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.