Everyone has heard of famous last stands, such as Thermopylae, the Alamo, or the French Foreign Legion at Camerone. They are memorable partly because they are rare – generally, soldiers surrender when all is lost, assuming that their enemies give them a chance to do so. Even Spartans, products of a lifetime of military training, could surrender, as shown at Sphacteria in the Peloponnesian War.
So an army that routinely executed last stands – one that always refused to surrender, that kept fighting until eliminated by firepower or starvation – would be anomalous. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s easy to remember: that’s what the Imperial Japanese Army was like in World War Two.
In a typical battle, less than 2% of Japanese forces were taken prisoner. Of those that were, many had been knocked unconscious. Wounded Japanese soldiers would try to kill Allied medics: Japanese sailors would attack Americans trying to fish them out of the water. As a young American infantry officer who faced them in Guadalcanal and Burma said, “for sheer, bloody, hardened steel guts, the stocky and hard-muscled little Jap doughboy has it all over any of us.” George MacDonald Fraser told of a Japanese soldier he encountered in August of 1945, when they had utterly lost the war: ” the little bastard came howling out of a thicket near the Sittang, full of spite and fury.. He was half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stave, but he was in no mood to surrender.”
The Japanese usually lost those battles (after their attacks in the beginning of the war) , losing something like ten times as many killed as their Western opponents, a ratio normally seen only in colonial wars. The Japanese relied on ‘courage and cold steel’, which simply wasn’t very effective. They simply did not grasp the dominance of artillery and automatic weapons in modern war – partly because they hadn’t fought in WWI (except for a small naval role), but, more importantly, because they didn’t want to understand. They’d had a chance to learn in the border conflicts with the Soviet Union in the late 30’s (Khalkin-Gol), but refused to do so.
In addition, Japanese heroism is seldom fully appreciated because they were such utter assholes, in their treatment of prisoners and of conquered nations – cannibalism, vivisection, the Rape of Nanking and the destruction of Manila, germ warfare experiments on prisoners… even the water cure, although now we’re in favor of that. Under the Japanese, Asia was a charnel house. Regardless, their courage was most unusual.
Compared to the last stands of the Japanese in the Pacific War, Thermopylae is nothing special. It is hardly even noticeable. The Imperial Army and Navy put 35,000 men on Guadalcanal – about 25,000 of those died, some in combat, but most by starvation. Obedient to orders, they died before surrendering. There were many such battles: whole Japanese divisions starved to death in New Guinea and Burma. There were no mutinies, unlike the French or Russians or Italians in WWI. When the Germany Navy was ordered out to a suicidal battle in 1918, the sailors rebelled and the government fell – but then, they weren’t Japanese.
Many other nations and empires have tried to inculcate this kind of ultimate obedience, some going to great lengths – but Imperial Japan is the only one that achieved it, as far as I can tell. There’s isn’t even any reason to think they they tried particularly hard to do so – certainly they’d didn’t go anywhere near as far as the Spartans.
If cultural anthropologists had any curiosity – which of course they don’t – they ought to find this story fascinating. How was it even possible?