What should we make of the offer by Japanese authorities of a collection of letters from WW2 Kamikaze pilots to the UNESCO World Heritage ‘Memory of the World’ document collection? Unsurprisingly, the offer has not been well received by some of Japan’s WW2 adversaries, China describing it as a glorification of Japanese militarism.
In view of China’s enormous losses in the 1930s and the 1940s, and present tensions between the respective states, this is hardly surprising. But we still might ask whether this is an appropriate criterion to apply to the preservation of documents and artefacts, which might have historical, or legal/moral significance, in the matter of the way we view war.
As is well known, Kamikaze pilots were suicide pilots, used against American warships, particularly in the final months of the Pacific War. There is some dispute about how militarily effective they were, compared with more conventional modes of attack, but little doubt about their psychological impact, with the inevitable argument that this was an illegitimate form of warfare. In regard to this latter point, there is no doubt that modern suicide attackers are generally outside the laws of war since their targets are almost always non-combatants. By contrast the Kamikazes manifestly operated against legitimate targets.
So is there something about the way that the suicide attacker behaves that makes the tactic objectionable, even if the target is legitimate? Well, there might be. His total disregard for his own safety may put others at greater threat. At the heart of humanitarian law there is a principle of restraint, of minimising harm. It is reflected in early modern inter-state agreements on the matter, even before the Hague and Geneva Conventions. The 1868 Declaration of St Petersburg is an example of this when it talks of ‘alleviating the calamities of war’ and of practices ‘rendering death inevitable’. The fact that the suicide attacker will not be interested in surrendering, for example, may mean that other participants are taken by the adversary party to be similarly disinterested. They will thus not be offered quarter, or humanitarian assistance in the event that they are wounded, or otherwise hors de combat. In the specific case of the Pacific War, it may be said that any expectation of humanitarian restraint on either side had more or less disappeared by the time of the Kamikazes, but the general point remains: suicide warriors may be subversive of the laws of war.
There is a problem here, though. In the formal military context, there may be some difficulty in distinguishing a combatant who is suicidal, from a hero. Plenty of tales of heroism contain descriptions of actions which suggest a total disregard of personal safety. This, of course, is not the same as saying that the person concerned desired to die, or was even consciously careless on this point. Motivation for these events frequently seems rather to turn on concern for the safety of comrades, perhaps those for whom the individual has some responsibility. Of course, there is a problem of evidence here. If the individual does not survive the episode, we may not know with any certainty what motivated him. We can only presume from how he behaves.
On the other hand, in the case of the Kamikaze, we know that they intended suicide because they said so, and the people who sent them said so. The tactic evolved from some individual initiatives in 1944 which become institutionalised as the final desperate battle for the homeland began and the military leadership sought volunteers. In the end some 4,000 perished.
There is another aspect to this and that is the extent to which they were all genuine volunteers. If it were the case that they were coerced, or brow-beaten into being suicide pilots, it is clear that their human rights were fundamentally violated, so that whatever view we take of the foregoing argument that suicide fighters undermine the spirit of just conflict, we may still find the practice of the Kamikaze morally unacceptable.
There is evidence on this point as well. A few years ago, the editor of a prominent Japanese newspaper expressed himself very forthrightly on the subject:
“It’s all a lie that they left filled with braveness and joy, crying ‘Long live the Emperor’. They were sheep at a slaughterhouse. Everybody was looking down and tottering. Some were unable to stand up and were carried and pushed into the plane.”
Of course, there is also plenty of evidence about the extent to which contemporary suicide ‘volunteers’ are groomed and prepared, with particular over their age and/or over their intellectual capacity at the beginning of the process. This, too, may point to the conclusion that there really is no place for the suicide warrior.
On the face of it, the Kamikaze letters are a valuable resource for those who study the mind-set of the soldier and this applies whether we support the particular cause, or the particular mode of fighting. Indeed, some of the content might illuminate the arguments sketched in the discussion above.