The last Japanese WWII holdout: A lesson for creationists

The saga of Hiroo Onoda

March 2013 is the 39th anniversary of a curious milestone of 20th century military history: On March 9, 1974, nearly 29 years after World War II supposedly ended with the Japanese surrender, Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese holdout, turned over his sword and rifle to his commanding officer and ceased his para-military campaign on Lubang Island in the Philippine Islands.

Onoda had landed on Lubang Island in December 1944, where he was given orders to do all that he could to disrupt Allied activities on the island, but under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. He and two fellow Japanese soldiers continued guerrilla activities for some time, sabotaging port operations and engaging local inhabitants and police in a number of gun battles.

In October 1945 he and his two companions found a leaflet declaring that the war was over. Thinking that it was Allied propaganda, they ignored it. One by one his companions were killed, leaving him alone.

Finally, in February 1974, Onoda met Norio Suzuki, a Japanese student who had come to search for him. Suzuki told him that the war was over, but Onoda still insisted that he would not surrender until given orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself with Onoda, and the Japanese government accordingly sent Onoda’s previous commanding officer, who had since become a bookseller, to the Philippines, where he met Onoda and accepted his resignation.

After returning to Japan, Onoda married in 1976, then traveled to Brazil, where he assumed a leading role in a Japanese community there (and still spends some of his time there). Additional details of Onoda’s colorful “career” can be found in the informative Wikipedia article.

Hero or Don Quixote?

While many may admire Onoda’s tenacity, many others see his holdout as a classic case of Don Quixote-style stubbornness to accept reality. After all, even a modest attempt by Onoda and his men to learn the facts would have produced the requisite information that the war had ended long ago, and that they should end their guerrilla campaign. This would have saved nearly 30 years of futile and fruitless efforts to “win” a war that had long since been lost. Think of the many years of potential service Onoda and his companions could have offered to spouses, families, and communities back in their own homeland.

What’s more, the “cause” that Onoda fought so hard for had long since ceased to be worth fighting. Even though the U.S. ended the war with the highly controversial deployment of atomic bombs, within a few years Japan and the U.S. were allies, and extensive trade began between the two nations. This trade, in consumer electronics, automobiles, computers and services, continues at an ever-increasing pace to this day. Many Japanese citizens now reside in the U.S. (and some have become naturalized citizens), and many U.S. citizens reside in Japan (and some have become naturalized there as well).

The war between scientists and young-earth creationists

There is another long-running battle that also ended, for all intents and purposes, roughly at the same time as the end of World War II: the “debate” over whether the earth and all its natural wonders were created in a flash over a 6-day (or 6000-year) period, completing a few thousand years ago, or whether this process was a long sequence spanning many millions of years.

Indeed, with the development of radioactive isotope dating, also a development of the pre-war research into nuclear physics, the last rational basis for reasonable doubt of the earth’s great antiquity was removed. Within a few years after the war, and certainly by the 1960s, these radiometric dating schemes were widely deployed and permitted highly accurate determinations of numerous epochs in the geological chronology of earth. They have been further refined over the intervening years and now fully deserve their gold-standard reputation in the scientific world (see Radiometric dating and Reliability).

Similarly, the development of protein and DNA sequencing technology over the past 20 years has removed any remaining rational basis to doubt that living organisms on earth today are the result of an evolutionary process spanning many millions of years. For example, many thousands of artifacts have been found in DNA that are shared between closely related species, in ways that have no other reasonable explanation other than that these species once descended from a common set of ancestors (see DNA).

Lessons for present-day creationists

Unlike the history of World War II, the last holdouts in the battle over the age of the earth and evolution have not yet given up. Even in 2013, various groups around the U.S. are proposing state laws that would require “equal time” for creationist or intelligent design precepts, or would require that “all sides” be taught on “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is in spite of the fact that all such laws that have been enacted have been struck down by court decisions, which have uniformly ruled that such provisions are tantamount to specifying unscientific religious dogma be taught in public schools, and are therefore unconstitutional (see Court cases).

These battles are also being fought in spite of the fact that the scientific community has for several decades regarded the rapidly growing body of evidence as unequivocal — the earth is many millions of years old; biological species on earth today did arise through a long evolutionary process (see Evolution).

But don’t we admire heroes in these battles, just as some have admired Onoda’s tenacity? Perhaps. But think for a moment about what has been lost (and is being lost) in the wake of this long-lost and utterly futile “war.” Millions of persons, particularly vulnerable youth, are confused over the increasingly nasty public rhetoric between holdout creationists and certain atheist scholars. And the U.S. is increasingly is falling behind tenacious international competitors in training its youth in the latest scientific research and technology.

Time for a graceful surrender

Indeed, now is the time for the last of the holdout young-earth creationists to gracefully concede defeat: simply acknowledge that the earth and its biological species are of great antiquity, the product of an evolutionary development, and then move forward to other matters more properly in the province of modern enlightened religion.

After all, true religion is not about technical matters. There is not a single verse in the Bible or any other revered work of religious scripture that is even remotely in the style of the precise, quantitative, data-driven style of a modern scientific research paper (see Bible science). Great religion has always addressed grander themes. Leave technical questions to the world of scientific research.

It is also time for the world of science to acknowledge that it does not necessarily have all the answers. Science, properly speaking, can say nothing about the overriding purpose of creation, the meaning of our existence, morality and redemption, or, for that matter, the existence or non-existence of God — all these matters are beyond the realm of empirical scientific inquiry (see Science answers). And religion is not going to fade away anytime soon, because it fulfills important needs in millions of persons worldwide (see Religion fade away).

So let’s declare a truce between science and religion, and, like the U.S. and Japan, move forward with profitable exchanges. Society can be enriched by both camps.

[This appeared in the SMR blog.]

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