Armies of the Dead

It’s a controversial symbol of racial supremacy, widely believed to have caused the death of millions.  Yet its standards still fly proudly in the center of a great capital city, arousing outrage in those who suffered at its hands. Despite its record of shame, people still flock to its memorials while high officials, including national leaders, regularly pay lip service to it. No we are not talking about the Confederate Battle Flag but the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan.


In Yasakuni’s hallowed precincts are venerated the memory of “1,068 war criminals; 14 of whom are considered A-Class”.  This has not stopped Japanese prime ministers from putting aside postwar reticence and paying symbolic tribute to the warrior gods of the shrine, much to the chagrin of 1.3 billion Chinese, whose symbol is the Five Star Red Flag. which itself fluttered over many a massacre.

The symbols of the past die hard.  But some are more potent than others. While it is doubtful whether the Confederate Battle Flag will every fly over anything but re-enactors again,  the Naval Ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy has fluttered over what is now the 5th most powerful fleet in the world since 1954.  Wikipedia notes that “today’s JMSDF continues to use the same martial songs, naval flags, signs and technical terms as the IJN. For example, the official flag of the JMSDF is the same as that used by the IJN.”

Also, the JMSDF tradition of eating Japanese curry every Friday lunch originated with the IJN. The JMSDF still uses the Warship March, the old service march of the IJN, as its official service march. It also maintains the IJN bugle calls tradition, as every ship and shore establishment command maintain a platoon or squad of bugle players.”

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Not to be outdone,  symbols of the Soviet Union are rising from the grave. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 many Eastern European countries initially demolished Soviet military memorials, which they regarded as hated symbols of oppression.  But there was one they failed to topple before it fell under the protection of a resurgent Kremlin.

One relic of the Soviet era was the so-called bronze statue – a monument more than two meters tall depicting a Soviet soldier bowing his head in mourning for those killed in the war. It was erected in a rather inconspicuous place in the centre of Tallinn in 1947 and for a long time received little attention. That only changed after Estonia became independent, when an increasing number of the Russian minority in Estonia began laying flowers at the statue every year on 9 May, Soviet Victory Day. For a long time this did not particularly bother anyone. …

But in May 2006 Estonia’s prime minister, Andrus Ansip, declared that the monument symbolised the occupation of the country and should therefore be removed. A few months later a law to this effect was passed, even though there had been repeated warnings that Russia would regard this as a provocation. …

When the decision went into effect on 27 April 2007 and the bronze statue was removed from the city and taken to a cemetery on the edge of town, riots that went on for several days broke out in Tallinn. Thereafter the Estonian embassy in Moscow was besieged by youth groups loyal to the Kremlin, relations between Estonia and Russia deteriorated dramatically.


Now Soviets symbols are potent again. To paraphrase HP Lovecraft, the past is like Cthulhu: “dead but dreaming”. And occasionally it wakes up and walks around. For a few days each year Volgograd is restored to its former name. Stalingrad.

The southern Russian city where the Red Army turned back Nazi forces in a pivotal second world war battle will once again be known as Stalingrad – at least on the days commemorating the victory.

The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961 as part of the Soviet Union’s rejection of dictator Joseph Stalin’s personality cult. But the name Stalingrad is inseparable from the battle, which was among the bloodiest in history with combined losses of nearly 2 million people.

The decision by regional lawmakers to use the historic name in city statements on 2 February, the day of the Nazi defeat, as well as on several other war-related dates each year, has angered many in Russia where Stalin’s name andlegacy continues to cause fiery disputes nearly 60 years after his death.

The waking past has naturally given the Eastern Europeans the jitters.  Not so the West. The current crop of Western leaders is past caring, having unilaterally declared itself surplus to requirements. Recently the graves of British and Commonwealth troops who died fighting the Nazis in Libya were desecrated by the Islamists. “‘Break the cross of the dogs,’ one man can be heard shouting [in a video] as another soldier perches on a ladder to smash the cenotaph cross with a mallet.”

It barely causes a stir. The Islamists have run the place now and the fallen — and the symbols of the fallen — are at their mercy. There was a time when the British had the banners of Islam at their feet and they did not hesitate to tread on them.  Not any more.  The leaders of the West are dreaming, but dead.


Following the defeat of the Khalifa’s army at Omdurman, Lord Kitchener ordered his artillery to open fire on the Mahdi’s Tomb to remind Islam that it was the past. Winston Churchill (who was there) described the act of deliberate humiliation.

The howitzer battery was now landed, and at 1.30 began to bombard the Mahdi’s Tomb. This part of the proceedings was plainly visible to us, waiting and watching on the ridge, and its interest even distracted attention from the Dervish army. The dome of the tomb rose tall and prominent above the mud houses of the city. A lyddite shell burst over it—a great flash, a white ball of smoke, and, after a pause, the dull thud of the distant explosion. Another followed. At the third shot, instead of the white smoke, there was a prodigious cloud of red dust, in which the whole tomb disappeared. When this cleared away we saw that, instead of being pointed, it was now flat-topped. Other shells continued to strike it with like effect, some breaking holes in the dome, others smashing off the cupolas, all enveloping it in dust.

Yet the act misgave him, as though there were something shameful in it. Surveying the total British victory over the Muslim armies, Churchill could not help but feel a pang of admiration for the hardy men who died in a lost cause, cruel enemy though they were. Describing the flight of the Khalifa, who was depicted in the lowest terms by the British press, the young correspondent observed that he was sheltered by his shattered adherents to the end.

The tyrant, the oppressor, the scourge of the Soudan, the hypocrite, the abominated Khalifa; the embodiment, as he has been depicted to European eyes, of all the vices; the object, as he was believed in England, of his people’s bitter hatred, found safety and welcome among his flying soldiers. The surviving Emirs hurried to his side. Many had gone down on the fatal plain. Osman Azrak, the valiant Bishara, Yakub, and scores whose strange names have not obscured these pages, but who were, nevertheless, great men of war, lay staring up at the stars. Yet those who remained never wavered in their allegiance. Ali-Wad-Helu, whose leg had been shattered by a shell splinter, was senseless with pain; but the Sheikh-ed-Din, the astute Osman Digna, Ibrahim Khalil, who withstood the charge of the 21st Lancers, and others of less note rallied to the side of the appointed successor of Mohammed Ahmed, and did not, even in this extremity, abandon his cause. And so all hurried on through the gathering darkness, a confused and miserable multitude—dejected warriors still preserving their trashy rifles, and wounded men hobbling pitifully along; camels and donkeys laden with household goods; women crying, panting, dragging little children; all in thousands—nearly 30,000 altogether; with little food and less water to sustain them; the desert before them, the gunboats on the Nile, and behind the rumours of pursuit and a broad trail of dead and dying to mark the path of flight.


A man might be as evil as his critics say, and still be a man. But Winston was always a romantic in a way our modern academicians can never be.  They are ruthless as only petty men can be.

But for all of that the judgment of history has proven to be a tricky thing. On the scale of human infamy, the flag of the Rising Sun must rank with the Swastika in terms of destruction. Yet through a supreme irony, South Korea and the Philippines have put aside history to make common cause with Japan as an exigent counterweight to China; the needs of the present being more compelling than the memory of the past. Still the past has its own power that is not always under our control.

The way is shut.
It was made by those who are Dead.
And the Dead keep it.
The way is shut.
Until the time comes.

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Note:The references to “Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur” spring from his appointment as head of the Philippine Army. “Quezon and MacArthur had been personal friends since the latter’s father had been Governor-General of the Philippines, 35 years earlier. With President Roosevelt’s approval, MacArthur accepted the assignment. It was agreed that MacArthur would receive the rank of field marshal, with its salary and allowances, in addition to his major general’s salary as Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines.” He’s the one and only man to ever hold that rank in the Armed Forces of the Philipines.

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