Tell me, where is the glory in war?

Is there anything grand that can be salvaged from the murdering and brutal maiming — both physical and psychological — of millions of people?

Yes, there may sometimes be a right side and a wrong side, although in virtually every war the lines of guilt are so crisscrossed as to be indistinguishable. One’s own side’s causes are revered; those of the other side are vilified forever in the historical record of “good” (normally “winning”) nations.

Yet, in fact, all people caught up in the violence of war, from uniformed combatants to resistance fighters and refugees, are victims. The hostilities may end, but the ugly brute that is their creation continues to live on and thrive in the minds of survivors.

For those who are forced to live with this brute, the aftermath of a war is merely its continuation under different circumstances.

If you wish to see a clear illustration of this, read the new book “The Bone Man of Kokoda” (Pan Macmillan, Australia). Here, Australian author and journalist Charles Happell has taken the story of Japanese World War II veteran Kokichi Nishimura and turned it into a parable of will and unquenchable guilt.

Nishimura’s story would never have been told had he done his duty as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army and destroyed all his papers, records and diaries when the war ended. Japan then was intent — as it still is, by and large — on obliterating the misdeeds of the past. Consequently, to some in this country the past has ceased to exist, save as a jumble of symbols to decorate a tawdry nostalgia.

But not to Kokichi Nishimura. He saw it as his duty not to forget, and to not allow his compatriots to forget, what he had witnessed.

Nishimura was part of the Nankai Shitai (South Seas Detachment), the infantry brigade that took Guam and sent troops to secure New Guinea in the summer of 1942. The plan — and a foolhardy one it was, given the terrain and climate — was to cross Papua over the Owen Stanley Range from Kokoda, then to continue on and take the capital, Port Moresby.

Every horror is here

The battles along what is now known as the Kokoda Track have been written about extensively in Australia and elsewhere. But here is the story from the other, losing side — a story of monumental hardship, disease, wounding, death, cannibalism: Every horror is here, relayed without a shred of glory.

Nishimura was one of 56 natives of Kochi Prefecture in the southern island of Shikoku who took part in the campaign. In the first 15 days of battle on the Kokoda Track, 55 of them were killed. The fact that Nishimura was the sole survivor from among his Kochi compatriots would come back to him again and again during and after the war.

As if this experience weren’t enough, Nishimura saw action in Burma (now known as Myanmar) and on the high seas. It is a miracle that he survived to tell the tale. As for Maj. Gen. Tomitara Horii’s South Seas Detachment, the 3-week-long trek on the Kokoda Track not only ended in defeat and retreat, but also in the loss of nearly half of its more than 10,000 soldiers. All in all, 13,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in eastern New Guinea in roughly the last six months of 1942.

Marching for up to 14 hours a day on 300 grams (and, later in 1942, 50 grams) of rice, with only minimal medicines and paltry intelligence as to where or how strong the enemy were — such has been the nightmare existence of millions of soldiers through the ages. When called to arms, Nishimura weighed 73 kg. When finally evacuated out of New Guinea in June 1943, he weighed 28 kg — about average for a 9-year-old.

But what makes Nishimura’s case so remarkable is not the hardships he experienced during the war, but the vow he made to himself afterward — to repatriate the bones of as many of his fallen comrades as possible.

The story of “The Bone Man of Kokoda” really begins the day the war ended: Aug. 15, 1945. Though he married that year, Nishimura spent the next 10 years wandering around Shikoku doing jobs such as digging wells and logging. He did return home on occasion, enough to father four children. But his heart was elsewhere. Nishimura had been a bright and budding engineer before the war, and afterward, eventually, he founded the Nishimura Machinery Research Institute in Tokyo and turned it into a highly profitable enterprise, contracting work with major companies, Sony among them.

But in 1979, Nishimura made a fateful decision, keeping the vow he made to himself. He left his wife and family, turning over all property and assets to them. He would meet with his daughter over the ensuing years, but he never saw his wife or sons again.

Counterproductive to relations

For an incredible 25 years, he lived by himself in tents or makeshift huts along or near the Kokoda Track, searching for the remains of his comrades. He managed also to build schools and workshops to educate and train local people.

Finding remains along the Kokoda Track proved difficult; but eventually Nishimura was to unearth more than 100 bodies — or parts of bodies — at Giruwa, where Japanese forces had been decimated, and some 60 at Buna and Gona.

By the 1990s, the governments of New Guinea and Japan had begun to view his one-man mission as counterproductive to relations between the two countries. Nonetheless, Nishimura persisted, carrying bones and ashes back to Japan and relentlessly searching for the next of kin of the deceased. Anything that had belonged to his comrades was treasured: rusty buckles, spoons, mess tins.

Is “The Bone Man of Kokoda” the chronicle of a man deluded by the fanatic oaths of a long-gone era, when tens of millions of Japanese men and women were inculcated into glorious death-worship? Is Nishimura a hero who refuses to forget the ultimate sacrifices made by his fellow warriors; or is he a foolhardy relic himself, a man whose mission only perpetrates the very cult of death that marks his generation?

Whatever one’s interpretation of his lifelong mission may be, it is certain that the perpetrators of the crimes of war — be they a Tojo, a Hitler, a Bush or a Blair — have no right to bluster glory in the face of such all-consuming misery.

No matter how many years pass after a war, we are all caught up, one way or another, in the grief that reaches far beyond the deaths of those who fought it.

The soul of Kokichi Nishimura may be troubled; it may be obsessed. But it is not disfigured like the souls of those “masters of war” who force conflict on the world and, to assuage their personal guilt, seek pomp through the pain of millions of soldiers and their families.

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