Sunday, March 15, 2015

`The Heroes and Foot Soldiers'

Shigetaka Shiga was a professor of geography at Waseda University in Tokyo when he and a group of his students visited San Antonio, Texas, in 1914. With them they carried a slab of granite on which was inscribed a poem written by Shiga, who saw similarities between the Battle of the Alamo, which concluded on March 6, 1836, and the Battle of Nagashino, Japan, fought between June 17 and June 28, 1575. The poem is written not in Japanese but in Kanbun, a classical form of Chinese. Here are four lines translated into English: 

“The custom of the West does not necessarily condemn surrender.
Why? We have never heard of a commander destroyed,
But here in the state of Texas, we see one (Travis).
In spirit there is not a distinction between East and West.”

I am visiting San Antonio for the first time. As a boy I had a longtime fascination with the Alamo, fueled only in part by John Wayne. The old Franciscan mission is remarkably small and modest. Even packed with tourists, the site is stirring. It’s our obligation to remember such heroism (some would say foolhardiness). Shiga’s poem and monument, dedicated at the start of the Great War in Europe, took me by surprise. Twenty-seven years later, our countries were at war. R.L. Barth likewise juxtaposes wars in “Reading the Iliad” (Deeply Dug In, 2003): 

“Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten the reader, held in Homer’s mind,
Looks upon Greeks and Trojans fighting yet,
The heroes and foot soldiers, thin and blind, 

“Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and taunting, he looks up to see—
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries 

“His destiny, not the room; instead, a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau
With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.”

No comments: