It would be foolish to imagine that he did not enjoy his eminence, even as he saw the loomingthreat of getting into a war with the wrong enemy. He enjoyed a battle, and might even havefound a losing battle more interesting. He might have quite liked the idea of being at the center of a big story, and what could be a bigger story than working the miracle of saving Japan fromthe doom he himself had predicted? After all, going ahead with the attack wasn't his idea. Hewasn't that crazy. He had, however, planned an excellent attack.Or it would have been excellent, if it had caught the American aircraft carriers in harbor. Whenthe returning aircraft reported that the American carriers had not been present, Yamamoto,supervising the operation at long range from the
anchored at Hashirajima in the InlandSea, knew straight away that the Americans had the wherewithal to go on fighting.In May 1942, only five months after Pearl Harbor, the American carriers fought him to a drawat the battle of the Coral Sea. At Midway, scarcely more than six months after Pearl Harbor,they destroyed him. He had been right about making things tough for the Americans for sixmonths. Six months of supremacy were all that the Japanese enjoyed. After Midway, they hadno chance of keeping the initiative. But we make a mistake if we think they were crazy not toadmit defeat. There was always the possibility that they could bring their opponents to terms bymaking it too costly to go on fighting. Because Yamamoto died early, and because the English-speaking gambler is such a sympathetic character, he tends to be enrolled in the ranks of thosewho would have seen reason and sought a sane way out. For those who hold that view, a closestudy of Yamamoto's face can be recommended. He knows your country well, admires itsvirtues, and doesn't even think he can prevail: But he wants to fight anyway.People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times,Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous, apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which aconsidered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of itsown: It likes to make an effect, and it has a propensity for two qualities that can easily beinimical to a broad strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called the shapingspirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto's plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player's betting hiswhole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of
TheTale of Genji
into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn't fit. Even if theAmerican aircraft carriers had been in harbor, they would not have sunk far enough in theshallow water to be beyond salvage. One way or another, the American fleet was bound tocome back.Spiritually, Yamamoto died at Midway. In the matter of his physical death, however, it seemsunlikely that he committed suicide in expiation. Romantic interpreters sometimes favor theappealing notion that Yamamoto invited the American ambush that resulted in his being shotdown into the jungle of Bougainville on April 18, 1943. But when the Japanese search partytracked down his corpse in the jungle, he was still strapped into his seat. His sword was besidehim. If he had wanted to commit suicide, he would probably have done so on dry land or on thedeck of a ship, included the sword in the ceremony, and written a poem first.Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the
New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
. He lives in London.