The first chapter is a knockout. Victoria recounts his 1999 visit to the Rinzai Zen Master Nakajima Genjō, a year before the latter's death at age 85. Genjō told Victoria
that he had served in the Imperial Japanese Navy for some ten years, voluntarily enlisting at the age of twenty-one. Significantly, the year prior to his enlistment Genjo had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō).Genjō was the first Zen master Victoria had met in person who had served in the military, so he gratefully accepted the master's offer of a copy of his autobiography on its publication. Victoria then provides a "somewhat abridged" translation of the portion describing Genjō's wartime experience. He kept in touch with his own master, Yamamoto Gempō, who continued his Zen training by correspondence while encouraging him to be "the genuine article, the real thing! Zen priests mustn't rely on the experience of others. Do today what has to be done today. Tomorrow is too late!" (4).
... To my surprise, Genjō readily agreed to share his wartime experiences with me, but, shortly after he began to speak, tears welled up in his eyes and his voice cracked. Overcome by emotion, he was unable to continue. By this time his tears had triggered my own, and we both sat round the temple's open hearth crying for some time. When at length Genjō regained his composure, he informed me that he had just completed writing his autobiography, including a description of his years in the military .
When Genjō's ship landed in Zhenjiang, China, in 1937, he visited the famous temple of Jinshani there. He found five hundred novices engaged in meditation practice, and being "young and immature," he remonstrated with the abbot.
What do you think you're doing! In Japan everyone is consumed by the war with China, and this is all you can do? [The abbot replied,] And just who are you to talk? I hear that you are a priest. War is for soldiers. A priest's work is to read the sūtras and meditate!Pacifist or no, Genjō continued to serve in the Japanese Navy. He dismisses reports of the infamous massacres in Nanking: "... I am firmly convinced that there was no such thing. It was wartime, so there may have been a little trouble with the women. In any event, after things start to settle down, it is pretty difficult to kill anyone" (ibid.). He sketches out the rest of the war from a Japanese sailor's perspective. In 1943 his ship was torpedoed and, while drifting in the South China Sea, he had another enlightenment experience as he grappled with "life and death."
The abbot didn't say any more than this, but I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a sledgehammer. As a result I immediately became a pacifist .
There was nothing to do but totally devote myself to Zen practice within the context of the ocean itself. It would be a shame to die here I thought, for I wanted to return to being a Zen priest. Therefore I single-mindedly devoted myself to making every possible effort to survive, abandoning all thought of life and death. It was just at that moment that I freed myself from life and death.Looking back, Genjō waxes indignant, even wrathful, over what he perceives as the cowardice and incompetence of the top brass.
This freedom from life and death was in reality the realization of great enlightenment (daigo)... I wanted to meet my master so badly, but there was no way to contact him .
In the Meiji era [1868-1912] military men had character and a sense of history. Gradually, however, the military was taken over by men who did well in school and whose lives were centered on their families. It became a collection of men lacking intestinal fortitude and vision. Furthermore, they suffered from a lack of Japanese spirit and ultimately allowed personal ambition to take control of their lives .In conclusion, Genjō laments:
The national polity of Japan is characterized by the fact that ours is a land of the gods. The gods are bright and like water, both aspects immeasurable by nature ... Stupid military men, however, thought: "A country that can fight well is a land of the gods. The gods will surely protect such a country." I only wish that the top echelons of the military had absorbed even a little of the spirit of the real national polity .
This was a stupid war. Engulfed in a stupid war, there was nothing I could do. I wish to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, to those of my fellow soldiers who fell in battle. As I look back on it now, I realize that I was in the navy for a total of ten years. For me, those ten years felt like an eternity. And it distresses me to think of all the comrades I lost .Reading Genjō's memoir made Victoria realize that when the two of them wept over the war, Genjō was mourning only the Japanese military personnel who suffered and died in the conflict, especially those who died from disease and hunger rather than from a more fitting and glorious death in battle. He also considers the war "stupid," not because it was a war of aggression, or even because it was a gigantic cataclysm of destructive violence, but because, "unlike in other wars, Japan had been defeated" (11) due to the leaders' incompetence in planning and strategy. This immediately made me think of many Americans' judgment of our invasion of Vietnam, which is often touted as the first US defeat; that we killed millions of innocent people who had not attacked the US is of no interest to them at all, only that we failed to extract another victory to add to our large, glorious collection of trophies, at the cost of American lives.
Imagine someone who informs you, while tucking into a big juicy steak, that after a stunning confrontation with a religious teacher, she immediately became a vegetarian, and remains so to this day. In what sense Genjō considers himself a pacifist, considering that he nowhere rejects war in principle, baffles me, as it baffles Victoria; Genjō's account "suggests that in practice Genjō's newly found pacifism amounted to little more than 'feel good, accomplish nothing' mental masturbation" (14). To the credit of both men, he followed up this question. (I say both men because it would not be surprising for a revered senior monk to slap down probing questions from an impertinent junior and a foreigner at that; but as you'll see, Genjō didn't do so.)
In fact, during a second visit to Shōinji in January 2000, I personally queried Genjō on this very point: I asked him why he hadn't attempted, in one way or another, to distance himself from Japan's war effort following his change of heart. His reply was short and to the point: "I would have been court-martialed and shot had I done so."A few things should be borne in mind here. One is that, while Genjō's disinclination to face court-martial and execution for rejecting the Japanese war is understandable during the war -- and like Victoria, I don't condemn him for it, being even less sure than Victoria that I'd have done any differently in his place -- he continued to accept the validity of the war even sixty years later, when the political situation had changed and he would probably have faced no consequences for rejecting it. This too is similar to many Americans' reluctance in retrospect to condemn the Vietnam War, or the 2003 Gulf War for that matter. It's okay and quite safe to criticize the way those wars were prosecuted, but to argue that they should not have been fought at all is Going Too Far. It's popular (both in Japan and in 'the West') to point to the conformism and groupthink of Japanese society to explain the paucity of dissent by Japanese, but Americans are not very different in that respect.
No doubt, Genjō was speaking the truth, and I for one am not going to claim that I would have acted any differently (though I hope I would have). This said, Genjō does not hesitate to present himself to his readers as the very embodiment of the Buddha's enlightenment. The question must therefore be asked, is the killing of countless human beings in order to save one's own life an authentic expression of the Buddha Dharma, of the Buddha's enlightennment? 
Brian Victoria has a personal history of dissenting within institutions. As a young American Methodist in 1961 he became a conscientious objector, several years before the rise of a movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, though that invasion was already well under way. He became a missionary to fulfill the alternative service required of COs, but when he rejected the "political indoctrination classes" he was expected to take he was turned down for service first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan. He was sent to Japan instead, which didn't have the same doctrinal uniformity among its Christian groups. There he became interested in Zen and was ordained as a Soto Zen monk a few years later. After working in the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, which brought him into conflict with Zen superiors who didn't think priests should get involved in politics, he became aware of the previous Buddhist role in Japanese imperialism, which led him to the writing of Zen at War.
A reviewer of Zen War Stories for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics commented:
Reading Victoria’s new book in late 2003, as an American reflecting on recent and past U.S. policy in the Middle East, I cannot help wondering about the comparable role of Christianity in the West. In criticizing the nationalistic role of Zen, are we holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards than we have upheld ourselves? To say that Buddhism was distorted by Japanese society: in the end, does that mean anything more than that Buddhism too is a religion practiced by human beings?This seems disingenous to me. I haven't seen anything by Victoria which indicates that he's "holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards" than he would hold Christianity, since he has been no less critical of Christianity, and of the US (his home country). The reviewer's complaint is typical of tactics used to discredit critics of any tradition: if you criticize US foreign policy, for example, or Israeli oppression of Palestinians, or various misconduct by Christians, you will be accused of considering America (or Israel) to be uniquely bad, perhaps claiming that it is 'the source of everything that's wrong in the world.' Victoria's thoughtcrime lies not in considering Buddhism unique, but in rejecting the claim that it is unique, a religion like others, and in criticizing it from within. It's perfectly acceptable, and indeed normal, to treat Buddhism, or Christianity, or America, or Science, as uniquely good; apologists only fall back to the line of "we're just human beings like everybody else" for damage control.
That "Buddhism too is a religion is a religion practiced by human beings" is precisely what Brian Victoria has been saying all along. As the Austrian-born Hindu monk and sociologist Agehananda Bharati said, one can be a believer and a sound scholar if one "radically criticize[s] the doctrine with which one identifies, pointing out its weaknesses, its foibles, and the clay feet of its founders and sustainers, at every step." (Which is why I myself criticize atheists along with theists, and my own country along with others.) Victoria judges Zen and Christianity, Japan and America, by a single standard. But that is exactly what no doctrine wants its followers to do.
It's also okay for good believers to criticize competing traditions as harshly as is expedient. Christians and other monotheists are notorious for doing so -- see the passages Victoria quotes from Christian scholarly texts on Buddhism on page xiv, for example -- but the tendency isn't limited to them. Buddhism has a long pacifist tradition, as does Christianity; Victoria quotes a story that the Buddha, questioned by a professional soldier, "informed him that if the latter were to die on the battlefield he could expect to be 'reborn in a hell or as an animal' for his transgressions." This is a much harsher judgment than anything Jesus is reported to have said; he never condemned war himself, perhaps because he expected to lead the war against unbelievers in the final judgment. (Indeed, according to the gospels, he was quite friendly and helpful to soldiers of the Roman occupation of his country.) Victoria continues: "Inasmuch as I make no claim to omniscience for myself, I do not know in what state, or even if, the protagonists in this book will be reborn. But, like the Buddha himself, I do not hesitate to judge them on the basis of their deeds, whether of body or speech" (xv). Like Christianity, Buddhism has a long tradition of violence and warfare, and it didn't begin in twentieth-century Japan.