Friday, 17 January 2014


According to Steven Pinker (and a wealth of plausible data assembled by the long-winded and windy-haired Jewish psychologist and now social scientist in his latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature) we are living in a world where war is gradually but inexorably shrinking, rather like the legendary Kings of Punt, each one of whom was supposed to be smaller than his parent.

This trend, rather than the might of the Russians, may have been what lay behind President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron's decision to take a rain check on Syria last year. This is the most terrible war of the present day, but is still essentially a local matter and a tiny pimple on the brutality-meter that measures the mighty peaks of the past.

On the individual level, the level that Pinker so obviously values most, war is a terrible waste. And he may have a point, as one of the worst things about it is that it negatively selects – and culls – the best, bravest, and most selfless individuals, the very people who make any society succeed.

But it is also the ultimate test of a people and society, as long as the leaders know what they are they doing. One of the main tragedies of WWII was that in the case of Germany and Japan they so obviously did not, so that the incredible bravery, discipline, endurance, resourcefulness, and sacrifice of their common soldiers were ultimately wasted.

It is therefore with a little sadness – but not too much as he was 91 – that we hear today of the death of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who famously refused to surrender when his country did, choosing instead to fight on with a few colleagues in the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines until 1974, when he surrendered alone and only after his former commanding officer was flown out to rescind his original order not to surrender. Following this there was a surrender ceremony with President Ferdinand Marcos and then a hero's return to Japan.

War is a multifaceted endeavour that calls for a wide range of skills and attributes, but more than the blitzy and glitzy ability to call down fields of fire, shake the earth, accelerate the kill rate, or even "win hearts and minds," is the simple, even pigheaded quality of sticking to your guns, even if they are rusty, out of bullets, or even made from bamboo. This is a quality that Onoda had in spades. The writing may have been on the wall, but he simply chose to piss on the wall.

It is reported that he ignored several attempts to get him to surrender, including one involving leaflets dropped by the Japanese government. He said he dismissed these due to grammatical errors which he thought unmasked them as an American ploy.

Of course, such stubbornness is not enough on its own – and it's clear that Onoda and his diminishing band of men were no threat to the post-war Philippine state – but without such a quality the most powerful firepower on earth may prove inadequate.

One of the reasons why Onoda was treated as such a hero in Japan was the timing of his surrender. It came at an important juncture, two years after the Americans had returned the island of Okinawa to Japan and in the wake of their defeat by the Vietnamese, a people who had defeated them by a similar display of stubbornness to Onoda's. Direct US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973 with the Paris Peace Accords.

If Pinker is right and war is, along with cat burning, public executions, and medieval torture, yet another victim of the long-term "Civilizing Process" that he describes, we are unlikely to see the likes of Onoda again, but one thing that his example teaches us is that, even in a time of so-called peace, one man can decide to keep on fighting, by his chosen means, for as long as he chooses.

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