History Saves An Admiral’s Life

Admiral Takeo Kurita. His face usually wasn’t as severe as seen in the photo here. According to his daughter as cited in Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas, he was suffering from dengue fever and defeat when this photo was taken. By all accounts, he was really a nice guy, amiable and friendly and who often smiled. He was a true gentleman.

My late father, a United States Navy and World War Two veteran, told me many war stories during my growing up years. A corpsman, his battle station was on his cruiser’s main deck. He was assigned the duty of rendering first aid to gunners and other sailors wounded during battles.

One day, while he was in his ship’s stern, a kamikaze (suicide plane) roared out of the clouds and headed straight for him. He’d never seen such a thing before, so he took off running all the way to his ship’s bows while gunners futilely blazed away at the attacking enemy.

The plane missed the stern and splashed into the water not far from the bows where my father stood. This was the only time he ever ran from a kamikaze, he told me, because this experience taught him you could never be sure where one would hit.

The sad truth is this: These poorly-trained Japanese suicide pilots, due to their ignorance of history, were brainwashed by their instructors. They were taught that the code of bushido (the way of the warrior) was to serve their emperor no matter what it cost. They were told it was a good and honorable thing to eagerly sacrifice one’s life for their emperor. It was part of their country’s glorious history. Over three thousand Japanese kamikaze pilots died because they believed this lie.

Admiral Takeo Kurita, who almost defeated the United States Navy in the famous Battle of Leyte Gulf, knew better. His grandfather was a famous scholar and historian, as was his father, a professor at the University of Tokyo. From childhood, he’d learned the true history of his country. Brave warriors in his country’s past didn’t always engage in ritual suicide if they lost a battle, nor did they attack their enemies in reckless“banzai charges,” not even for their emperor. In medieval Japan, emperors didn’t wield a lot of power. The nobles did, that is, the samurais and the lords they served. Medieval Japan’s samurais were similar to Europe’s medieval knights. They fought for different lords, and sometimes switched sides. An eagerness to die recklessly in the name of the emperor wasn’t always a part of Japan’s history and culture.

In fact, bushido didn’t come into prominence in Japan till the late nineteenth century, though it can be traced earlier. Why, the word didn’t even exist before the 1600s. Kurita practiced Confucianism, not Buddhism. Confucianism was the main philosophy that dominated Japan during the seventeenth century and later. Ritual suicide was not a Confucian principle.

Confucianism did find its way into bushido, though. However, it got twisted. In Chinese Confucianism, where the philosophy/religion began, the main duty people had was obeying their parents. In Japan, it was obeying their lord.

Kurita, aware of his country’s history, grieved when he saw these pilots wasting their lives for a lie and on a cause he knew was lost. Bushido wasn’t the true way of the warrior. It was not the way samurais fought in his country’s earlier centuries. He knew that samurais held no moral code until the seventeenth century. Because he knew his history, he didn’t commit seppuku (suicide) after Japan lost. Other Japanese commanders, after losing battles, did. One might say that his knowledge of history saved his life. He lived for many years after the war and died in 1977.

Is history important, then? You bet it is! When we don’t bother to study and learn our history, we set ourselves up for being brainwashed just like those poor kamikaze pilots my father witnessed during the war.

Sources

            Flanagan, Damian. “Bushido: The Awakening of Japan’s Modern Identity,” www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/07/16/books/bushido-awakening-  japans-modern-identity/#.XOWK3HdFxMs

            Szczepanski Kallie. “Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior,” ThoughtCo., January 26, 2019. www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido- 195302.

            Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Cicero’s Take on History and Historians

 

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The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)

As a historian and historical fiction writer, I’ve always loved this great Roman statesman’s quote.  If we aren’t objective in our study of history, if we twist the facts or rewrite history to suit our own opinions about the past, we not only cheat ourselves–we also fail to learn our ancestors’ past lessons that we can apply to today’s events.

We historical fiction writers should strive for objectivity, which also means accuracy. While weaving our fictional characters’ stories into historical events, we should accurately depict these events and the historical figures involved in them.

Is it ever acceptable to engage in a bit of artistic license? Maybe twist a small fact? I believe it’s acceptable, but shouldn’t  be done often. Bernard Cornwell shows us how to do this in his novel, Redcoat, set during the American Revolution. In a historical note at the end of the book, he tells readers that he took “some liberties with the Revolution’s chronology,” and then he explains what these liberties were. So if we do engage in a bit of license, follow Cornwell’s example and let your readers know.

Cicero’s advice is sound, though. We historians and historical fiction writers do well to heed it.

 

Historical Novels: Their Importance

 

Louis_L'Amour

“Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”

Louis L’Amour (2008). “Education of a Wandering Man”, p.15, Bantam

Mister L’Amour’s words have proven true in my life. My three favorite genres have always been history, historical fiction and biographies, even as a child.

The historical fiction books I read during my growing-up years, such as The Horse Soldiers (Harold Sinclair), The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) spurred my youthful hunger for more knowledge about these books’ eras. Getting lost in the past was, for me, sheer joy.

Sadly, many people today have little knowledge of the past. They learn their history from “historical” movies, most of which aren’t entirely accurate. It’s become easier to watch a film than it is to read.

So, we historical fiction writers have a challenge. Our writing must be at the “top of our game.” Not only must we write well, we must also keep our facts accurate. Our books may not win a Pulitzer Prize write like Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg, but if our historical novels get more folks interested in learning about the past, our time and labor is worth it. 

Research, write, and read! Till next time, friends. Have a great week.

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