A foolish optimism about human nature can’t withstand even a nodding acquaintance with history. If you’re of a certain age you may well remember seeing this photo. It was published years ago in Life magazine, among other places. And once seen, it is not easily forgotten. The Scrapbook retrieved the copy reproduced here from the endlessly fascinating World War II Today website, maintained and curated since 2008 by Martin Cherrett (ww2today.com). Here is Mr. Cherrett’s description:

Leonard Siffleet was an Australian Special Forces radio operator, sent to Papua New Guinea to establish a coast watching site monitoring the movements of Japanese forces. He and two Ambonese comrades, H. Pattiwal and M. Reharing, were discovered and detained by local tribesmen loyal to the Japanese. After the Japanese had interrogated them for two weeks, all three were beheaded on Aitape Beach on 24th October. If Yasuno Chikao, the Japanese officer responsible, had not asked a comrade to take a photograph of him wielding the execution sword, it is very unlikely that their exact fate would have been discovered.

For several reasons, our thoughts turned to this photo when the president made his remarks last week about the brutal murder of an American journalist, James Foley, who had been kidnapped in Syria two years ago. It serves as a reminder, as a colleague put it, that this kind of madness is eternal and “not subject to taming by negotiation. It feeds on itself; loves itself.” YouTube may have been invented only recently, but the sick desire of a certain kind of killer to preserve a record of his crime, a trophy if you will, is nothing new. It bespeaks self-confidence, pride, a belief in the glory and rightness of the cause on behalf of which he kills. The swordsman in the photo is a man, you might say, who believes that history is on his side.

The president last week said of Foley’s killer, “people like this ultimately fail. They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy .  .  .” We might wish that this were the case, but it isn’t. Civilizations are mortal, and many fine ones have been both built and destroyed. Those who built them kept them only as long as they defended them.

Something more will be required to defend our civilization than the belief, woven into this president’s Oval Office rug, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice.

We knew how to deal with an army of Yasuno Chikaos. For the existence of this photo, and the lessons it imparts, we owe thanks to the U.S. Navy and the American GIs who recovered it from a dead Japanese officer less than six months after it was taken. They were part of Operation Reckless, an amphibious landing of an entire U.S. Army corps on New Guinea.

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