The Kokoda Trail
Imagine being offered the chance to start all over again. To go back to the beginning of our life and do it one more time, knowing what you know now. Would you take it?
I think the majority of people would. At the very least we would go back to make a few minor adjustments: actually show up to class in university, not get the tattoo, decide to drive home after 10 beers. Perhaps actually write the book or simply not give up on that Spanish class when you were just learning to get somewhat good at it because you were in your teens and anything but talking to your friends was pointless.
Maybe then you would be happier, have a deeper sense of satisfaction towards life, or more success professionally.
If you would’t go back then hats off to you. The lucky hand you were dealt which enables you to live life as a long string of happy events, optimal outcomes, and perfect decisions, then you’re going to have to get lost right now. Because I don’t write for people like you. And nobody does.
Because me, if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, I would change 98% of it. The 2% that I would keep is the time spent on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.
Known as one of the world’s most challenging treks, the Kokoda Trail is a 96km trail that snakes across rugged terrain and the impassable Owen Stanley mountain range that separates the north and south coasts of Papua New Guinea.
The trail was the scene to some of the bloodiest battles of the pacific campaign during World War II. During the campaign, a small band of Australian and Papuan battalions were able to hold and push back the Japanese forces just before they reached a crucial vantage point, a ridge that overlooks the capital of Port Moresby.
Bone Man of Kokoda
What makes this trek truly one of a kind is that, until recently, most of the stories that were told of it were from survivors, memoirs and war records. Within the past decade the trail has become a type of pilgrimage for Australians seeking to connect with their past as the battles fought on the Kokoda reflect one of the most heroic episodes in Australia’s history.
But what of their enemies? Prior to the trek I was given a book that talked about the ‘bone man’ of the Kokoda. The book – The Bone Man of Kokoda – was written to tell the extraordinary story of Kokichi Nishimura, a member of the 2nd battalion, 144th Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Army.
In 1942 he fought along every foot of the Kokoda Track as the Japanese attempted to take Port Moresby.
He was the only man from his platoon to survive the campaign. While wounded and starving, leaving thousands of his comrades buried in shallow graves along the entire track he was evacuated to safety where he made a promise that one day he would return to Papua New Guinea and bring them home to Japan for a proper burial.
After the war, Nishimura married, had three kids, started an engineering business and prospered. But under the surface, the driving ambition of his life was not to live peacefully and well, but to go back to Papua New Guinea to fulfill his promise to his fallen comrade.
When he reached retirement age, he shocked his family by giving his business to his sons, and the rest of his assets to his wife, so that he could return to Papua New Guinea to search for the remains of Japanese Soldiers. And that he did for the next 25 years while living in tents along the Kokoda Track.
In those 25 years, he was able to find hundreds of his fallen comrades.
It was only while on the Kokoda myself that I began to ponder what actually went on here decades ago, which led me to the philosophical topic of: what it means to be good.
Philosophy on the Trail
Like any good book you try to understand each character by putting yourself in their shoes. However, with Nishimura in The Bone Man of Kokoda it was impossible. Probably because I’ve never fought in a war and, probably more telling, I’ve never given up a life of success and luxury along with a wife and kids, just to dig up remains of friends in a jungle because of a promise I made to them years back.
That doesn’t stop me from thinking about this dilemma philosophically, particularly, the question of: what it means to be good?
My train of thought led me to thinking about what it means to live a good life in two years: (1) intentions and (2) results.
Because I was standing in what could have been the same place Nishimura made his promise to his comrades, I tried to imagine bullets whizzing past my head and bloodied soldiers scattered around me, while yelling “I’ll be back one day.”
In situations like this, good intentions and heartfelt wishes are not enough. The dividing line between words and results is courageous action. I have always felt that one of the greatest divisions in life is between sounding good (intention) and doing good (result).
Why? Because we are ultimately measured by our results, by the way our actions shape the world around us. If it wasn’t for results, no matter how heartfelt or sincere our intentions are, in the grand scheme of things, they are just ways of entertaining ourselves.
The difference between intentions and results always reminds me of how the ancient Greeks thought about the right action.
In any discussion of ethics for the Greeks the word arete gets brought up more times than not. Although it’s often translated as ‘virtue’, the Greeks used it to refer to excellence.
In context, they used it to describe the excellence of a person. To be excellent means to be someone who produces excellence.
There is no such thing as an excellent blacksmith who consistently makes defective swords or an excellence entrepreneur whose companies constantly go bankrupt. Your character is judged excellent not before you acted, but after. Thus, judgment was based not on your intentions, but on your results.
The good thing is that morality of results doesn’t demand that we succeed every time we act or else be judged as bad people. Instead, it tells us to put the well-being of others at the center of our judgments about right and wrong.
Before I can say that I am good, I have to point to something more than what I wanted to happen – I have to point to what I have done in the world.
When people act solely on intention they tend to be more concerned with how they feel, than with the outcome of their actions.
Those who go after results may lose many battles, but their object is to persevere until victory.
The lesson is this: if your best is not good enough, make your best better. If you tried hard and failed, then try harder until you succeed. Trying hard is trying hard. Success is success. There is a difference.
In the end, I was introduced to Nishimura personally. Despite this I still find it hard to fathom what it must have felt like to give up everything just to fulfill a promise.