Watching History Channel this morning, the programme Battle 360 made me think about a number of things, most specifically, it made me think about the total lack of compassion shown by the Japanese toward prisoners and the populations they overran. But against this there was also the image of US forces machinegunning Japanese survivors in the water after the battles fought in and around Iron Bottom Sound. I can understand why this was done, I can even understand the hatred of an enemy that drives one to do it. After all, I grew up in a household headed by my father who had fought the Japanese at sea along the Burma Coast and among the Island chains and even into the Coral Sea itself. He had no love for the Japanese at all and the horrors he witnessed eventually consumed him.
What struck me most forcibly in watching this was the heroism displayed by individuals on both sides and the sheer scale of the tragedy unleashed in the battle between the West and the Empire Ambitions of the Japanese. Two very different philosophies underpin the two cultures and these met head on in the battles fought in the Pacific and the Far East. The west won, through sheer industrial strength and muscle, we out built, out resourced and eventually out scienced the Japanese.
Yes, by our lights they were savage and barbaric fighters who treated prisoners of war abominably and subject populations worse. Yes, we find their culture abhorrent, but there are aspects of ours that they find not only incomprehensible even now, but equally abhorrent to theirs. I will not forget my father's description - relayed one night when I was in my teens and he had taken on a lot more alcohol than was good for him - of the scenes in Rangoon after they had driven the Japanese out. Scenes of men buried to their necks in pits and forced to eat dry rice, then drink water, and the agonising deaths they suffered. Or of the emaciated prisoners they found who could not eat anything other than small quantities of soup and died if they were given too much at one time.
But then you also encounter men who having gone through this hell and worse, have sought out their former guards and made their peace with them. That, to me, shows humanity has some hope, for it is in the forgiving of enemies and the rendering of aid to an injured enemy that our true humanity is shown. Homo Sapiens is unique in the animal world in that regard, no other species indulge in that action. A defeated lion will be driven away to die or will be killed. The same happens among wolves and among the great apes. Humans alone, render aid to our injured enemies. Its one of the things that marks us out as humans and it is all the more tragic when we lose the desire or the will to do so.
I am proud of my father and of his fellow sailors, soldiers and airmen who fought for the world they believed in. I am even prouder of the fact that the vast majority of them never lost their humanity, never lost that urge to render aid to a wounded or dying enemy. Perhaps that is what makes the difference between the terrorist fanatic "dying" for a "cause" and the true service man. Once the shells stop falling and the bullets flying, the real service men and women of our armed forces will render assistance to all the wounded.
Perhaps that is what the fanatics on all sides need to remember. To do otherwise is to lose that most precious thing. Our humanity.