeper and more mysterious than how things appear. The one I alluded to earlier, and it illuminates everything in a forgiving light.
Perhaps all the doctors were completely correct. Perhaps our special darling really was afflicted with a brain destroying condition, but God took pity on an old childless couple and performed a miracle for us. If so, it lets all us all off the hook, don’t you think? All of us, if you think hard about it.
Either way, at least one miracle unmistakably happened. A worldly, weak and stupid man was given the esources to love his disabled child, and was brought into the loving arms of his God and Saviour.
That is a miracle that will stay with me.
She waddles in to my office now, with a big laugh and a big grin (it’s funny to catch Daddy with the office door open). She comes for a tickle or a cuddle, or for a little talk — she doesn’t use many words herself yet, but she understands her Daddy. Sometimes she leans on my big belly and falls asleep listening to the soft classical music I love, while I type one handed.
This was not the end of the story, of course. The fact is all this silliness made me very silly for a while afterwards, and the road back to God had a few more bends to round. But that’s a story for another time.
For now, my little dramatic comedy has a happy ending. The flower beds are overgrown with grass and weeds (as they should be), and she sleeps in a real bed alongside her sister, laughs and plays with her, runs around after her.
Because she’s not a vegetable after all.