I walked, recently, through an exhibit of Samurai armor and artifacts, which is currently on display at the Kimball Art Museum in my home of Fort Worth, Texas.
Passing from display to display, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the detail and artistry put into each piece by the craftsmen of centuries past. The eye is drawn into the intricate lacing, along the elegantly knotted cord, into the clouds of fine chain links, in and out through serpentine designs of enameled beasts, ultimately arriving upon imposing masks of iron, grinning with an inhuman fury. It is easy to see how the men inside these suits of armor would inspire terror in their enemies, and how they may have felt themselves as becoming something more than human.
Individually, the works are stunning. In aggregate, they come together to give us a picture of a society which knew, in no uncertain terms, how it felt about war.
Our society, on the other hand, is nowhere near so certain.
We have come so far in just the last hundred years. We can measure the distance between atoms and map the human genome, but the more we learn about the universe around us, the less we appear to understand about ourselves.
The works on display span almost 700-years of Japanese history, but most of them come from the Edo period (1603-1868). Japan, during this era, was a culture in the midst of a long and fruitful peace, yet still dedicated to the very principle of the warrior ideal. Bushidō, or “the Way of the Warrior,” was both a personal code of conduct and a philosophy centered around seven essential virtues: Courage, Respect, Benevolence, Honor, Rectitude, Honesty, and Loyalty. It was this ethical core which compelled the Samurai to become masters of the arts and social graces as well as warriors of unparalleled skill. Bushidō was, among other things, a celebration of the Heroic Ideal which stands as the foundation of every great society.
The hero is, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of the culture from which he comes. Maybe his name is Gilgamesh, Heracles, Cú Chulainn or Arthur. For that matter, she might be called Boudicca or Candace of Meroë. In whatever guise, the hero stands as the apotheosis of the people from which he comes; a mythic figure, more than man but less than a god, both savior and sacrifice for his people.
Those who came before us knew that a people without heroes were doomed, and that to treat their heroes poorly, was an affront to those beings that had invested them with power in the first place.
We appear to have forgotten these lessons.
“Ah, but times have changed,” people tell me, “and the Samurai existed within a warrior culture while ours is far more civilized.”
Really? Ours is NOT a warrior culture?
I think the fact that in the United States, roughly 20% of our federal budget goes toward military spending while 2% goes toward scientific research and less than one-tenth of 1% toward the arts, would suggest otherwise.
No, we are a warrior culture, to be sure. We’ve simply become woefully bad at it.
Oh, we go through the motions. We both memorialize our fallen soldiers and honor the living with special days full of picnics and parades. We praise them for their service, and glory to their fictionalized exploits in the cinema and on television. If we meet them on the street, we commend them for protecting our freedom, even though that’s not really the job we have them doing.
We do not send them off into the fray, showered with flower petals, to win the day against the iron grip of some great evil. Instead, we dress them up in the most utilitarian gear possible and ship them into some sorry “war of choice”, like they were prisoners cleaning up litter by the roadside.
When finally, they come home again, we don’t seem overly bothered by how many of them are forced to live under bridges. We prop them up at political rallies while we slice away at funding for veteran’s hospitals and services. We fret about the validity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while they commit suicide in record numbers.
Yes, we can kill you from across the planet with the touch of a button, but for all our technical prowess we have grown clumsy in the Art of War. Indeed, in the last hundred years we’ve done everything we can to take the “art” out of it entirely.
We hate the needless killing.
We hate the brutality and we’d like to think that we have risen above it.
“War,” we tell ourselves, “is dirty.” It is something we are forced into by our more primitive enemies. “The barbarians are at the gate,” cry our leaders, “and we’ve got to sink briefly to their level, just this one last time, if we hope to protect our shining city on the hill.”
But it’s not so easy as that.
War has been around for as long as people have been walking upon the globe (and possibly longer). War is a part of us and always will be. The only “everlasting peace” you are likely to find is in the grave. And even then, it would be wise to remember that the gods themselves are all warriors of one sort or another, and the graves of the ancients were often arrayed with the weapons of war.
Perhaps, if as a society, we could embrace the ‘Way of the Warrior’, we would actually see less warfare and fewer sombre memorials. Certainly, I’d like to think that the wars we still did have, would be better ones, worthy of the sacrifice we ask of the young men and women we send into harms way.
Maybe, we are fighting the wrong kinds of wars because we stopped breeding heroes of great virtue. I think we owe it to the world we are leaving for our children to try. Certainly, we owe it to those who have gone to their graves to see to it that no more will follow them into the ground without just cause.