Reading Yukio Mishima’s novel, Runaway Horses, about failed Samurai rebellions in nineteenth and twentieth century Japan, has caused me to look at ISIS from a safe distance. In both cases, the ideology is violent and the premature deaths of its adherents are glorified.
Published in Japan in 1969 as the second novel in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, the bulk of Runaway Horses is set in 1932. Its central figure, Isao Iinuma, is a young man inspired by a book, entitled The League of the Divine Wind, that celebrates a Samurai rebellion back in 1876 against a decree prohibiting the wearing of swords. The “divine wind” refers to the typhoons that twice stopped the Mongols from invading Japan in the late thirteenth century. “Kamikaze” was the name given to that pair of storms, as it was to become the name for the one-way suicide missions that Japanese pilots were induced to fly in World War II.
In the 1876 rebellion, the Samurai destroy parts of a military base and kill numerous soldiers, but they are soon overwhelmed. Although depressed by their defeat, they experience a sense of glory for having acted on what they interpret, without confirmation, as the Emperor’s wishes. In order to complete the path to glory, those who were not killed in battle commit seppuku: cutting open their stomachs and either having their heads cut off by their comrades or stabbing themselves in the throat.
In 1932, Isoa seeks to instigate a similar rebellion, and at first he has no difficulty in finding well-placed figures and other young men who share his concepts of glory. That innocents may die violently is acceptable, while the ultimate objective for each participant will be either death in the attempt or, afterwards, at his own hands.
From inside Isao’s head, we are drawn to the spiritual and aesthetic appeal this glory holds out for these men. There are the temples and the revered teachers. There is the vision of great swirling clusters of red dragonflies under a reddening evening sky seen through an oak tree. A naked dagger gleams on the floor like a rivulet in the darkness. A cigarette pack is crushed like bat wings in an army officer’s fist. There is the preoccupation with purity, with seppuku being the ultimate act of purification because whatever a man does in this world, he sins. One character carries out the ritual at dawn on a hillside, and another as dawn breaks over the waves of the sea.
This way of life makes no sense to most of us. Mishima implies it was fantastical even in Japan in 1932, as also in the 1870s.
This awareness of Mishima’s is striking in light of his own adherence to the Samurai code. In 1970, after completing the tetralogy, he (along with a small party) entered an army camp, tied the commander to his desk chair and called out to the troops to join the rebellion. Seeing his call go unheeded, he returned inside and committed seppuku. The rebellion’s chances of success were so remote that one infers it was a pretext for him to achieve Samurai glory.
One need not turn far to find other instances of the glorification of violence and actual or virtual suicide. A knight in the Middle Ages sought out wrongdoing so that he could go forth on a righteous mission in the name of his lady or Christ, or both, just as the Samurai sought glory in the name of the distant Emperor. As European governments centralized, these missions were acted out in the lists, but they remained dangerous and even deadly. Henry VIII’s treatment of his six wives may well have been a result of brain damage he sustained in a joust.
America has had violent movements on the left and right, secular and religious. Today, law enforcement experts believe homegrown right-wing extremism is a greater threat than Islamic terrorism. But its swastika-flaunting exponents seem full of hatred and devoid of notions of glory, other than their supremacist vision of an America populated by Caucasians: No Shinto temple, no Christ resembling the biblical figure, no ladies’ names on their gun barrels.
And now ISIS. What is the appeal of an organization that suppresses all joys available to us in this life, from music to dance, from secular love poems to political argument? What is the attraction of an organization that kills people in gruesome ways and videotapes these acts for global broadcast on the Internet? Why destroy treasured artifacts that have endured through millennia of regimes that may well have found them just as repugnant ideologically? Why do young men and women agree to turn themselves into human bombs?
On the surface, there are any number of explanations: historical Western (and before that, Ottoman) oppression, authoritarian rule in many present-day Islamic states, widespread poverty in the Middle East and Central Asia, an education vacuum filled by radical Islamic madrasas. Disaffected Westerners are also drawn to ISIS. Moreover, some in the ISIS hierarchy come from well-off families and have a good education. Still, the greatest number of ISIS fighters come from disadvantaged circumstances.
The deeply humane philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, argued that those who convince themselves they have the one and only right answer have been responsible for the most barbarous political movements. In his day, they were communism and fascism. Today, ISIS’ leaders, like Al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s, know they are right.
Civilization works and endures only when its citizens allow that others might be at least partially right and that none of us has all the answers. I recall reading somewhere (I think it was C.S. Lewis) that no one finds humor in the beliefs they hold most dear. Yet a willingness to laugh when thinking or talking about one’s beliefs is a mark of a civilized person because it acknowledges human imperfection. Saladin, the great Islamic leader of the twelfth century, understood the wisdom of respecting different beliefs. He defeated the West’s incursions with arms, yes, but also by solidifying his rule through the promotion of tolerance. One day, the intolerant ideology of ISIS will bring it down, but not before it has inflicted a lot more misery.
All this said, today glory is underrated in the West, pushed aside by our idealization of something called “success,” with its odor of egotism. By contrast, I think of the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans who fought with the Allies in Europe in World War II. Despite their families’ internment in the desert in camps with poor amenities, these Japanese-American warriors served with distinction. I’ve often wondered how they could have fought on the side of a country that had so mistreated their people. The answer had to be a yearning for glory: not glory in the abstract, but so that other Americans would come to respect them and their people.
Each of us needs something larger than ourselves. So many people go through life simmering in Thoreau’s quiet desperation, and to escape it, some are bound to seek a version of Mishima’s alienated fantasy. It needn’t be so. Thoreau found his purpose in, among other things, peaceful protest. Governments around the world must allow their citizens similarly humane paths to fulfillment and encourage a patriotism that isn’t based in violence. Countries whose people are most vulnerable to ISIS’s call are in the direst need. Under other circumstances, ISIS’s adherents would be looking for a very different kind of glory.
© Copyright 2015 by Adrian Spratt