Sunday, June 18, 2006

Kamikazes and terrorists

Freeman Dyson reflects on kamikaze pilots and Islamic terrorists in the New York Review of Books. (See the very end of the article, which is mostly a review of Daniel Dennett's book on religion and natural science.) I have heard it said many times that men die in battle for friends in their unit, rather than for flag and country.

The best source of information about modern Islamic terrorists that I know of is a book, Understanding Terror Networks, by Marc Sageman.[1] Sageman is a former United States foreign service officer who worked with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In chapter 5 of his book, he describes in detail the network that planned and carried out the September 2001 attacks on the United States. He finds that the bonds holding the group together, during its formative years in Hamburg, were more personal than political. He concludes: "Despite the popular accounts of the 9/11 perpetrators in the press, in-group love rather than out-group hate seems a better explanation for their behavior."

To end this review, I would like to introduc another recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney.[2] This contains extensive extracts from diaries written by seven of the young men who died in suicidal missions or as kamikaze pilots in the closing months of World War II. The diaries give us firsthand testimony of the thoughts and feelings of these young soldiers who knew that they were fated to die. Their thoughts and feelings are astonishingly lucid and free from illusions. Some of them expressed their feelings in poetry. All of them were highly educated and familiar with Western literature in several languages, having spent most of their brief lives in reading and writing. Only one of them, Hayashi Ichizo, was religious, having grown up in a Japanese Christian family. His Christian faith did not make self-sacrifice easier for him than for the others. He had read Kierkegaard's Sickness unto Deathand carried it with him on his final mission together with his Bible.

All of the young men, including Hayashi, had a profoundly tragic view of life, mitigated only by happy memories of childhood with family and friends. They were as far as it was possible to be from the brainwashed zombies that contemporary Americans imagined to be piloting the kamikaze planes. They were thoughtful and sensitive young men, neither religious nor nationalistic fanatics.

Here I have space to mention only one of them, Nakao Takanori, who must speak for the rest. Nakao left a poem beginning, "How lonely is the sound of the clock in the darkness of the night." In his last letter to his parents, a week before his death, he wrote,

At the farewell party, people gave me encouragement. I did my best to encourage myself. My co-pilot is Uno Shigeru, a handsome boy, aged nineteen, a naval petty officer second class. His home is in Hyogo Prefecture. He thinks of me as his elder brother, and I think of him as my younger brother. Working as one heart, we will plunge into an enemy vessel. Although I did not do much in my life, I am content that I fulfilled my wish to live a pure life, leaving nothing ugly behind me.

We have no firsthand testimony from the young men who carried out the September 11 attacks. They were not as highly educated and as thoughtful as the kamikaze pilots, and they were more influenced by religion. But there is strong evidence that they were not brainwashed zombies. They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world. According to Sageman, they were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out.


Anonymous said...

That was kind of an awkward segue from Dennet's book to suicide bombers.

Steve Hsu said...

Yes, the article was sort of like an "interesting stuff Dyson has read recently" column!

Nevertheless I found the last part interesting and will probably have a look at those books.

Anonymous said...

Professor Ohnuki-Tierney was interviewed on the second half of BBC Radio's Thinking Allowed a few weeks back. I doubt if there's much point in listening if you've read the book, though.

Steve Hsu said...

Interesting interview -- thanks for posting that link!

Blog Archive