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Ralph Stayer

This month we cover two seemingly unrelated books—but they do have one thing in common, which will be apparent at the end of the column. We start with The Twilight World by documentarian and film and opera director Werner Herzog. He was in Tokyo in 1997 directing an opera, and was asked if he would like to meet the emperor. To the shock of his Japanese hosts, he declined and said that instead of the emperor he would like to meet Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender when WWII ended and spent 30 years in the jungle defending an island in the Philippines. This is his story.

A friend gave me this book and it reminded me of reading about a Japanese soldier in 1974 who had just surrendered. One couldn’t help but be mystified at what would cause this man to refuse to surrender for 30 years. Looking back, four questions came to mind at the time that wanted answering. Why didn’t he surrender? How did he survive for 30 years? What caused him to give up after 30 years? What happened to him afterward? Herzog’s book answers all these questions with an economy of words that is exemplary. The book is only 132 short pages in length.

In it, we learn about the extreme Japanese form of “death before dishonor.” Their oath of loyalty to the emperor caused thousands of Japanese soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender. This fueled an extreme form of paranoia in Onoda. Many attempts were made to convince him that the war was over—vehicles with loudspeakers speaking to him in Japanese, the placement of newspapers showing the war was over—but he regarded them all as lies and those attempts reinforced in him the belief that Japan was still at war. He was hunted by the Philippine army for most of those years. He survived over 100 ambushes and lived to tell the story to Herzog. This is a book that you will not be able to put down; it is well worth the short amount of time it will take to read it. 

Our second book, One Damn Thing After Another, is the memoirs of Attorney General William Barr. Barr served as the attorney general to George H. W. Bush, and for the last two years of Donald Trump’s term. This is not a book that you can’t put down—its length demands that you’ll have to eat and sleep—but this is a book that you can’t wait to pick up again. It is a fascinating inside look at government written by a principled man.

Barr starts with his early years serving the Bush administration. It is interesting to see the questions that must be asked to determine whether the federal government has the legal status to act in certain circumstances. Does the posse comitatus statute prevent the military from capturing a drug kingpin on foreign soil? Can we send people to Puerto Rico to quell mob violence and looting when the local police force is participating in the violence? What is necessary to capture Noriega in Panama? Does the president need the approval of Congress for the first Gulf War? (No, but it would be much better politically with their approval.) Barr also shares his insights on fighting crime, including a remarkable picture of what bipartisan work can do to reduce it. 

Barr then went into private practice, but was called back to serve in the Trump administration almost 30 years later. His experiences during that period give an insight into the good and the bad of those two years from his perspective. Is Barr a man whose principles guide his decisions? His actions clearly say yes. That is a rare occurrence indeed, and this book is well worth the read. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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