THE IMPENDING 40th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is the occasion for various memoirs and historical studies. There is a musty smell to them, like pressed roses in a childhood album. Great armies and great armadas still exist on the planet but we will not see the likes of that war again. The point is made by Russell Weigley, the American military historian: "The history of usable combat may at last be reaching its end." Global conflict as an instrument of great power diplomacy has been made obsolete by nuclear weapons. In those terms, "good" can never again triumph over "evil" through the application of force because the force itself is seen as the ultimate evil. There is thus an irrelevance to studies of World War II. With a single caveat, that past is prologue to nothing. The caveat is the capacity of men and nations for irrationality.

Japan's imperial adventure, beginning before Pearl Harbor, was insane. As disaster followed disaster, the insanity took a more virulent form, culminating in 1945 with a slogan for national suicide: "We shall fight on if 100 million perish!" Russell Spurr's account of the last mission of the battleship Yamato in April, 1945 is an illuminating and evocative case study of the peculiar dementia that afflicted the Japanese ruling classes and their samurai in the last "good war."

The Yamato was the largest battleship ever built--larger even than the Bismarck. On the day she steamed to her doom, Japan's own doom was obvious to all, including its civilian governors and some factions of the general staff. Their Pacific island outposts had fallen. Their merchant fleet was all but destroyed; only remnants of the Imperial Navy survived. Their armies on the Asian mainland were cut off from home. MacArthur was mopping up the Philippines. Our B-29s devastated their cities and military facilities at will; a single incendiary raid on Tokyo in March, 1945 caused more destruction than the subsequent Hiroshima bomb: 16 square miles of the city were obliterated, 84,000 people were killed and a million were left homeless. Okinawa was under siege by 270,000 American troops and by 1,400 vessels of the Fifth Fleet. Germany would soon surrender. The Soviet Union would soon turn its eyes toward Japan in hopes of shooting the wounded.

The game was up. It was time to end the killing and any rational collection of people would have done so. But not the Japanese. Captain Shigenori Kami, chief proponent of the Yamato's suicide mission, symbolized the mentality of the bitter enders. Spurr writes: "He fell back on ancient, ill-formed superstitions long fed into the samurai subconscious: a mixture of half-digested Buddhist belief and animist legend. From it all emerged the sincerely held belief that an indefinable force, vaguely referred to as 'the Japanese spirit,' was destined to triumph over American 'materialism.' Sacrifice reinforced that spirit. It contributed to victory. The shades of the heroic dead, backed by sympathetic gods, would mass for a miraculous counterattack like the typhoons which saved Japan from the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. A gesture--even an apparently futile gesture--at this crucial stage could not fail to attract divine aid . . . And what a glorious way to die!"

This belief was common among the troops. A young Kamikaze pilot, a Christian convert, wrote to his parents: "We live in the spirit of Jesus Christ and we die in that spirit. This thought stays with me. It is gratifying to live in this world but living has a spirit of futility about it now. It is time to die. I do not seek reasons for dying. My only search is for an enemy target against which to dive."

The Yamato got underway on the afternoon of April 6, sailing out of Kure Harbor with an escort of eight destroyers and a cruiser. Its instructions were to proceed to Okinawa, "blasting a trail of destruction through the American transports and their escorts before beaching close to the nearest Japanese positions. Surviving crewmen would then storm ashore to reinforce the defending garrison." The plan, as Spurr notes, was pure fantasy. The American Fifth Fleet lay between the Yamato and her destination, a force that included 15 carriers and 1,000 aircraft, eight fast battleships, 18 cruisers and 60 destroyers. Early on the morning of April 7, U.S. reconnaissance planes spotted the Yamato task force. At 10 a.m. air strikes were launched from Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's carriers--the San Jacinto, Bennington, Hornet, Belleau Wood, Cabot, Hancock, Essex, Bataan, Bunker Hill, Langley, Intrepid and the Yorktown. Nearly 450 aircraft were involved. At noon they made contact with the Yamato and her escorts. Within an hour two of the Japanese destroyers and the cruiser Yahagi had gone down. The Yamatosurvived for only 102 minutes under the American assault. She took 10 torpedo hits and seven hits from armor-piercing bombs. By nightfall two other Japanese destroyers had been sunk; the remaining two limped off into the darkness.

The Yamato task force had gotten only 100 miles from Kure before it was destroyed at a cost of more than 4,000 Japanese lives. The Americans lost 10 planes and 12 men. There were few Japanese survivors, in part because the Pacific war had degenerated into an unforgiving killing match. Spurr describes the death throes of the cruiser Yahagi: "When the survivors tried to launch a boat (Ensign Brewer) dived his plane across the listing hull. A short burst from his guns smashed the boat to splinters and tossed its occupants into the sea. The cruiser quickly capsized and appeared to explode under water. . . . Very soon there was nothing left but an oil slick, a lot of floating wreckage, and the heads of men struggling to keep afloat. (Lt. Comdr. Herbert N.) Houck dived on (the destroyer) Isokaze, planted a bomb on her blazing deck, and methodically machine-gunned the survivors in the water. Other pilots joined in. Long white bullet trails slashed across the ocean swell, rapidly reducing the numbers of heads bobbing around in the oil."

At dusk the next day. Navy minister Mitsumasa Yonai called on Emperor Hirohito and reported the Yamoto's failure. Spurr describes the scene:

"Hirohito was still trying to grasp the meaning of his minister's news.

"'The fleet,' he said. 'What is the status of the fleet?'

"Yonai bowed again. The tears streamed down his pudgy cheeks.

"'There is no fleet. Imperial Highness, . . . the Imperial Navy no longer exists.'"

Four months were to pass before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of Japan. The day the war ended I was lying on a dock at the Hawaiian island of Maui, waiting to board a transport for the invasion of Japan. We were feeling fatalistic about that trip. Our experience in two years of island fighting had convinced us that there was an insane, suicidal streak in all Japanese, that they were all looking for a glorious way to die. It is impossible to know what would have happened had the mainland landings been necessary. My hunch is that the slaughter of soldiers and civilians alike would have been unimaginable, exceeding many times over the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Russell Spurr doesn't speculate on that, but his evocation of the "divine spirit" of irrationality in Japan in 1945 reinforces that hunch and speaks to mankind about our condition today. For the commanders of the nuclear arsenals of the 1980s there is no longer any distinction between irrationality and miscalculation. It is the great irony of the age that the new vessels of the "divine spirit" are physicists in white smocks.