At the end of World War II, there were thousands of Japanese soldiers abandoned by their retreating comrades across China, Southeast Asia, and the islands of the South Pacific. In many cases, they had no radios or other means of communicating with the outside world; no way of knowing that the war was over, or how it ended. Mainland troops were rounded up quickly enough, but things were different on the remote islands.
Over the next years these Robinson Crusoes began to emerge from their caves and jungle hideouts, surrendering to whomever was available. They would end their isolation, even if it meant becoming prisoners of the dreaded Americans. Their “captors” were invariably shocked at the ragged, bearded ghosts who straggled out of the jungle, hands held high, blinking in the sunlight.
Needless to say, most of these unreconstructed warriors of the Rising Sun found things had changed dramatically since they left home. There were now televisions and transistor radios; the emperor was no longer god; an elected parliament ran the country. Perhaps most shocking was the fact the United States — the devil they had sacrificed so many years to defeat — was now a friend and ally.
The last and most famous Japanese holdout was Lt. Hiroo Onada. In 1974, Onada was talked out of his hiding place on a remote Philippine island by his former commanding officer.
Onada later wrote of that meeting with his commander in the jungle: “Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here [to meet his commander]. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?
“Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: my 30 years as a guerrilla fighter for the Japanese army were abruptly finished. This was the end.
“I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets … I eased off the pack that I always carried with me and laid the gun on top of it. Would I really have no more use for this rifle that I had polished and cared for like a baby all these years? … Had the war really ended 30 years ago? … If what was happening was true, wouldn’t it have been better if I had died with [my comrades]?”
I think of those Japanese soldiers sometimes when I consider the white southerners who are still fighting the Civil War in their hearts. Of course, they would deny this. But on Election Day, most white southerners will line up with the Republican Party, as they have since 1964, the year the Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act. They still hide in their cave of white solidarity, unable to imagine a world that is not divided along racial lines.
On election day, millions of white people of different ethnicities, regions, classes, ambitions, education levels, and religious backgrounds will be united by the one thing that is more powerful than any of these others — their white skin. And their white fear.
But in this election, more white southerners will be voting Democratic than at any time in recent history, and they will do it for one reason: Barack Obama.
Obama is a transformational figure, who is showing people — especially young people — the way to a post-racial society. What we will see on Tuesday is a record number of white southerners voting out of hope, rather than voting out of fear.
In South Carolina, there is even giddy talk that Obama might carry this backward and benighted little state. In The Post and Courier last week, Sixth District Rep. Jim Clyburn said, “I think it is a long shot, but it is not as long a shot today as it was a month ago.”
Perhaps, but polls show Republican John McCain with a 20-point lead in South Carolina, the typical margin between Republicans and Democrats in presidential races for our state, 12 days before the election. Still, I think this election might be closer than the pollsters predict, because Obama has electrified the young people in this state, and this is a demographic that lives by the cell phone and has no land lines. They could not be reached by pollsters. Their voices will be heard only on Election Day. In some states, they are going to be Obama’s margin of victory. In the Palmetto State, I think, they will be the margin of surprise.
Regardless of the final vote, this election brings us closer to the day when white South Carolinians can come out of the cave of fear and understand the war is really over.
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