[Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai, I am going to drop an important plot-point. And what’s wrong with you?]
I grew up reading about feats of derring-do, famous last stands, and martial arts philosophy. My favorite movie was, and remains, “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa – it’s an extended meditation on the different aspects of military honor, courage, despair, humor, and the fleeting moments of peace that warriors can occasionally snatch out of the mud and blood and awfulness.
Once you’ve thoroughly absorbed an idea, then you can start to explore the contact-points where it bumps up against the rest of reality. When I was 14 I thought the duel scene between Kyuzo and the loud ronin* was cool because of the bravery of two men trying to fight face-to-face with 27-inch razor blades. Years later, I thought that Kyuzo should not have allowed himself to be manipulated into a fight; he should have been like Shimoda, the leader, who probably would have figured out a way to defuse the situation. Now, I see the whole incident as a parable of social mores and toxic masculinity; neither of them can back down because their society does not allow it – someone has to die.
The broader conflict is the samurai, who have agreed to defend a helpless village of peasants against a marauding band of brigands. The odds are horrible: 10 to 1 – the samurai know they have signed up for a hard affair, and more importantly, it’s not going to be glorious: no nobles or minstrels (except for the unseen eye of Kurosawa’s camera) are going to hear or sing of their deeds. Kurosawa reaches down into the core of what is military honor: doing something hard because someone’s got to.
People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf*
One piece of military honor is the idea that the conflict is worth it. That people aren’t risking their lives and taking others’ because some prince wants a bigger palace, or some defense contractor a bigger mansion. In Kurosawa’s neatly delimited situation, the value of the samurai’s actions is very clear. The “good war” ideal has been with humans for a very long time, indeed. Thomas Aquinas attempted to lay out the cases for “Just War” but I tend to reject his reasoning, because it’s entirely tilted toward the state: the state is given the monopoly on violence, and one cannot fight justly without being embedded in the power structure.*** Kurosawa’s samurai would have laughed at that; they had work to do. Yet states reach for Aquinas’ arguments when they need an excuse: we can credit Aquinas with giving the Bush Administration ammunition when they declared insurgents to be “unlawful combatants.”
“Weapons are unfortunate instruments. Heaven’s way hates them. Using them when there is no other choice – that is Heaven’s Way.” – Yagyu Munenori
In most parts of the world, we no longer live in the warring states feudalism of 16th-century Japan. And, per Aquinas, it’s mostly states that do war upon eachother. I believe we can no longer disconnect military honor from the motivations of the state. There are obvious cases, My Lai, the MSF hospital in Kandahar, Operation Rolling Thunder: dishonorable and inglorious massacres – over and over and over again. In a war like Vietnam, or Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no credible justification the government can offer. The soldiers, then, cannot honestly claim that they are fighting justly even though they are embedded in the power structure of the state. It’s worse, actually, since any soldier serving in a state’s military cannot credibly say they did not know in advance that governments tend to lie about the justifications for wars.
No American soldier that flew air strikes in Libya can delude themselves that they were fighting a just war; for one thing, Aquinas’ idea that just wars are between states makes no sense if the premise for the war is that there is no state on the other side – it’s a “failed state”, i.e.: not a legitimate government. In Aquinas’ terms that means that a state is going to war against a bunch of civilians, with some “unlawful combatants” thrown in.
To answer Time Magazine’s rhetorical question on the cover: “everyone who participates.” Lieutnant Calley may have ordered the killings, but the supply train that gave him and his men weapons, the transport pool that delivered them to the village, the chain of command that trained them and placed Calley in the wrong place at the wrong time: they all share the guilt. So, too, does The President and The Secretary of Defense, MacNamara, who knew at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that it was “friendly fire” or a mistaken attribution.
The reason we admire the seven samurai is that they were fighting defensively, and justly: their foe was implacable and violence was going to happen no matter what. The reason we honor the seven samurai is because they fought at long odds – 10:1 – and knew that they were probably throwing their lives away. We admire Kyuzo for going sword-to-sword with the loud ronin because it was somewhat of an even match. In spite of the clear skill differential, Kyuzo was risking his life and so we at least accord him some respect for stepping up to that test.
Military honor starts to thin out when the force and skill differential gets too large. We probably would not honor Kyuzo if he fought a duel with a 12-year-old**** or a beginner. Historically, that’s why sword-masters would only teach, and would never duel: it was considered too unbalanced to be honorable. A beginner against a master was dishonorable slaughter. Yet, when nations engage in unbalanced war, the balance doesn’t seem to matter. Well, sometimes it does: there was outcry when Germany crushed “plucky little Belgium” in WWI. Generally, it’s the bravery of the respective foes that we’re honoring: The Charge Of The Light Brigade was an incredibly stupid blunder, transformed into military glory thanks to some propaganda poetry and the undeniable courage of the survivors of an insane charge into the teeth of emplaced artillery. Nobody wrote any poems about the Russian gunners who served their pieces and did vastly disproportional damage to the oncoming heroes.
This is why I get puzzled by how wars are reported today; I can’t tell to what degree it’s the propaganda of the victors, or the control of the media. Perhaps future military historians will write different assessments of the “great battles” of our time, like The Battle of 73 Easting, in which state of the art US tanks that hugely outclassed 1950s-era Iraqi armor conclusively obliterated their slower, blind, and under-armed foe.***** By the reasoning of military heroism we should be writing poems about the bravery of the Iraqi tank crews, some of whom probably had no idea what hit them. The equation of heroism has flipped upside down: we refer to US special forces as heroes for going in with night vision, state of the art gear, squad communications radios, and endless hours of practice against insurgents that are pretty much enthusiastic amateurs. We are expected to laud Chris Kyle, a sniper, who – thanks to excellent rifle and optics and plenty of training opportunities – was able to shoot people in the head from distances past where they could even see him. Kyuzo, he was not. Kyle is metaphoric for the American way of fighting wars: dropping high explosive on our foes from a safe distance, sniping someone from a safe distance, firing a hellfire missile from a drone while sitting in a chair at a safe distance.
It’s not a recent thing, I’m sad to say. In a posting I did about Smedley Butler, Pierce R. Butler commented that Smedley did win two Congressional Medals of Honor. I hadn’t mentioned that in my posting because, as you can see, I am on the fence about military honors. So, incidentally, was Smedley Butler. One of his CMH was from his involvement in the taking of Fort Riviere in Haiti.
On the seventeenth, according to efficiently executed plan, Campbell blew his whistle at 7:50 AM and advanced with his company in skirmish formation, Benet automatic rifles providing cover from the flanks. The fort had been surrounded by about 100 marines and sailors in three converging columns; every avenue of escape was closed. “Fire from the garrison,” as Butler described in his report, “was heavy but inaccurate, and we had no casualties.” The only entrance to the fort was a breach in the west wall large enough to admit only one man at a time. A sergeant, a private, and then Butler himself dashed into the breach, followed by the rest of the Fifth Marine Company. “A melee,” according to Butler’s report, “then ensued inside the fort for about ten minutes, the Cacos fighting desperately desperately with rifles, clubs, stones, etc. during which several jumped from the walls in an effort to escape, but were shot by the automatic guns.”
The entire battle lasted less than twenty minutes, fifty-one Haitians were killed, there were no prisoners, no survivors. Butler radioed Colonel Cole at 8:50AM that “no operation could have been more successfully carried out. Professional efficiency of the officers and splendid grit of the men.” Years later, he commented: “The futile efforts of the natives to oppose trained white soldiers impressed me as tragic. As soon as they had lost their heads, they picked up useless aboriginal weapons. If they had only realized the advantage of their position, they could have shot us like rats as we crawled, one by one, out of the drain.” The only American casualty was a man who lost two teeth when hit in the face with a rock. 
His earlier CMH, awarded during the Veracruz incident, did not involve the slaughter and machine-gunning of ill-armed and untrained natives. In fact, Butler didn’t really do any fighting at Veracruz, he was gathering intelligence and basically in a staff role. When he was awarded the medal, Butler wrote to his mother that the medal was for “Heroism, to have it thrown around broad cast is unutterably foul.” He said he could not stand to have his sons “proudly display this wretched medal, or rather wretchedly awarded.” He referred to the formal presentation in 1916 as a “farce” that made him “party to a vile perversion of our Sacred Decoration.” He was ordered to keep it. Source:
At the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, we see 150 British redcoats fighting with rifles, rocks and sticks against a superior force – just like the Cacos at Fort Riviere – except they survived (largely because the Zulus backed off and left the field, possibly out of respect for valiant foes) There were more Victoria Crosses awarded for that fight than any other before or since. It doesn’t appear that military heroism always is on the side of the underdog; Butler’s trained and well-armed troops, with cover from automatic weapons, massacred a bunch of amateurs that they outnumbered and took by surprise.
There’s no “Just War” – there’s Just Us. -me
This topic is on my mind because of Pierce Butler’s comment, and because I’ve been watching for atrocity to occur at Mosul. As I mentioned earlier, the Iraqi military has fielded thermobaric multi-launch missile systems to – let me be blunt – flatten parts of Mosul before troops move in. Area bombardment weapons against a city; that’s bad. But it gets worse, the US is preparing to – again let me be blunt – massacre survivors attempting to escape:
The U.S.-led coalition has developed plans to target Islamic State militants from the air if they attempt to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul and head west toward Syria, as Iraqi ground forces close in on the city from several sides, a top U.S. general said Monday.
“This is all about getting after (the Islamic State) and setting up an opportunity where, should they try to escape, we have a built-in mechanism to kill them as they are departing,” said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East.
Blocking militants from escaping has been a key challenge as U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian ground forces have retaken towns and cities from the Islamic State. Hundreds of militants have managed to slip away. [Source]
“Hundreds of militants have managed to slip away.” It’s called retreating. It’s what you do when you lose a battle; especially when you’re vastly outgunned, surrounded, and your enemy has announced that they plan to kill you anyway.
America is expected to suck up to its military, and treat them as heroes. “Thank you for your service” fools mutter when they see someone in uniform. Killers like Chris Kyle or Smedley Butler are treated as if they are extraordinary paladins, instead of being merely better equipped and more ruthless. Yet, I have come to see them as cowards. The military honor should go to the farmer-turned-insurgent who takes a shot at an American patrol, knowing that he’s going to be subjected to prolonged aerial bombardment and overwhelming return fire whether he does any damage, or not. Courage is knowing that you’re going to be helplessly pinned down by an AC-130 gunship, which you cannot possibly hurt, yet you raise arms against the Americans, anyway. The cowards are in the B-52s, in the invulnerable high-tech tanks, fighting in the dark with night vision goggles and satellite intelligence. And, as cowards are wont, they wildly scatter more and more high explosive, just like they did in Vietnam before they finally resorted to chemical warfare – and still lost.
At the end of the battle for the peasant village, after it is all but won, Kyuzo is shot down in the mud – all his skill mooted by a clumsily wielded musket. Kurosawa doesn’t hammer on the point, but we all see this for the tragedy that it is especially because it’s the man most skilled with the sword whose skill ultimately doesn’t matter at all. Shimoda sums it up best when he manages to gasp out, “Again, we survived” to Schichiroji and, the next day, “Again, we are defeated.”
We honor the human drama of the great last stand or the fight against all odds, like the seven samurai defending the peasants even though they know it’s a crazy thing to do. We honor Jean D’Anjou and the demons of Camerone.
So when did we become the cowards?
 Hans Schmidt: “Maverick Marine. General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History” The reader should consider the entire paragraph describing and quoting Butler’s reaction to his CMH as a paraphrase from Pages 72-73; I lightly re-arranged and omitted some of the text but the phrasing and vocabulary are not mine.
Thomas Aquinas: On War
Smedley Butler: “War is a Racket”
If you stick around and keep reading this blog, I eventually plan to post a story of military honor from one of my favorite books. It also involves intrepid leaders going through walls; though no medals are broadcast and the entire incident would be largely forgotten except for the memoirs of a real military hero.
(* For those of you who haven’t seen the movie: a sword expert is doing a demonstration with bamboo swords, and easily defeats his opponent. The opponent, however, doubles down and challenges Kyuzo to do it with live steel. Kyuzo tries to tell him it’s pointless and he’ll win again, but the loud samurai calls him a coward and draws his sword. At which point, Kyuzo uses exactly the same technique and timing, and kills him. Important notes in this scene: Kyuzo’s cut is a defensive riposte – the attacker leaves himself open as he launches his attack: Kurosawa is subtly pointing out that offensive movements almost always include a path to their own defeat. Kyuzo’s calmness and focused lack of bluster is why he can out-time the loud samurai. If the loud samurai had simply shut up and engaged in a better strategy, he would not have lost so easily.)
(** I thought it was George Orwell who said that, but it turns out that we’re not really sure.)
(*** Rousseau was accused of fomenting insurrection when he cut at the roots of the state’s right to monopolize war, arguing that a state that breaks the social contract has no legitimacy and therefore need not be treated with the respect – and the right to war – due a state)
(**** I loved the denouement of Valmont, with Danceny, who was so young and innocent-looking but knew sufficiently how to use a sword.)
(***** A friend of mine was there, commanding an M-1. He looked distraught when he told me that many of the Iraqi tanks were firing practice rounds, because Saddam Hussein was reluctant to give real war-shot to troops that might mount a coup against him. In terms of the disparity of forces at that battle, it wasn’t a battle, it was a slaughter. Mike Tyson versus PeeWee Herman, and PeeWee was blindfolded.)
The Battle of Algiers (1966) – some commentary on the courage of insurgents: