Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
Death as a cure for all problems....
10/26/2008 1:32:05 PM
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All too often we fail to recognise that the only true enemy we have is ourselves. War is only an externalised expression of a battle that has raged within each of us since we evolved from primodial slime mold. Actor Director Clint Eastwood has recently forced us to confront this truth yet again in his film 'Letters from Iwo Jima'.
DEATH AS A CURE FOR ALL PROBLEMS….
It’s extremely difficult to sit here and try to put objective thought into these words as the last of my two wonderful Siberian Husky dogs lies near me, painfully gasping for breath. A month ago I lost Raki, my 13 year old male, to a strange malady that no veterinarian was ever able to identify and explain. Tomorrow, I am faced with the need to put down Laika, my remaining 15 year old female. Although painful for me to contemplate, it will be the best thing for her if one has any appreciation for the term ‘quality of life’, since her pain is direct and physical and mine is merely figurative.
Laika has terminal metastasis of an adenosarcoma of the sinuses. In simpler terms, she has a cancer that has now inalterably penetrated into the brain tissue—a condition that is usual fatal in any cancerous growth. The immediate effects for Laika are that she has obvious difficulty eating and breathing, poor thing. The sarcoma creates an obstructive interference to the passage of air through her nose that makes her give out a disturbingly loud gurgling noise with each labored breath. The term gurgling noise simply doesn’t do justice to that distressing sound for the implications it offers, for it is uncomfortably similar to what I have come to associate with the classic ‘death rattle’ that a departing person makes, as they gasp their last breath. As a medical person, I’ve spent two thirds of a lifetime around enough critically ill people to know that sound rather intimately and I’ve never been able to comfortably accommodate it.
This year, the ‘Year of the Rat’ in Chinese astrological parlance, has been a terrible one in just about every way; not just for the nation, but for the entire world, owing in large measure to the catastrophic collapse of the United States’ major financial institutions. In sardonic refutation to the recent popularity of the corporate capitalist’s highly optimistic ‘globalisation’ theory, the near total collapse of America’s economy (due to basic greed and lack of adequate regulatory oversight) has severely impacted the entire world, as the resulting tsunami waves of this economic meltdown continue to spread out relentlessly across the entire planet.
From a personal perspective, the events in my own life have not been completely immune to this wave of misfortune, despite the fact that I am not heavily invested in stocks and securities (and therefore a bit more protected). Rather, the impact has been more of a sympathetic vibration, a jarring harmonic of discomfort making each small personal setback just a bit more personally hurtful than it would otherwise be. The most relevant example of this effect has been (or will be, at least) the loss of my two faithful dogs within a month of each other. With no real immediate human family other than my wife, my dogs have been the focus of most of what little love and affection I have left in me after 62 years of cynical observations on the bittersweet human experience. Laika, who will cross the rainbow bridge tomorrow, has been with me longest; I obtained her as a puppy of 8 weeks. Raki, who has just recently gone, came to me at the age of 9 years from a Siberian Husky rescue group. Together, we were a fairly cohesive and happy family pack, if you wish to consider it in those wolfish terms.
Naturally, sad events of this sort prompt a lot of thought in any reasonably reflective person and I am regrettably plagued by a tendency to be more reflective than most, as a highly sensitive person with pseudo-intellectual, existential leanings. As such, I am and have been all of my life fascinated by the question of why we human beings are capable of such extremely polar contrasts of the purest love and most bitter hatred. By random chance, I very recently viewed a movie directed by well-known American actor and director Clint Eastwood that deals with these forces. It was a story about war and the extremes of belief and duty that prompt it (and all wars, of course). What made it particularly unusual is that it dealt with events in modern Japanese history that many older Japanese people would rather forget: the militaristic bushido spirit of emperor worship that underlay Japan’s involvement in the Second World War. Eastwood’s movie is titled ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, although it was originally titled ‘Red Sun, Black Sand’, an adaptation of several sources masterfully written for screen by Japanese-American Iris Yamashita, and it is a modern masterpiece of profoundly insightful cinematic reflectivity.
It appears that in the course of his 2006 film project known as ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ (a film about the American South Pacific campaign to retake the Japanese held islands, most particularly that of Iwo Jima), Eastwood decided to also portray the 1945 Pacific battle for Iwo Jima from the viewpoint of America’s enemy in that conflict. The result is two films that complement each other perfectly to help frame the insanity and savage absurdity that is and always has been human warfare, in this case about the battle for Iwo Jima in the last days of the Pacific War. Of the two films, the latter (‘Letters from Iwo Jima’) strikes me as the more elegiac, for the Imperial Japanese plan to expand its empire was completely doomed at that time and Japanese homeland itself was shortly to fall in the devastation that accompanied their total defeat. Vastly outnumbered, out-gunned, and completely cut off from all help (although a mere 900 miles away from the home islands), the 22,000 Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima faced the immense power of a wrathful America that had been, by that time, built into the most powerful military machine the world had ever known. Of that number defending the island, more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors died (either by direct enemy action or by suicide) by the time the island was taken and less than 1,083 were taken alive as prisoners. The fanatical resistance of the defenders on Iwo was subsequently regarded by the Allies as a reasonable indication of what would shortly follow on the Japanese main homeland, were it physically invaded, and the decision to use thermonuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was strongly influenced by the suicidal resistance of the Iwo Jima defenders. The irony implicit in this fact (that the fanatical resistance on Iwo Jima accurately foreshadowed anticipated Japanese determination to resist invaders, thereby encouraging use of the A-bomb rather than risk severe losses in an invasion) is tragic.
Although some negative criticism will always be forthcoming no matter how great a film is, almost all of the commentary the film has produced to date has been highly laudatory. The Japanese people themselves in particular were astounded that an American film director could make such a poignantly intuitive, yet balanced (and remarkably resonant) statement about traits considered exclusively Japanese: loyalty to the Imperial Emperor and the bushido code that derives from the oldest cultural tarditions of classical Japan. When the film premiered in Japan in 2006, the reception accorded it by the Japanese was clearly a mix of stunned awe and incredulous respect for what Eastwood had managed to formulate, despite his ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) status.
Even in the United States, a nation that is also much given to thoughtless automatic flag-waving and mindlessly reactive patriotic pantomimes of nationalistic passion, the general reception was not dissimilar in overall terms. Eastwood had in fact skillfully managed to merge two dissimilar objectives simultaneously by putting an universally recognisable human face on a former bitter enemy, while masterfully underscoring the fact that all wars are ultimately abominable futility, over causes that will soon be forgotten. In this accomplishment, the film takes its place directly alongside Erich Maria Remarque’s famed 1920s anti-war classic, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, an achievement that is no small accomplishment.
Not without considerable interest is the fact that the horrific battles taking place in 1945 on Iwo Jima have served for decades as a powerful inspiration for American patriots in much the same manner that the grevious losses at Pearl Harbor in 1941 became a cause celebre to win the war. In the 1950s, no less than actor John Wayne (a man who never served a single day in uniform during his entire life, yet who somehow became an iconic model personifying the fighting spirit of the US Marines and Special Forces) helped establish that archetypal stereotype of the Iwo Jima action with his film, ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’. Although typical ‘blood & guts’ adventurism along the lines of most typical macho male action films of that period, the film fostered considerable American pride in the 'heroism' of the US Marine Corps.
For many Americans used to regarding everything in conventional Western terms and from the uniquely myopic American perspective, it is therefore startling for many to suddenly be faced with evidence that the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima were perhaps more than the brutally savage vermin that American propagandists of that era made them out to be. The ‘startling’ fact that they were sons and husbands just like the rest of us (as their undelivered letters to loved ones tragically demonstrate), with individually redeeming qualities, defects, ideals, fears, and concerns similar in nearly every way to our own was something strange and disconcertingly uncomfortable to grasp. Yet, this is exactly the brilliance of what Eastwood has succeeded in achieving with this film, for he has made us see the need to understand that there is no ultimate rational benefit to be found in dividing the ‘family of man’ up into two absolute and starkly simplified categories of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. Eastwood’s main accomplishment in ‘Letters’ lies in painfully exposing the shape and definition of our raw misunderstandings of each other as merely convenient expedients of whatever sentiment passes for extreme nationalistic passion, at any particular given moment.
Eastwood’s humane accomplishment in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ aside, we see the same sort of violent polarity reflected all about us today in America in the seemingly ineradicable tendency of all human beings to take sides for or against things on the basis of pure, unfiltered emotion, rather than on any basis of truly balanced reflective reason. Most recently in America this sentiment has taken shape in a generalised distrust of and antipathy towards all things Middle Eastern, stemming from the terrorist threat posed by Islamic radical fundamentalism. Examined on a smaller, localized scale such as that found indigenously in the State of Hawaii, similar irrational polarities exist with possible subjects of loathing and dislike to choose from that range from (depending on one’s ethnicity) haole malihinis to Micronesians. In schools and elsewhere throughout broader society are to be found the same bitterly ignorant polarities, with only occasionally humane dynamics encountered that serve to bring us together as parts of a whole, rather than force us into resolute opposition as incontestably avowed enemies. Excluding powerfully influential moral institutions such as religious groups, there are few inherent motivations to encourage us to embrace diversity, than to view it with divisive prejudice.
And yes, it is inarguably basic human nature that engenders these feelings and fosters these attitudes in each of us, but despite the obviousness of that status quo, few among us stop to reflect on the fact that despite our self-proclaimed mantle of civilized refinement, we’re still pretty primitive life forms. Living mostly on an emotionally reactive basis from moment to moment and relying little on whatever small amount of intelligent reflectivity each of us may possess, we unthinkingly continue to perpetuate the hatreds, biases, and partisan biases each of us maintains that so perfectly characterise all human interactions on this planet.
Ironically, the chief tragedy of all human life was and continues to be our ability to reflect on life, for this rumination is the basis, no matter how supremely enlightened or abysmally ignorant we may be, of all that we do in the span of our short lives. Given the range of human intelligence that is governed by the inalterable patterns of genetic selection that obtain in random human matings, although everyone is equipped with the basic ability to wonder about life and to attempt some sort of explanation as to what human experience is all about, most of us are unable to make any sense out of it and yield to ignorant superstitions (which offer the most comforting explanations for the inexplicable turns and twists of life). Einsteins, Hawkings, and other exemplars of higher thought are, after all, the exception rather than the norm in human civilisation, and most of us two-legged, opposed-thumb animals not easily given over to thoughts of purer substance by virtue of the simple mechanics of the basic curve of human intelligence.
As a member of Molokai’s Koa Kahiko (veterans), having served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War era, I am possessed of some formidable opinions about war and its causes that have strong roots in actual experience, as well as in reflective analysis. Back in California, I maintain a number of various military associations (such as the Air Force Association and the US Naval Institute) and serve on the board of directors for the Aerospace Museum of California (in Sacramento), so I am well acquainted with vets from all recent wars and have often shared their mutual recollections on military service. My primary observation is that most attitudes and feelings maintained by vets are highly correlated to the overall intelligence (both social and intellectual) of the individuals in reference. That is to say, those with less overall insightfulness tend to be more profoundly caught up in reactively polar antipathies, while those with appreciably broader reasoning abilities frequently come across as somewhat more balanced in their appreciations and understandings of what war is all about. Generally speaking, the lower the IQ, the more resolutely warlike and unforgiving the outlook; the higher the IQ, the more opposed to war and more even-minded. If that sounds condescending, I apologise, for I do not intend to disrespect anyone intentionally; however, facts are facts and ignorance often serves, sadly enough, as its own reward for a greater lack of ability to achieve higher awarenesses. Of further significance is that most people understandably consider their personal sacrifices (and those of their peers) to be more significant than history might consider them as being in more distant overview. Additionally, since no one wishes to admit that a son or husband ever died for a vain & futile cause, or in circumstances associated with anything other than 'honor', it is extremely atypical to expect veterans and their families to regard the war their relatives participated in personally to be anything other than a 'just and honorable war'.
Given these facts and the broad spread of intellectual resources that characterises any group of vets and their attitudes, it is somewhat easier to see why we have young people who are so eager and pumped up to go off to war, at the first mention of the possibility. For many of these callow youths, all of whom are considerably short of full maturity, war is very likely seen as a form of ‘extreme’ adventure, a chance to test one’s mettle, or perhaps a ‘real life’ variation of some violent video game; for others it is a misplaced belief that one’s cause is more just than the opposition’s (the classic example of ‘God is on our side’ patriotism that has been around since Cain offed his brother).
Sadly, it isn’t typically until the raging hormones of youthfulness have finally bled off and left one an older, wiser person, uncertainly confronting the end of life rather than its beginning, that human beings demonstrate slightly more willingness towards taking a more compassionate view of what futile human activity war actually is. For that reason, things like Clint Eastwood’s brilliantly sensitive insight into the stark realities of war, as found in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, have a critically important place in our lives, for they help us to understand more clearly that, as Walt Kelly’s 1950s cartoon character Pogo Possum so memorably put it: “We have seen the enemy and he is us….”
The Russians, endowed by historical events with a much more intimately painful awareness of the fragile brevity of human life than most Americans, have a saying that also bears repeating here: “Death is a cure for all problems.”
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