Thursday, February 25, 2010

The 47th Samurai

The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter
The 47th Samurai is the story of two cultures brought together by one instrument of war. American and Japanese warrior culture meet in the ashes of World War Two in Stephen Hunter's The 47th Samurai.

Hunter, a capable writer of historical fiction with an action and miltary bent, is a Tom Clancy without the over-arching plots and greasy characterizations of communists and terrorists. In The 47th Samurai, Viet Nam era Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, resembles a kind of apolitical Jack Ryan with deeper scars. Swagger, now in his 60's is a recovering alcoholic in self-imposed exile in Idaho.

Hunter makes it clear from the beginning that Bob Lee's WWII era Marine Corps father Earl Swagger, part history and part myth, was the better Marine. Although Bob Lee is a battle hardened force to contend with, the elder Swagger was a hero: a man who died in the line of duty as a cop in rural Idaho after brutal wartime service. Earl, war hero, was killed by a junkie stick-up kid for a handfull of quarters. This bitter end came after the elder Swagger survived an invadion Europe and ran blind into the dragon's teeth of Imperial steel at Iwo Jima during World War Two.

There's a deep sense of loss and shame that a man like Earl Swagger could be killed at all. All we are left with is a sense of desolated emptiness and a rusty sword from a long forgotten gunbattle. The rusty sword is a relic of Earl Swagger's bloody raid on a fortified bunker on Iwo Jima.

The comparison of culture begins with this rusty, unnaturally sharp sword. A valueless trophy lost in a dusty attic in America. The same sword would be worshipped in modern Japan - where guns are illegal. This is the opposite of America, where 2nd Amendment rights to bear firearms are cherished and blades and knives are seen as instruments of muggers and rapists. This is the first of many key paralells drawn by Hunter, a key cultural contrast among comparisons too numerous to detail in a short review.

The editing style in the beginning of the book jumps from the black sands of 1945 Iwo Jima on Sulfur Island as Earl Swagger, a tough as nails no-bullshit First Sergeant, bloodily takes a Japanese position to a present day 2007 Bob Lee Swagger - a retired Viet Nam era sniper who has since retreated from the same society that he had killed with impunity for - the same society that gunned down his father for simply doing his job.

The book contains unflinching insight into warrior culture of American Marines and Japanese Samurai. Both types of men are trained to live and die by culturally ingrained bushido. In Japanese, bushido literally means "the way of the warrior" this is roughly compared to the Marines motto of semper fidelis from the Latin for "always faithful". With these virtues firmly in mind, each subculture, through the Yano clan and the Swagger family, leave the comfort of home and family to fight the wars that their Emperors and Presidents have chosen. They each do so by leaving reason and compassion for the enemy, and themselves, far behind.

The language used is direct and natural and, as a sharp contrast, the research into Japanese culture adds a morbidly poetic quality to the tale. Stephen Hunter reminds us, early, of ingrained warrior mentality by attributing a quote to legendary Japanese fencer and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi:

"Steel Cuts Flesh.
Steel Cuts Bone.
Steel Does Not Cut Steel".

Kondo¯ IsamiLegendary Samurai Kondo Isami.In reminding us of the 16th century warrior's credo, Hunter reveals that all war for both Japanese and American soldiers, begins in the mind of the warrior. it spreads outward from the focus of the mind's eye. For the American Marine, it issues from the barrel of his rifle. For the Japanese soldier, it comes in the arc of his blade - a blade that became Imperial steel in Showa era Japan.
Key civil eras in Japan, prior to Showa, led the country out of a feudal culture 400 years after Europe had militarized. These events, including samurai culture as seen in Kondo Isami pictured above, took place right up to the American Civil War ended in 1868.

Be warned, Hunter stumbles a few times in his tale of cultures, world war and society. The writer momentarily loses his footing in the first third of the book after an amazingly strong start but quickly regains it, midway, for a strong finish.

Stephen Hunter has written a number of books featuring WWII and Viet Nam with the Swaggers as well as American Gunfight, the true story of the narrow escape from assasination by Harry Truman from Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950.

Wikipedia, Stephen Hunter
Unofficial Stephen Hunter, The 47th Samurai

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