Many years ago in New York I saw on the side of a bus a whiskey ad I’ve remembered all this time. It’s been for me a model of the short poem, and indeed I’ve come upon few short poems subsequently that exhibited more poetic talent. The ad consisted of two eleven-syllable lines of “verse,” thus:
In life, experience is the great teacher.
In Scotch, Teacher’s is the great experience.
For present purposes we must jettison the second line (licking our lips, to be sure, as it disappears), leaving the first to register a principle whose banality suggests that it enshrines a most useful truth. I bring up the matter because, writing on the forty-second anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair. Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.
The experience I’m talking about is having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death.Paul Fussell – Thank God for the Atom Bomb
Ground (Four) Zero
I bring up Paul Fussell’s essay not to discuss military ethics (a topic for another time) but because, writing on the fortieth anniversary of my birth, I want to consider the importance of experience – sheer, vulgar experience – in influencing, if not determining, one’s views.
Thank God for the Atom Bomb is a great essay, and worth reading even if – especially if – you disagree with Fussell’s conclusion. (Warning: some of it is harrowing).
His point is, fundamentally, that it’s very hard indeed (impossible?) for you to really get it if you weren’t there.*
With the annihilation of its 2,500-man force on Attu Island, in the Aleutian Archipelago, a year after Midway, the Japanese military used the term [gyokusai, meaning “to die gallantly as a jewel shatters”] for the first time in a formal document. The official announcement on May 30, 1943 stated that those unable to take part in the final attack because of wounds or illness committed suicide in advance of it. The annihilations termed gyokusai after that saw the number of “shattered” soldiers increase: the Battle of Tarawa (November 21-23, 1943), 4,600 (17 surviving); the Battle of Kwajalein (January 30 to February 5, 1944), 7,900 (105 surviving); the Battle of Biak (May 27 to June 20, 1944), more than 10,000 (520 surviving); the Battle of Saipan (June 15 to July 9, 1944), 29,000 (921 surviving), and so on.
…in February 1944, Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, in his “emergency declaration,” had made the sweeping call: ichioku gyokusai, “100 million gyokusai.” It was a demand that the entire Japanese population be prepared to die. Japan’s mainland population at the time was 70 million, so he was also ordering Taiwanese and Koreans to meet the same fate.Hiroaki Sato – Gyokusai or “Shattering like a Jewel”: Reflection on the Pacific War
The Impossibility of Interpersonal Utility Comparisons
In the final months of World War II, young Masaaki Oshige worked in a factory in southern Japan that made airplane parts. Sometimes he was sent into the woods to forage for pine sap, which was used as crude fuel.
With three older brothers fighting in the Imperial Army, he believed his turn would come soon. He was already on the draft call-up list for a youth aviation unit. When Japan surrendered, he felt cheated of his chance.
“Becoming a soldier was only natural,″ he says. To shirk would be unthinkable; that would have made himhikokumin″ – un-Japanese. A traitor.Mari Yamaguchi – On the Home Front in Japan: Bamboo Spears and Grass Soup
Innocence, Experience and Understanding
People are… different.
I read somewhere recently that it’s almost impossible for someone living today to understand (to really understand) the worldview of someone living in pre-Industrial Britain. Let alone Iron Age Israel, or Classical Greece or Rome (but we imagine we do!), or 1930s Japan, or even 1950s America, or 2020s China – or Papua. Or your different-from-you neighbour. It’s difficult.
But we take a step towards better when we understand that it’s difficult, and seek experiences (including reading what they wrote, studying or using things they made, and – within reason – doing what they did) that help us get a little closer to understanding, to be a little more patient in judging, even if we ultimately reject what we find.
We take a step towards understanding how contingent we are, and how much we need kindness and even old-fashioned mercy. And how much we have to live up to.
The point of this post isn’t the war, but to set you up to see the amazing thing about post-war Japan: it totally changed.
We speak of spoiling a child and of the spoilt child. The effect of over-indulging a child is a continuing one. It sets up an attitude, which operates as an automatic demand that persons and objects cater to his desires and caprices in the future. It makes him seek the kind of situation that will enable him to do what he feels like doing at the time. It renders him averse to and comparatively incompetent in situations, which require effort and perseverance in overcoming obstacles. There is no paradox in the fact that the principle of the continuity of experience may operate so as to leave a person arrested on a low plane of development, in a way, which limits later capacity for growth.
On the other hand, if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way.
Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into.John Dewey – Experience and Education
Happy my-birthday to you!
*One of my grandfathers was training for the invasion of the Malay peninsula when the war ended, giving Fussell’s writing an extra resonance.