Dyson on Dennett

Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in the current NYRB. Wonderful stuff, as usual. Dyson concludes,

To end this review, I would like to introduce anothe recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. This contains extensive extracts from diaries written by seven of the young men who died in suicidal missions or as kamikaze pilots in the closing months of World War II. The diaries give us firsthand testimony of the thoughts and feelings of these young soldiers who knew that they were fated to die. Their thoughts and feelings are astonishingly lucid and free from illusions. Some of them expressed their feelings in poetry. All of them were highly educated and familiar with Western literature in several languages, having spent most of their brief lives in reading and writing. Only one of them, Hayashi Ichizo, was religious, having grown up in a Japanese Christian family. His Christian faith did not make self-sacrifice easier for him than for the others. He had read Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death and carried it with him on his final mission together with his Bible.

All of the young men, including Hayashi, had a profoundly tragic view of life, mitigated only by happy memories of childhood with family and friends. They were as far as it was possible to be from the brainwashed zombies that contemporary Americans imagined to be piloting the kamikaze planes. They were thoughtful and sensitive young men, neither religious nor nationalistic fanatics.

Here I have space to mention only one of them, Nakao Takanori, who must speak for the rest. Nakao left a poem beginning, “How lonely is the sound of the clock in the darkness of the night.” In his last letter to his parents, a week before his death, he wrote,

At the farewell party, people gave me encouragement. I did my best to encourage myself. My co-pilot is Uno Shigeru, a handsome boy, aged nineteen, a naval petty officer second class. His home is in Hyogo Prefecture. He thinks of me as his elder brother, and I think of him as my younger brother. Working as one heart, we will plunge into an enemy vessel. Although I did not do much in my life, I am content that I fulfilled my wish to live a pure life, leaving nothing ugly behind me.

We have no firsthand testimony from the young men who carried out the September 11 attacks. They were not as highly educated and as thoughtful as the kamikaze pilots, and they were more influenced by religion. But there is strong evidence that they were not brainwashed zombies. They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world. According to Sageman, they were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out.

Even after recognizing the great differences between the circumstances of 1945 and 2001, I believe that the kamikaze diaries give us our best insight into the state of mind of the young men who caused us such grievous harm in 2001. If we wish to understand the phenomenon of terrorism in the modern world, and if we wish to take effective measures to lessen its attraction to idealistic young people, the first and most necessary step is to understand our enemies. We must give respect to our enemies, as courageous and capable soldiers enlisted in an evil cause, before we can understand them. The kamikaze diaries give us a basis on which to build both respect and understanding.

One thought on “Dyson on Dennett”

  1. Young men follow their leaders. It is what the tribe expects of them. It is the failure of their leaders. The Japanese Military leaders foolishly believed the USA would sue for peace after Pearl Harbor. Most Japanese Military leaders knew the war was lost in 1945, yet drove thousands of young men to death.

    Young Muslim men blow themselves up & kill innocent people. They are following what their leaders tell them is their duty. I haven’t seen one Ayatollah wearing a suicide belt.

    The answer is not in youth. Figure out why Older Men drive young men into suicide & you will have you answer. Most cultures don’t accept the suicide premise, but the Japan of 1945 did & the radical islamic culture of 2001 does.

    Personally I think its a prideful & spiteful act of failure in the lives they lived. How else can you explain not letting youth live their life, you must have hated yours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *