The old man lived alone in a council flat. Access in and out was tricky, and he was, as the saying goes, becoming ‘off his legs’. He was 90 years old, and totally with it mentally.
I asked my usual question: “what did you do in the war?”
This certainly animated him. He told me that he’d been a gunner on an escort vessel in the North Atlantic, escorting the merchant navy convoys, that prior to this policy of escorting, had been decimated by a ruthless and highly effective U-boat campaign. It had clearly been very tough out there, often in 30 foot waves, freezing cold, and at risk of being torpedoed at any time, but he was exhilarated just talking about it.
“Did you actually see any Germans?”, I asked. He laughed and said very rarely, but there was one occasion in particular that sprang to mind. Depth charges had hit their mark, and the German submarine had to surface. The sea was relatively calm. The crew came out on deck and put their hands in the air, attempting to surrender. We Brits were generally pretty chivalrous about that sort of thing. Lots of crews did surrender.
“What did you do?” I asked, wondering how they transferred them on to the ship sitting much higher than the German crew.
Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.
Truly, one man’s war crimes are another man’s good soldiering. The dilemma is with us to this day.
I’m trying to find the quote from an old writer about the things that a fulfilled man must do with his life. It included going to war**, yet many people who have been in actual combat found it horrible and suffer still, despite the intensity of the experience and the irreproducible camaraderie induced by your lives being dependent on each other. They are a smaller group than everyone who actually served in uniform- for every single combat marine in the US Pacific campaign there were about 19 other members of the armed forces in logistics, engineering, supplies, catering, transport and so on.
At the time of writing, today’s patient is still alive – 99 going on 100. A tall distinguished looking fellow, he had a relatively ordinary job back in civilian life, and is pretty healthy, despite the need for various operations. He is always quite happy to reminisce about his time in Burma with the Chindits.
If you want to know how tough these guys were, and what they suffered behind enemy lines, mostly in the jungle, read John Masters’ quite extraordinary – and horrific – account of having to shoot their own wounded. My man has numerous stories – fighting naked because of the damp and the ever present dysentery (this is different from their slightly crazy founder, Orde Wingate’s, propensity for wandering around naked); waiting for air drops knowing that the Japanese would also benefit from these clues to their location; having, amazingly, colleagues killed by an airdrop landing on them; hand to hand fighting with knives, in the jungle; blowing up Japanese installations when you’re a long, long way from safety….how do you return to ‘normal life’ after experiences like these?
And they were pretty effective, not just for morale at a time when Japan was looking like a most formidable enemy. This excellent account of the 1943 Operation Longcloth tells you what you need to know. Although David Stirling started developing the unique capabilities of the SAS in 1941, Wingate’s not dissimilar long range, behind enemy lines work – with the added challenge of much larger numbers of men – was pioneering and not universally accepted. As he said at the time “If we succeed, we shall have demonstrated a new style of warfare to the world”.
The Japanese were the most brutal of opponents, as everyone knows these days – although I believe that Japanese schools still play down the extent of this – and compared to urban fighting in Europe against opponents with possibly similar values, the risk of capture was too much to contemplate – hence Masters’ impossible decision – not unlike ISIS in recent times. To quote John Hutchin, a veteran of the campaign, on how he was left behind by his fellow soldiers suffering from exhaustion with three days’ rations and a clip of ammunition.
“I’ve only got one nightmare left, and that is being left”
Hutchin in fact made it, but many didn’t. To contemplate that as my patient does, and the near impossible nature of their mission, from a vantage point of 74 years later, as one heads for centenarian status is something that I – as someone who has never been to war – can barely comprehend.
**though this quote from Ilya Radozhitskii’s campaign memoirs, relating to Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, resonates here: A military career, thus, occasionally presents experiences that do not exist in civilian life. The war reveals all of the human horrors and miseries that make our souls tremble, but they also elevate us amidst these dangers. He who has not been to warhas not learned how to despise death. The ordinary tribulations of civilian life are nothing compared to the calamities of war where neither sighs nor tears could change anything. Their source soon runs dry and the warrior’s heart hardens like steel with which he brings death to the enemy.
A few posts ago I followed up a theme of Damian Thompson’s, namely where is the good or great modern classical music? I don’t subscribe to the cliche that it’s all atonal rubbish or syrupy choral stuff, but there’s still a lot of both. We are not in an era comparable with Beethoven et al, fair enough, but nor are we in an era comparable with Rachmaninov and other 20th century greats. We’re not even close.
Anyway, my nomination was a piece called The Hatikvah Variations (we’re talking about piano here), by James Raphael, which is magnificent, and right up there with other great Romantic piano masterpieces. Then to my surprise, along comes another.
Japanese culture, where it meets Western styles, is remarkably open minded. They loved atonal screeching experimental period John Coltrane when nearly everyone else hated it, they made 70’s British hard rock bands very rich, they even lap up rockabilly. However, some of the homegrown stuff is a little outre. Violent manga and anime are par for the course, and the 21st century curse of electronic lifestyles is producing some pretty odd results with hikkomori.
Anime is massive in the Far East, and to a degree over here. The plots are a bit childish at first glance, but one of the older ones, Gunbuster, is hugely popular (a sort of outer space Top Gun, with evil space monsters), and regarded as fairly tear jerking, surprisingly, with a memorable soundtrack.
So, East meets West. Here is Yui Morishita playing what seems to be a technically demanding Romantic era piano sonata-fantasy replete with big tunes. If it wasn’t called in its endearingly naive way, The Gunbuster Fantasy, but rather, if you chose German, Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, it could easily be a concert standard. I think it’s superb.
..and Morishita is a terrific pianist, with a great gift for a Knife obsession, Alkan. He doesn’t appear to have made any CD’s (that I’ve found), but he has the true virtuoso spirit. Here he is aceing Alkan’s rarely heard and extremely demanding Scherzo Focoso. Bravo.