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Consider this: The German Wehrmacht is generally considered the toughest and highest-quality fighting force of the Second World War — perhaps of the whole 20th Century. Yet, when confronted by military disaster in North Africa, at Stalingrad or in the collapse of their defenses in France in 1944, German units surrendered wholesale. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of officers and troops hoisting the white flag.
Not one cohesive unit of the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered in World War II until after Japan had officially capitulated.
And for years after the war, holdouts in the jungle islands of the Pacific carried on a personal war, unwilling to give it up until they were ordered to do so. In the most famous case, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who was deployed to the Philippines in December 1944, did not surrender until March 1974, and only then because his former commanding officer was flown in to order him to do so.
The Japanese soldier was not just hiding out in the jungle, either. He and several fellow holdouts killed more than a score of Filipinos and engaged in firefights with police during his extended campaign. When he surrendered, he was armed with his Arisaka rifle in good working order, 500 rounds of ammunition, and hand grenades.
The intense level of commitment in the Japanese Imperial Army is hard to fathom. American veterans of the Pacific War saw it as a practically inhuman fanaticism — and who could blame them? Mad Banzai charges; hopeless but deadly defenses of cave and bunker networks; utterly brutal abuses in prisoner of war camps; savage slaughter of conquered peoples…
What can explain all this?
Dan Carlin does his best to understand and explain in his Hardcore History podcast Supernova in the East. Like all of his work, this is a long, deep dive into an extreme phenomenon — and nobody does this stuff better.
Carlin explores how taking laudable principles like patriotism, loyalty, a sense of duty and sacrifice, and turning the intensity level up till it red lined made the Japanese culture of the early 20th Century incredibly dangerous.
He explores the extraordinary leap from medieval-to-modern-industrial economy military and culture that Japan took in a span of about 50 years in the late 19th Century, noting that its determination not to fall prey to Great Power colonialism led Japan to extraordinary lengths of social engineering — and turned the empire into a super-predator in its own right.
It’s a weird tale, pretty much unprecedented in human history. Give it a spin.
After the war, Japan became the most pacifistic nation on earth. This turn around was shocking to occupying troops who expected more resistance since the Japanese had fought so fanatically before. There are elements of resurgent nationalism, of course, but most people seem accepting of the current status quo.
Craig Rullman says
It is interesting to note the aggressive behavior of the Chinese today, who suffered the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities at the hands of the Emperors hordes. Particularly so with the Uighur. I’m reading that up to a million people have been imprisoned in re-education camps, and that while they are away the government is razing their towns and systematically destroying their culture in support of the New Silk Road. There is a parallel in the rapid industrial rise of both giants, the subsequent militant nationalism, and a similar strain of ruthless finality.
Cort Horner says
We may need to discuss the ruthlessness of both cultures, but particularly the Japanese, at an upcoming get-together. I might even be able to dig out a few old textbooks with more information. It’s shocking how little we know / is taught about these multi-millenia old cultures in our modern Western educational institutions at any level.
Craig Rullman says
Enormous fail. I read this morning that 1 in 5 Americans doesn’t even know what is in the Bill of Rights. Unscientific sampling leads me to believe its even worse than that.
Saddle Tramp says
Another salient point might be the even more obscure knowledge to most of the articles and amendments and the working mechanics of the constitution. The ratio would then be so low as to be worthlessly insignificant. The idea that the will or oppression by one does not ride roughshod over others just by decree is the most fundamental principles implied. In my humble opinion a Republic or Democracy is not a religion but an apparatus to allow freedoms to exist in a plurality of opinion. We know that our history is fraught with inequalities and inequities as it has been practiced. Fortunately there are a means to address it, albeit limited by the values and good will of all involved. I hear the disdain and viciousness of attacks and countervailing thought. Every change holds an inherent risk. We need to take one. Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 on March 24th and has a new book coming out concurrent with that. He was a Naval Commander who patriotically joined after Pearl Harbor. He was part of the D‑Day Invasion and then was sent to Japan for the proposed land invasion which was cancelled after the atomic bombings. He took a trip to Nagasaki to survey the damage which as a result committed him to pacifism. The latest issue of The Paris Review just arrived and there is not one, but two interviews of him in it. Ferlinghetti among many things is also credited with his defense of the first amendment in that famous and historic obscenity trial where the very conservative Judge Horn ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti who was a co-defendant. The judges reasoning is worth looking up. I would quote Associate Justice Potter Stewart with his succinct conclusion about pornography by saying “I know it when I see it.” I would also add that for myself, I know it when I smell it. Something is smelling like irreconcilable and intransigent differences to me are reaching the boiling point. I would agree that somethings are worth paying the price for it. There is a very long list of stuff that goes against my grain and values. We can try to sidestep the real truths and go for each other’s throats in righteous indignation or attempt to take part in that wondrous but humanly and imperfectly applied Constitution. It is playing out right in front of us as we speak (freely for now)…
Saddle Tramp says
In celebration of the birthday boys 100th birthday today here is a interview of Lawrence Ferlinghetti back in 2012. Take everything he says about then and multiply it times 100 for our current predicament. Well worth the 30 minute listen and hear it from the man himself. I just heard it replayed on Pacifica Radio today in his honor:
Craig Rullman says
Let’s. You can speak to me in Chinese, and I’ll throw out some Rolling 60’s Crip. We will scare the women. 🙂
Cort Horner says
The parallels are striking.
The band Sabaton which does songs about military history has a youtube to series that explains the history behind their songs. Todays upload is about the last battle of the samurai.
That would be a good one. Went down the rabbit hole recently re the intentional use of amphetamines, psilocybin and other CNS stimulants, hallucinogenics and various analgesics by soldiers and others. Japanese, Vikings, British, Americans, Native American tribes. We’re still doing it.
Ugly Hombre says
The politics and deadliness of Japanese Imperialism and Chinese Communism are equally bad and murderous…
My father and father in law both faught the Japanese. Brutal- we won, because we took the gloves off and dealt with them the same way they delttotal war dealt cards to others. They would understand no less than that.
One million dead allied soldiers if we had invaded the Japanese mainland. The atom bombs saved lives on both sides.
The Chinese still hate the Japanese deep down in their bones and the Chicom’s are a very,very dangerous force in the world today- they use “soft power” until they get economic and military advantage and then they use “hard power”.
The west has sold them the rope they use to entangle those who resist them. Cyber power, tech power, military power. What they can’t buy- they will steal. They are totally ruthless in areas that they control. Best to study them well and learn their true history they use Sun Tzu’s “You know your enemy- he does not know you”- in everything they do.
Don’t let them…
Art of Manliness has a podcast about a man who was imprisoned in Syria.
Ugly Hombre says
From TDB a interesting article about the aggression of the Chicom’s and the morphing of Communist thought and Chinese Imperialism. Read the complete article- much food for thought.
“Americans spent decades trying to convince themselves that the form of the Chinese government did not matter. Yet it most definitely did. Xi Jinping, the current ruler, is now even recycling imperial-era views that the Chinese emperor ruled tianxia, “all under heaven,” thereby suggesting China should now be considered the world’s only sovereign state.”
“This notion of tianxia now explains much of China’s challenge to the U.S. military. This year, Beijing went beyond threats to action. In the first week of May, the U.S. Defense Department stated that China, from its only overseas base, in Djibouti, lasered a C‑130, a cargo plane, causing eye injuries to two American pilots.
China has been continually attacking U.S. planes with lasers over the South China Sea and East China Sea, which lap up onto Chinese shores. The laser attack in the Horn of Africa, far from any of Beijing’s current territorial claims, underlines Beijing’s unstated position that the U.S. military has no right to operate anywhere. And because an attempt to blind pilots is akin to an attempt to bring down their planes, China is effectively asserting it has the right to kill Americans.”
Forewarned is forearmed… there is no such thing as a benign Communist state.
Jim Cornelius says
Thx — will read.
“Consider this: The German Wehrmacht is generally considered the toughest and highest-quality fighting force of the Second World War — perhaps of the whole 20th Century.”
What might be the case there is that the German’s had the most visually appealing propaganda. So effective, in fact, that it created a myth about their military that’s lasted until the present day.
In reality, the Germans going into the war were only marginally more effective than the French were (which is not intended as a slam on the much underrated French), but their army was at the service of a government that didn’t care a whit about loss of life and therefore could tolerate it at a rate that no democratic nation could. The Germans reached the peak of their operational capabilities in April 1940 and declined month by month after that. By late 1944 they were the least mechanized army in the European war and the average German soldier fought in units that differed hardly at all in terms of their capabilities and logistics from the German army of 1914–1918. The much cited SS units, moreover varied from really effective to trash, with some of them being very ineffective.
What the combat of the Second World War really demonstrates, in these regards (including the Japanese example) is that nations with modern or semi modern armies that were backed up by totalitarian regimes that were willing to get their soldiers killed were hard to beat, but could be beaten. The biggest battle of the war, Stalingrad, in that sense was an epic contest between two such armies.
No democratic nation would have endured that… but then, they didn’t have to. Because democratic nations couldn’t endure that sort of waste, they fought intelligently in a manner that maximized enemy losses at low expense, in relative terms, to their own.
The best army in the war… The American Army hands down. Excellent intelligent soldiers, with excellent leadership, excellent equipment, and most importantly, excellent artillery and transportation. The second best? The armies of the British empire.
And the least understood soldier of the war deserving of a second look? The Italian soldier. Serving a non democratic fascistic nation their inherent democratic and civilized impulses caused them to quit on a government not worth fighting for whereas the Germans kept on keeping on.
The Japanese? As a people whose nation had only come out of the middle ages some two to three generations prior they were heavily peasant in nature in a way that no other nations were, not even the Red Army’s who were still peasantry to a degree. When the war ended the peasantry immediately knew that they’d been betrayed by their leadership on an epic level, which largely explains their post war views towards their military.
Jim Cornelius says
From 1944 on, I concur. The Wehrmacht really broke itself in Barbarossa; no army can withstand that kind of loss of junior and noncommissioned officers and retain its combat effectiveness. It’s pretty remarkable that they were able to do what they did in 1942; by 1943 they couldn’t win.
Jim Cornelius says
Also, Pervitin. lots and lots of Pervitin.
Greg Walker says
All very interesting.
Yet, with WW2 as a start point, the American Soldier (All Services), killed thousands of these suicide/banzi/divine wind monuments to cannon fodder in battle after battle after battle. Superior grit and firepower.
During the Korean War the American Soldier (All Services) likewise encountered the “human wave” attacks of the North Koreans and Chinese. And likewise mowed them down time and time again and against what some called insurmountable odds”.
Vietnam…an honest study of the battle of Hue…and several have been published…shows the same grit, determination, and firepower stopped the North Vietnamese in their tracks. Lone Special Forces A‑Teams like the one at Nam Dong threw back mass assaults of Viet Cong and NVA…SOG recon teams on lonely hilltops repulsed “headhunter” battalions seeking to overrun them, often calling in air power and artillery directly upon themselves.
In El Salvador, in 1984, a Special Forces A‑Team advising a surrounded army quartel slaughtered over 1200 FMLN guerrillas during an all-night surprise attack. Grit, determination, air power, firepower, and the legacy of their forefathers ensuring they stood fast.
In Iraq, in 2003, the 3rd ID and the Marines slammed Iraqi human wave attacks with sheer walls of hot steel and lead.
Benghazi — 13 hours — our lads stood tall.
I propose there is no fighting man or woman to be more feared that an American Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman. When the odds look overwhelming and the fighting is close up and personal the American warrior will stand fast and “bury it to the hilt”.
Craig Rullman says
Victor Davis Hanson has an excellent book, The Western Way of War, which takes a steep and rewarding dive into some of the reasons behind that western/American tenacity when brought to the fight.
Traven Torsvan says
I hope this is the right spot but I was reading Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire (highly recommended) and his narrative of ww2 in the phillipines whetted my appetite for more on the subject, particularly the battle of Manila. I picked up Gerald Astor’s Crisis in the Pacific because it was cheap but I’m wondering if there are better books on the subject that go into more detail than Bataan.