War is like it says in the Book of John: "In that house there are many mansions." And the best war mansions are the ones nobody ever visits - like old war paperbacks you find for 50 cents at storefront bookstores, the kind that smell like mould and make the rent on old porn mags.
That's where I found my current favourite book, I Was A Kamikaze, by Ryuji Nagatsuka.
I bought the book for two reasons: the title and the cover art. The cover art was like a letter from home for me, the kind of art they just don't do any more: a Zero zooming down toward a U.S. aircraft carrier. It's the details that make battle paintings so wonderful to look at, and this one had all the classics: the ragged AA holes in the Zero's tail flaps, the bigger gashes in the wing fabric, and the brown oil smoke trailing from the fuselage. If you're any kind of a man at all, you were once the kind of boy who used to trace those bullet holes with your fingertips while making little kaSHOO! noises from the AA shells zipping past. I know I used to spend hours lying in bed eating Oreos and looking at covers like this, trying to figure out whether this particular Kamikaze was going to hit his target or end up as a big waterspout, going down cursing like a Japanese Yosemite Sam just yards short of the U.S. flight deck.
"I Was a Kamikaze Squadron Mascot" by Kutize Puppy
And then there was the title. How can you not buy a book called I Was A Kamikaze? That is what they call in the communications business "A Grabber." Not to mention a riddle: whaddaya mean, I "WAS" a kamikaze? You don't see too many suicide bombers with their grandkids on their knee telling war stories.
Turns out Nagatsuka, the author, was a cadet pilot in the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force who survived the war because his unit's big mission was scrubbed on account of bad weather, and by the time they found enough fuel to try again, the war had ended. You'd think the pilots would have had a hard time pretending they were sincerely disappointed not to blow themselves up: "Gosh darn that pesky rain! I was so looking forward to being blown into teriyaki!" - but you'd be wrong. Nagtsuka is a diehard believer in the Imperial way of seeing things, and the way he tells it, he and his comrades really were sorry they didn't get to die.
Decline and fall: From kamikaze moms to neon tourists
That's the real fun of reading a book like this: soaking up the feel of a totally weird world. And they don't come much weirder than Japan, pre-1945. That world is gone, gone, gone. We totally gelded the Germans and the Japanese, turned them into shuffling tourists. That's why people are always doing "Boys from Brazil" books and movies about the revival of Nazism: because the fact is there's nothing as dead as the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Jurassic Park will happen before those dinosaurs come back.
Everybody should read books like this just to see how dirt-dull and namby-pamby our world is compared to the zoo of a world we had in the first half of the good ol' 20th century.
What we have now is a Nerf multi-culture, where people chow down on Japanese or Ethiopian or whatever food but make damn sure that the Japanese and Ethiopians and everyone else are turning into Ohioans as fast as we can squeeze them.
Ethiopian food not bombs: Africa's greatest warrior culture as yuppie party food