Men at War

I watched a very good film last night, the moving black and white 1956 version of Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp. It’s the story of a Japanese soldier during WWII who repulsed by the horrors of war becomes a Buddhist monk dedicated to performing a rather extreme and solemn task concerning the war dead. The film subtly criticizes the military madness that fueled Japan’s expansionist policies in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and was one of the first films to focus on the war from the Japanese soldier’s point of view.

WWII-era poster depicting Japanese soldier as a monkey-man threatening a white woman.

I suspect it was also one of the first times movie audiences outside of Japan were presented with a portrayal of Japanese soldiers as average men, battle-weary, hungry, and not a little bit forsaken, as opposed to image that still prevailed in the 1950s, held over from the previous decades, as in the poster on the left.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a Japanese infantry company in the Burma campaign. Private Mizushima has learned how to play the Burmese harp. He uses it to signal back to the company when he is scouting ahead, and as an accompaniment when the men are led in song by their captain, a former choirmaster, songs sung to raise their spirits. Mizushima will eventually become the Buddhist monk.

The film deals with a big issue, the brutality of war, in a personal and thoroughly humanistic manner. I suppose you would me an anti-war kind of guy, but I must admit I’ve seen more than my fair share of war movies. I’ve found that the best ones are not about great battles, but rather the small moments of life and death, courage and fear. In the end, there is, to borrow a phrase, a thin red line between those opposites.

How does a person continue when he, or she, has engaged in a barbarous act such as war, and has fully realized the horror of it? To participate in something unthinkable can taint you, if you allow it. Average men and women seldom are able affect history, but they can create a personal history. This is the lesson learned by Pvt./priest Mizushima, who at one point writes,

Burmese HarpMy heart was racked with questions. Why must the world suffer such misery? Why must there be such inexplicable pain? As the days passed, I came to understand. I realized that, in the end, the answers were not for human beings to know, that our work is simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have the courage to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.”


War and Remberance: Whatever Hells There Are . . .

It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S. On Monday, we celebrate Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.

As a Buddhist, I am against war. Even if I wasn’t a Buddhist, I’d be opposed to it, as really any person should. I was against the war in Vietnam, both Iraq wars, and had major reservations about invading Afghanistan to go after Bin Laden. World War II, on the other hand, has always seemed justified. It’s hard to imagine what this world would be like if the U.S. and the British hadn’t confronted the Axis forces.

And I have to admit that I’m pretty much a sucker for anything to do with WWII. As I kid I ate it up. I read WWII comics (Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury), went to WWII movies (The Great Escape, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai), and of course on TV, there was Combat! (with the late, great Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders). After all these years, nothing much has changed, except that these days I find stories and films about life on the home front as compelling as those set on the battlefield.

Patch of the 104th Infantry Division

My dad was in the war. He served in the 104th Infantry Division (“The Timberwolves”), under Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, AKA “Terrible Terry.”  The 104th fought in the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the fight for the bridge at Remagen, and met the Soviet Army at the River Elbe. Their motto was “Nothing in Hell can stop the Timberwolves.”

Nothing did, and while the Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle of the war, and breaking out of the Remagen Bridgehead no picnic, they hadn’t any idea what waited for them in Nordhausen, Germany. It was called Mittelbau Dora, a place that a Frenchman, Jean Mialet, described as “This is what hell must be like.” A Vernichtungslager, or extermination camp for sick prisoners. There wasn’t a gas chamber at Nordhausen, the SS just let prisoners die from starvation and a complete lack of medical care.

A soldier and a medical officer from 104th view the bodies of prisoners lying on the ground in a barracks at Nordhausen.

One can only guess at what it must have been like for a young soldier who may have never been out of his home state before to confront the terribly inhumane conditions of a place like that. I once asked my dad about it, and all he said was, “Well, we had to stand a lot of guard duty.” Actually, I suspect that very few of the soldiers got a look inside the camp. After all, the war was not yet over (Nordhausen was liberated on April 13. 1945 and the Germans didn’t surrender until April 29th) and, presumably, they had more combat ahead of them. Seeing some 5000 bodies lying scattered on the grounds in various stages of decomposition no doubt would have weighed heavily on the men’s minds and inhibited their fighting spirit.

The medic unit of the 104th struggled to save as many of the still living as they could, most of whom were just barely alive, skeleton-like, clinging to life one breath at a time amidst unbelievable filth. But it was a huge job, more than the GI’s could handle by themselves, and since speed was of the essence, they rounded up German citizens living nearby and put them to work, helping with the evacuation, hospitalization, and feeding.

My dad’s understated remark typifies the attitude of the “Greatest Generation.” They had a job to do, it was an ugly, horrible job but they did it and when it was over, they didn’t want to think about what they did and saw, much less discuss it. After the war ended, the men and women of WWII wanted to move on and get back to a normal life. After all, not only had they suffered through the years of war, but also a decade of “Great Depression” before that.

We, who are their sons and daughters, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, owe them a tremendous debt. So, on Memorial Day, as we honor those who died in America’s battles, I think it is altogether fitting that we also remember the men and women who lived through war, especially the Second World War, those who fought terrible battles for a noble cause, who witnessed scenes of unimaginable cruelty induced by ignoble aims, and then had to live with it, and even managed to reconcile with their former enemies.

They bequeathed to us a great gift, and I for one, to paraphrase a line from the film Mr. Roberts, say “Thanks for the liberty.”

In the intermediate ages of warfare they are intent upon compassion; they persuade hundreds of myriads of beings not to do harm. In the midst of great conflict, they are impartial; they approve union and reconcilement, these mighty Bodhisattvas. Whatever hells there are in the infinite fields of the Buddhas, of set purpose they go forth for the good of all beings.”

Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra


Go For Broke! In Honor of Memorial Day and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Some words about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

I have never been comfortable with the notion of a “good” war. I think perhaps the lone exception is World War II. A confrontation in the starkest terms between good and evil.

The 442nd was a WWII infantry unit composed of Japanese-Americans, the most highly decorated unit in American military history:  9,846 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.

The 442nd hike up a muddy French road in France, in late 1944.

These men were Nisei, Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil. Many of them volunteered for service out of the camps where their country had interred them. Interred is a polite word for imprisoned.

Soldiers from Hawaii called themselves Buta-heads (Buddha-heads).

In 1951, MGM filmed the story of the 442nd in Go for Broke starring Van Johnson. There’s a scene where a Catholic chaplain is speaking to a wounded Nisei soldier lying on a stretcher. Noticing the beads in the soldier’s hand, the chaplain asks why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father.” The priest pats him on the shoulder and reassures him that he is there if the soldier needs him.

A Nisei soldier looks for German movements in a French valley 200 yards away.

During WW ll, military Chaplains were either Christian or Jewish. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked if any of the Japanese American soldiers were Buddhist, she was told no. In the absence of Buddhist chaplains, many Buddhist soldiers seeking spiritual guidance converted to Christianity. The U.S. Military would not allow a “B”, signifying Buddhist, on dog tags claiming it would confuse medics looking for a soldier’s blood type and the space was left blank.

The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. It was at Biffontaine where the unit fought the legendary battle to rescue the Lost Battalion. 800 Nisei soldiers died rescuing 211 members of the Texan 1st Battalion.

This is the event that stands out in my mind: when members of the 442nd were attached to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and they participated in the liberation of a Dachau concentration camp. I wonder what it must have been like for a young Japanese-American, having left an internment camp to go fight for the country that put him there, to be witness to the horror of a Nazi death camp, sharing food with Jewish inmates who were nothing but skin and bones  . . .

When the Nisei soldiers were sent ahead, they followed the same path that the Nazi’s used to march Jewish inmates to the camp. They noticed lumps in the snow and went to investigate. One of them later said, “Most of them were skeletons or people who had been beaten to death or just died of starvation or overworked or whatever. Most of them I think died from exposure because it was cold.”*

When you meet members of the 442nd, they’re just like the other American soldiers of that generation. They don’t much care to talk about the war.

You can learn more about the 442nd by visiting the Go For Broke National Education Center and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society. In reading the history of the unit and the individual stories, one might be tempted to think some screenwriter thought it all up. Countless acts of bravery, heroism, selflessness. Living in the misery of rain, mud and snow. Death, a constant companion . . . It was real, their war was hard, and these Asian-Americans, like all the other WWII soldiers deserve our appreciation.

“All of us can’t stay in the [internment] camps until the end of the war.  Some of us have to go to the front.  Our record on the battlefield will determine when you will return and how you will be treated.  I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
– Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama, Company “F”, 442nd RCT, Killed in Action 10/20/1944

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office.

*George Oiye testimonial.



I received a comment the other day in response to my March 13th post featuring Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” It said something to the effect of “Hitler was great! You stink! Your blog sucks!”

Nazi Party rally 1934

The Hitler remark surprised me. It is somewhat amazing to me, although I don’t know why, that some 66 years later, this man’s name and legacy lives on. Yet, it does and today there are neo-Nazi’s all over the place. Fortunately, in small numbers: Yesterday, about 30 people showed up for a neo-Nazi rally in Claremont, California, just east of Los Angeles. Between 300 and 500 counterdemonstrators rallied nearby.

But neo-Nazi’s are not the only hate-groups out there, and sadly, according to what I have recently read, California has more hate groups than any other state.

When I was a kid, we used to play army. Actually, we played World War II and we fought Nazi’s. Let me tell you, in the annuals of kids playing army, few have ever been better set up than we were. Armed with Mattel sub-machine guns and outfitted with helmet liners, canteens, belts and other stuff we got at an army surplus store.  We dug a three-man foxhole in the back yard and used an old filing cabinet a neighbor had dumped in his back yard for a tank.

Our school in Wichita, Kansas had swastikas carved on the corners near the top. Obviously, it was built before the Nazi’s turned the swastika around and used it as their symbol. We thought having swastikas on our school  was kind of cool. In fact, we thought Nazi’s were kinda cool. I mean we knew they were the bad guys, although I don’t think we truly appreciated the evil they perpetrated. But you have to understand that the Nazi’s had neater looking weapons and uniforms than the Allies did. The SS and the Gestapo dressed in black, and there is nothing cooler than a black trench coat. Not to mention movies: the Nazi’s were without a doubt the greatest villains of all time. I mean those accents alone: “Ve have vays of making you talk.”

But in the end they weren’t as cool as our guys, because they were the good guys. When we played army, I was always Sgt. Rock (“Our Army at War” comics), my friend Dwight was Sgt. Fury (“and His Howling Commandos!” from Marvel) and my little brother was Sgt. Saunders (TV’s “Combat). We were tough. We were ready for action. We were cool.

Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Saunders: The Triple Threat

Then one day, we decided there were better things to do than play army. There were Beatles records to listen to and girls to think about, the latter being a full-time endeavor by itself.

When I was in college I had a job where I worked next to a Holocaust survivor. I could not help but notice the number tattooed on her arm. Since then, I’ve read books. I’ve met more survivors. I know full well the evil the Nazi’s did.

Soldiers of the 101 US Airborne Division with a Nazi flag

So now, I have been an adult for a very long time and I don’t like swastikas. Whenever I step into a Buddhist temple and see them, I feel uncomfortable. I know the swastika is an ancient symbol meant to denote good luck, but seeing them displayed in a Buddhist setting seems to me, considering modern history, insensitive. They’re not necessary. They don’t have to be there. I wonder how Jewish people feel when they walk in and see them.

World War II was a classic battle between good and evil: one of the few times in history when war was justified. Yet, at the outset, the majority of Americans were reluctant to get involved. The idea of war literally had to be sold to the American public. Pearl Harbor sealed the deal. Ironically, after the war it seemed as though the U.S. was chomping at the bit to wage war.

President Barack Obama has received some flak for his reluctance to involve the United States military in yet another Middle East conflict. I support that reluctance. Critics say that Obama’s hesitation is a sign of weakness. I say it is a sign of strength.

Nazi’s do not always wear the same uniform. Sometimes they wear robes, sometimes business suits. Hitlers do not always sport Chaplin-like mustaches. Sometimes they wear a beard, or they are clean shaven, or they might wear funky headgear. They may not even call themselves Nazi’s. In the world today, we have more than a few little Hitlers. Their message is always the same: hate.

Unfortunately, the United States helped put some of them in power and kept them there. Getting rid of these guys is not so simple. It’s not black and white. Regardless of what our role in the past might have been, I agree with the notion that we don’t always need to take the lead and bear the heaviest brunt in taking them out. As it appears now, we are already overextended, so I think it is prudent to be cautious.

I am confident that Barack Obama personally has no use for dictators like Gadhafi. As far as I am concerned, our president is one of the good guys. I wish more people believed that. I am reassured to know that even in the face of great evil Obama is not as cavalier about sending American troops into harm’s way as some past presidents have been.

I’m not crazy about the No-Fly Zone. Not too crazy about Tomahawk cruise missiles being fired. At the same time, like everyone else, I have a strong suspicion that Ghadafi is crazy and he’s killing people, so perhaps it is the only way.

Still I wonder . . . is this some collective karma that keeps repeating itself or is it only history? How many times do we have to keep repeating this exercise . . .

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.

– George Orwell

Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone. Until the source is cleared, there will always be confusion and hate, wars and class antagonisms.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti