Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Warrior's Shadow

It doesn't come up much on here but, I was high-ish-ly trained in history...the work of it...the craft I reckon. My studies focused on the British Empire in the 19th century. It was just a good piece of luck that William Storey was at Millsaps College when I enrolled. Thanks to him and his encouragement I was able to turn my own interests into a legitimate pursuit.  One that eventually led and allowed me to study under people like Mridu Rai*, Jonathan Spence, Paul Kennedy, etc.

One of the biggest advantages I had though...was speaking English.

I don't speak Japanese. So another keen interest of mine, Sengoku era Japan, has gleefully remained a hobby. There comes a point where if you don't speak or read a language...you hit a ceiling. So instead of learning Japanese...I just watch samurai movies.


My historical interests are not particularly sophisticated. I have no interest in how people used to wash up after supper or how their traditions for washing up were actually invented by their oppressors and therefore aren't really Real traditions. I like battles. I want WAR!...not anthropology and political studies. Just as in the heyday of British Imperialism...Sengoku Japan's got plenty of that.

One of Lincoln's more enthusiastic thugs, who freely talked about the need to exterminate Southerners and then Indians, famously described war as Hell. Which, as Clyde Wilson points out, is a sly dodge of responsibility for burning people out of their homes. Wilson contrasts this with a quote from Nathan Bedford Forest..."war is fighting and fighting means killing." No dodge...no outside force that dictates or excuses the most extreme behavior.

Lee got closer to our looming point, when he said, after another fantastic victory at Fredricksburg, where he was outnumbered by 40,000 men, "it is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it." Lee, like so many of the Confederate generals, was a throwback, a true warrior...not a thug, a murderer, an annihilationist. Without losing sight of its cost, I think Lee did love aspects of war...and what it required...sacrifice, honour, courage...selflessness.

Of course there's also the spectacle. It's the masculine drama...the stakes are ultimate and you get to put your pecker on the table while waving a flag. 

Nobody's ever done it with more style than the Samurai.

There's an outstanding book by Joanna Bourke called an Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in the Twentieth Century. One of the things she demonstrates through interviews, letters, diaries, etc is that combat veterans are often reluctant to talk about their experiences not because they are horrified by them but because they enjoyed it. They power was seductive but so was the aesthetic experience.**

The actual Battle of Nagashino was not directed by Kurosawa and was probably not so stylishly metaphorical. The Samurai rode these little pony's that could barely carry their weight...and they were surrounded by retainers jogging along with them in a charge. There would have been thousands of foot soldiers at the palisades with the hand gunners...who would have come out to finish it off by hand.

Still he hasn't made it up from whole cloth. If you've ever seen the old screens you know there were high style elements to the chaos. Perhaps more importantly it's closer to how these events persist in the imagination. In the film, the shadow warrior, the Kagemusha, demonstrates the highest qualities of a warrior. It's an act that is utterly futile...on every conceivable level. If only we could mount up and ride with him.

Who doesn't love Samurai movies...oh yeaaaaah.

*One of my favorite recurring scenes from graduate school was her pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds out of her sari. She's obviously razor sharp but, she was just a fun lady.

**I recently listened to a podcast on Greek Hoplites...the issue of post-traumatic-stress-disorder came up. I thought I was gonna eat my car keys. It's the worst kind of anachronism because you can see the legs on it. By the time they were done...it was probably on psychopaths that thrived in war.


  1. Fascinating post, Erik. I found the film clip compelling. I know next to nothing (well actually, nothing) about Samurai Warriors but you've made me want to watch some films. Can you recommend the best? I need subtitles, though. My Japanese is pretty ropy! I'll have a go at translating the conversation that begins at around 8.30 in the clip:

    'Sir, we rode up there on our horses and had our famous Samurai swords all gleaming in the sunlight when we noticed they had this excellent looking wooden defensive wall through which they aimed some nasty looking guns at us. Most of us were mown down in minutes, even though we had all that drums and dancing thing going on. Do you seriously expect us to go up there again and face that crap? I mean, I didn't sign up for this, if you'll pardon me, sir. My mum told me I'd get a nice paper-pushing job, work my way up to a commission, take early retirement, travel a bit with Maureen and the kids. Don't you understand, sir? They have G-U-N-S! Guns! What are your orders, sir?... Oh, shit.'

    What's that thing about Greek Hoplites?

  2. The clip is from Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa...it features the famous climax of the Battle of Nogashino. The 16th Century in Japan is known as the time of the country at war. All of Japan broke into warring factions centered on familial clans...eventually the stronger ones fought for control of the entire land. Nogashino was like Naseby during the English Civil War...not the last battle but, an irreversible turning of the tide. The final act would come years later when the entire Takeda Clan wiped itself out by committing suicide.

    It's also famous for the use of volley fire by Nobunaga's forces...which you see represented above. I love this movie but the best epic film is Kurosawa's next...Ran. It's an Samurai retelling of King Lear. Highly stylized...a gorgeous, painterly film.

    Funny thing about reluctance...the identity of these men was highly invested in what they were doing. Even the light foot soldiers had status. These weren't pressed gangs...these were people who sought it out.

    It's important to remember such things when commentators now, who whether they even realize it or not are looking back with a particularly Christian understanding of life and personhood, go on about the psychology of soldiers in various eras...like the Hoplite. Only the elite were allowed to fight...it was the price of citizenship. They voted on going to war.

    Heaven and Earth is another gorgeous epic.

  3. I hate to resort to gender stereotypes but I have to admit, this is all far too blokey for me...

    Thanks to you I now have an enduring image in my head, not of Samurai warriors, but of men putting their peckers on the table while waving flags. It's quite a picture.

    Talking of pictures - more info on the ones included here please!

    1. I don't think there's any doubt about it...your interest level and investment is determined by the level of testosterone in your system (probably why adamparsons don't care for samurai movies...oohyeahthatsagoodone).

      There's a train of (Feminist-ish) thought that sees war as the equivalent of childbirth for men. Men can't give birth so they've concocted a situation where they can take control over life and death. The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes conflict is avoidable...that opting for brute force is a complicated or difficult decision.

      There are, generally speaking, only two approaches to human interaction...the Moral approach or force. Force has the advantage of self justification...it's Necessary in the sense that it's self contained...it doesn't need an outside Authority. It authorizes and justifies itself.*

      Returning to gender or sex stereotypes...which of these two is going to be the enforcer? That's not to say that women haven't been involved or wielded great influence over the proceedings. There's a great passage from, I think, Germania by Herodotus, where he describes the women coming to the edge of battlefields...pulling out their breasts to remind the men what was at stake.

      Anyway...the paintings are mine...except for the screen depicting the battle of Nogashino. The MS paint job is on the Ferris painting that I've messed with before. The one that points out the regal nature of Lee...who bothered to put on a new coat...with the trollish little man of the people Grant who couldn't even bother to clean his boots.

      Of all the doodlings I do...none of them please me so much as these MS jobs. :)

      *God is also a Necessary entity. God is the self-contained, self-justifying outside arbiter of Morality. Without an outside Moral authority it's ultimately just a matter of enforced preferences or desires...force of numbers, of arms, etc.

    2. The theory of war as the great defining animal event of a man's life, like childbirth for women, is a Spartan idea, no? Their hero graves were for men who had died in battle and women who had died in childbirth. If I had to be a Classical lady I would have chosen to be Spartan but they were hardly feminist-ish.

    3. Yeah, I think you're right...I had my old advisor Robert McElvaine and Eve's Seed in my head when I was typing. His take on the idea was like a psychotic womb envy.
      The Spartan idea was poetic.

    4. That seems ass-backward to me. War (and big-game hunting back in the day) and childbirth have one thing in common without having to make any stretches or interpretations; you sort of stand alongside your own death for something bigger than yourself.

    5. Just completely misses the marital nature of it...the beauty.

  4. Erik. Not sure if you can access some international form of the BBC iPlayer, but you should try to track down a new radio documentary on The Fall, which was broadcast yesterday.
    This is the UK link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052r0l5

    1. Shockingly I can access it. If I can figure out how to download it I'll save it for this weeks road time.

      Thank you sir.

  5. Such an interesting, thought-provoking post, Erik. My dad flew a hundred bombing missions for the RAF during the war and, like so many of his colleagues, simply refused to ever talk about his experiences - with anyone. He certainly didn't give the impression he enjoyed it (hard to tell, of course, given the lack of relevant chat), but he stayed in the air force (albeit switching to the Norwegian version) for the rest of his life, so he must have enjoyed some part of the experience. Being a confirmed coward, it never crossed my mind to get involved with any kind of military activity, but I got the impression that if I'd ever shown any such inclination, he'd have gone distinctly medieval on me.

    Anyway, as so often, you got me thinking.

    1. One thing about the book that I forgot and didn't remember until I'd pulled it off the shelf the other day...it's an Intimate History of Face to Face Killing.
      I would imagine the psychology of artillerymen, bombers and now drone controllers would have it's own ticks.
      The only thing that seems worse to me, than being in one of those bombers...is being on a ship. I'd rather be tied to the wing of a plane with my hair on fire than be out in deep water.

      There needs to be a mild rejoinder to this post about the emergence of mass armies and how attitudes toward fighting and war changed after the middle class became involved.

    2. When I was 12, our English teacher asked us to read "The Cruel Sea" one term. After reading the North Atlantic convoy sections, I decided that if ever called to serve, it wouldn't be in the Navy. The thought of bobbing around helplessly in freezing, oil-covered water just didn't appeal. As it was, I was so short-sghted, I'd have ended up with a cushy desk-job.

      My father trained to be a fighter pilot, but he was a big man and had to be wedged inside the cock-pit, which made controlling a Spitfire difficult (he crashed two during training) so he got moved onto MItchell bombers on the basis that they were roomier. I expect any psychological trauma he suffered was more to do with dodging German anti-aircraft fire night after night than worrying about the damage his bombs were causing. I expect Michael Moore would have called him a coward, given that my dad was essentially killing people at long-range - mind you, Moore would have ended up in intensive care if he'd said it to his face.

    3. If only he'd had the chance.

      Two crashed fighters in training. Wow. It's completely understandable but a shame too that he never talked about what he got up to.