Saturday, November 18, 2017

Kowtowing to China

Review by Bill Doughty

Hawaii's King Kalakaua
In 1881, Hawaii's King Kalakaua "issued an urgent warning to the Chinese about the coming Western-led global transition that he believed threatened to devastate the peoples of Asia, make it imperative that they unite," according to reporter/historian Howard W. French. 

Kalakaua, who had been received in Tokyo with "pomp and circumstance," made his argument to China based on race: we, like you, are the same as Asians. The Qing dynasty and its representatives, however, were shocked that Kalakaua would consider the "morally superior race" of the Chinese to be thought of as equals.

Condescension to outsiders was expressed in the Central Kingdom's demand for tribute from other countries and territories, including Japan's Ryukyu Islands, European explorers and traders on the Silk Road, and the "barbarian southern others" of Southeast Asia, among others.

In his thought-provoking "Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) Howard W. French shows how kowtowing to the leaders of China has been expected for centuries.

In 1793 Qing emperor Qianlong granted an audience with Lord Macartney, envoy of the British monarch, George III, in hopes of developing greater trade. "The English envoy plied his host with six hundred crates full of gifts, all carefully chosen to impress." Macartney, however, "had declined to perform the 'full' kowtow while presenting himself before the Chinese throne, meaning kneeling three times and prostrating oneself nine times, taking care to touch the forehead to the ground each time, according to the standard of ritualized submission demanded by Chinese protocol under 'tian xia.' [China-centric worldview)."

A depiction of Lord MacArtney's meeting with the Qing emperor and failure to properly kowtow.
A letter from Emperor Qianlong back to the British king is fascinating in its tone and meaning. Rejecting the petition for greater trade, the letter begins, "You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization and in you eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence had send an Embassy across the sea..."

China thumbed its nose at the proposal as "not consistent with our dynastic usage," adding "our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders." The letter closes with an ancient tweet-like threat to "barbarian merchants" to leave China alone. "Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!"

The idea of a special heaven-sent mandate, or "manifest destiny" by another name, was not new in history or human nature, but for centuries China's turn inward, coupled with its disdain for anyone non-Chinese and constant demand for outside tribute, caused a gradual  internal weakening.

Depiction of Admiral Zheng He.
For a time China embraced trade and exploration, from the Song dynasty to the Ming-backed voyages of Zheng He in the 15th Century.  But In a "China first" attitude, the Chinese word for civilization was synonymous with being Chinese, and the narcissistic view was that the Chinese empire was the center of the world.
"China began its career as an energetic oceangoing nation under the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), and in historical terms that career was very brief, as was its period of serious engagement with the much-disputed waters of what is known today as the South China Sea. This history is critical nowadays not just to the Chinese Communist Party's expansive claims of having controlled the entire region enclosed by its nine-dash line 'since time immemorial' – which can easily be refuted – as official propaganda holds, but also in order to comprehend the emergence over time of what would become a remarkably consistent Chinese worldview, based above all on notions of centrality and superiority. Under the Ming dynasty three centuries later, when the Chinese were confronted for the first time with a European-drawn map of the world, in 1584, the 'mappa mundi' produced by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, they were astonished to find their empire positioned at the eastern end of the Eurasian landmass. Out of deference, Ricci drew another map for his hosts placing China at the center."
In "Everything Under the Heavens" French examines China's historical ties with other states expected to kowtow and pay tribute, especially in Asia: Japan and its territories, Vietnam ("Annam"), Cambodia, the Philippines and Korea.
"This pattern is as evident on the Korean Peninsula as it is in Southeast Asia. China would prefer even an extremely nettlesome client in North Korea to any plausible alternative, and hence goes to great lengths to shield it from international pressure over its nuclear weapons program. A testy Pyongyang not heeding advice is better, in China's eyes, than a united Korea linked with the United States. Beijing simultaneously pressures South Korea, whose economy has become increasingly dependent on trade with China, against reinforcing its alliance with the United States, warning in 2016, for example, that if Seoul accepts the installation of sophisticated anti-ballistic missile systems to protect itself from North Korean attack, this could 'destroy bilateral relations' with China. In July 2016, the United States and South Korea announced their decision to deploy the missile defense system over China's strong objections..."
If China has a world view of self-righteous superiority, with China at the top of a global hierarchy, what does that portend for the region?

Five hundred years after Zheng He's gunboat diplomacy and Chinese dynasties' demands for tribute, China, under President Xi Jinping, is embracing globalization, a cooperative approach to confronting climate change, and partnership-building with his neighbors. 

But French points out that at a Central Committee "work forum" on diplomacy, Xi spoke "not only about the use of carrots and sticks with other countries, but also about the need to build the case for Chinese 'righteousness' and to reinforce Beijing's moral authority in the world."

Will China demand that the world's maps be centered on the kingdom "under the heavens"? Will China continue "stealthily tightening its grip on the surrounding seas to the east and especially to the south" through its New Silk Road Initiative? Will China continue to attempt "turning the South China Sea into a 'Chinese lake'" with its nine-dash line? 

French notes: "Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said one would 'have to believe in a flat Earth' not to grasp that China's goal was to 'achieve hegemony in East Asia.'"

Sonar Technician (Surface) SA Rodolfo Melo, USS Chafee (DDG 90), handles line as
Chafee departs Hong Kong, China Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo by MC1 Benjamin A. Lewis.)
Yet China has significant challenges, according to French, not the least of which are an aging population, a slowing economy, unpredictable effects of nationalism, and competing, sometimes angry, neighbors. And "the more China subjects itself to its sharp elbows the more others will naturally band together to defy it, as the last few years have already shown, while clamoring for the United States to stand with them."

Meanwhile, at least historically, the United States has been a beacon of values: freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, among others. "China today is a country virtually without allies," French writes, "whereas America has a globe-spanning network of formal alliance relationships and a set of fundamental values – based on participation, openness, democracy and human rights – that constitute a tremendous appeal for peoples all over the world, often including citizens of unfriendly states and outright foes."

On the U.S.'s role and possible limiting of China as a competing superpower, French reappraises the rebalance to the Pacific that President Obama initiated:
"A country of China's size cannot be contained, and any effort to do so would be strongly counterproductive. Rather than containment, what is going on is a process whereby Washington is steadily raising the costs for China by repositioning 60 percent of its naval assets to the neighborhood and upgrading military cooperation with its allies, Japan, the Philippines and others, while helping medium-sized powers like Vietnam ... The most salient U.S. goal, as I've written elsewhere, is 'thickening the web among China's wary neighbors, who have a shared interest in keeping China from using force to upend the existing order. Japan excepted for the time being, none of these countries has any prospect of prevailing toe-to-toe with China, and some of them are frankly Lilliputian. In concert, however, even if not in outright alliance, they may be able to effectively tie down the giant and constrain it to a mutually acceptable set of international rules.'"
How would the world and history be different if, in the late 19th century, a narcissistic China had not practiced racial animus and a transactional foreign policy? What if instead China had openly embraced international trade, cooperation and commerce? What if China had not demanded kowtowing – and instead embraced King Kalakaua of Hawaii.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Good Leadership at the Top

Review by Bill Doughty

Walter Isaacson distills the qualities that make a good leader in "Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness" (W.W. Norton, 2010), featuring essays from writers including Evan Thomas,  Alan Brinkley, Glenda Gilmore, Robert Dallek and David M. Kennedy.

The "toughest part of political leadership," he contends, "is knowing when to compromise versus when it is necessary to stand firm on principle."

An advisor to presidents, Benjamin Franklin, 81 years old at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, proposed a compromise between small and large states: "a House proportioned by population and a Senate with equal votes per state." Franklin united the convention and nation with his compromise.

Isaacson writes, "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies."

Unfortunately, Franklin also compromised on the issue of slavery, a position that "soon haunted him" and propelled him to become an abolitionist.
"He realized that humility required tolerance for other people's values, which at times required compromise of one's own; however, it was important to be uncompromising in opposing those who refused to show tolerance of others."
In an essay perfect for Veterans Day, Sean Wilentz reintroduces us to Ulysses S. Grant, who as a former Union general and U.S. president visited Berlin, Germany in 1877 and met with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant
In conversation with Bismarck, Grant corrected the perception that America's Civil War was fought only to save the Union. Grant told him, "As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle."

According to Wilentz, Grant, who, like Washington and Jefferson, had his own complicated history as a slaveowner, had to clean up "the mess left behind by the pro-southern obstructionist president Andrew Johnson." Grant eventually strongly opposed Johnson when Johnson "hardened his defense of white supremacy and obstructed congressional efforts to guarantee the civil and political rights of the ex-slaves."

During Reconstruction and the years that followed, Grant took on the Ku Klux Klan and "subterfuges that might disqualify black voters" and intimidation "with the express purposes of scaring black voters from the polls." But President Grant, "as a career military officer, was particularly sensitive about any display of executive power that might be interpreted as the actions of a would-be Caesar."

Like every leader, Grant had blemishes, but his achievements should be recognized and appreciated, according to Wilentz.
"Grant left behind the most admirable and politically courageous record on race relations of any president from Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson. For that leadership, he sustained broad approval among the American people – but he earned the enmity of southern racists and northern 'liberal' reformers of his own time and then earned, from generations of later historians, a lasting reputation for incompetence and worse. It is long past time that the reconstruction of our understanding of Reconstruction came to include President Ulysses S. Grant."
The essay writers in "Profiles in Leadership" examine a diverse groups of leaders and influencers including, among others, George Washington, Pauli Murray, Charles Finney, Chief Joseph, W.E.B Dubois, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower.
"Wendell Willkie is an interesting, and overlooked, case of a leader who was both principled and willing to seek common ground with his political opponents. As David Levering Lewis explains in his essay, when Willkie won the 1940 nomination of the Republican Party, his best political strategy would have been to embrace the prevailing isolationist Republican sentiment and oppose any intervention in what was to become World War II. But Willkie followed his own principles and supported a consensus approach on foreign policy. After his loss Willkie helped devise, with great clarity of vision, a Republican internationalism."Eisenhower was also good at eliciting consensus, as David Kennedy points out in his essay. When given a clear mission, he was able to bring people along and nurture a practical optimism. He did this not by being assertive. He never bought the notion that bullying and leadership were synonymous. But he was bold in his conduct of war because he was given a clear goal. Eisenhower was less effective, however, when he had to develop his own sense of mission and his own moral vision. That is why, Kennedy argues, he was timid on the race issue. He also valued comity over disruptive crusades for social justice. Added to that, I think, was that Eisenhower, like many people in the [1950s], did not believe integration was something that should be rushed."
Dwight D. Eisenhower
"Justice too long delayed is justice denied," Martin Luther King Jr. would write a decade later in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" when he was imprisoned in Alabama.

While Eisenhower, who David Kennedy calls "no bigot," showed tolerance for integration to a point, including finishing what Truman started with integration of the military, he failed to call for integration on the national stage and he stalled legislation for civil rights.

"The walls have ears."
He also did not condemn the murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till or other acts of violence and discrimination against blacks, offering no opinion on the subject of racial justice. His armed intervention in the face of riots in Little Rock, Arkansas was based, he said, on "his duty to maintain order and respect for the directives of the federal courts."

Isaacson, author of "The Innovators" and biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, recently published what promises to be a fascinating study on Leonardo da Vinci.

Isaacson sees patterns and context in history, creativity and leadership. He commends humility, integrity, commitment and the courage of one's convictions – all important leadership qualities.

He concludes, "The history of a nation is probably best served by a mix of leadership styles over the years, sometimes creating a pattern of reactions and then counterreactions to what went before ... The greatest challenge of leadership is to know when to be flexible and pragmatic, on the one hand, and when it is, instead, a moment to stand firm on principle and clarity of vision." Like a lot of things in life, it's 'the wisdom to know the difference.'"

Sunday, October 22, 2017

John Finn / Seton's Halloween Story

Review by Bill Doughty
World War II's first Medal of Honor recipient (former Navy Chief and Lieutenant) John Finn came to Pearl Harbor Dec. 6, 2009 to ride in a whiteboat named for him. He was 100.

Ernest Thompson Seton
I had the special privilege of interviewing John Finn that day during his boat ride. He told me his favorite author, beginning early in his life, was Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist, artist, writer, adventurer and Native American Indian advocate.
Finn said Seton was a great writer who captured his imagination and influenced his love of the West.

Seton had a significant role in the birth of Scouting in the United States. He is the reason there are such strong ties with Scouting and Native American culture.
Recently I read Seton's "The Arctic Prairies: A Canoe-Journey of 2,000 Miles in Search of the Caribou; Being the Account of a Voyage to the Region North of Aylmer," first published in 1911 – when John Finn was nearly two years old – and reprinted in 1917 in the version I held. The subject of the book, the journey itself, started in 1907.
Seton recounts stories, does science experiments, makes sketches of wildlife and narrates the journey to "unbroken forest and prairie leagues." This richly rewarding book follows the six-month journey Seton made with Edward A. Preble.
Preble was a naturalist whose bloodline included a distant great-great-great grandfather, the brother of Commodore Edward Preble, who defeated the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean on orders of President Thomas Jefferson.
It was naturalist Preble who became the center of a campfire Halloween story just as the journey was coming to a close, after various adventures with lynxes, buffaloes, musk-ox, caribou, wolves, bears, coyotes, Arctic foxes and a myriad of birds. Many of the creatures in the cold North were hungry, some dying of starvation in the early winter.
One particular animal became the focus of October 28, leading up to the end of the Seton-Preble journey on Halloween 1907.
"On that same night we had a curious adventure with a weasel. All were sitting around the camp-fire at bed-time, when I heard a distinct patter on the leaves. 'Something coming,' I whispered. All held still, then out of the gloom came bounding a snow-white weasel. Preble was lying on his back with his hands clasped behind his head and the weasel fearlessly jumped on my colleague's broad chest, and stood peering about. In a flash Preble's right elbow was down and held the weasel prisoner, his left hand coming to assist. Now, it is pretty well known that if you and a weasel grab each other at the same time he has choice of holds. 'I have got him,' said Preble, then added feelingly, 'but he got me first. Suffering Moses! The little cuss is grinding his teeth in deeper.' The muffled screaming of the small demon died away as Preble's strong left hand crushed out its life, but as long as there was a spark of it remaining, those desperate jaws were grinding deeper into his thumb. It seemed a remarkably long affair to us, and from time to time, as Preble let off some fierce ejaculation, one of us would ask, 'Hello! Are you two still at it,' or 'How are you and your friend these times, Preble?' In a few minutes it was over, but that creature in his fury seemed to have inspired himself with lock-jaw, for his teeth were so driven in and double-locked, that I had to pry the jaws apart before the hand was free. The weasel may now be seen in the American Museum, and Preble in the Agricultural Department at Washington, the latter none the worse. So wore away the month, the last night came, a night of fireside joy at home (for was it not Hallowe'en?), and our celebration took the form of washing, shaving, mending clothes, in preparation for our landing in the morning."
Seton admitted to a wanderlust desire to go to unexplored regions. He traveled the Nyarling River and camped at the Great Slave Lake, White Fish River, Salt River, Athabska River and Little Buffalo River. He met with Native Americans he called Cree, Chipewyan, Grand Lake Algonquin and Blackfoot Indians.
He describes – and sketches drawings of – dozens of fauna and flora, presented in scientific sketches. Black-and-white photos show the beautiful desolation of the open country.
In the final chapter, "The End," Seton writes:
"All that night of Hallowe'en, a partridge drummed near my untented couch on the balsam boughs. What a glorious sound of woods and life triumphant it seemed; and why did he drum at night? Simply because he had more joy than the short fall day gave him time to express. He seemed to be beating our march of victory, for were we not in triumph coming home? The gray firstlight came through the trees and showed us lying each in his blanket, covered with leaves, like babes in the woods. The gray jays came wailing through the gloom, a faroff cock-of-the-pines was trumpeting in the lovely, unplagued autumn woods; it seemed as though all the very best things in the land were assembled and the bad things all left out, so that our final memories should have no evil shade. The scene comes brightly back again, the sheltering fir-clad shore, the staunch canoe skimming the river's tranquil reach, the water smiling round her bow, as we push from this, the last of full five hundred camps. The dawn fog lifts, the river sparkles in the sun, we round the last of a thousand headlands. The little frontier town of the Landing swings into view once more – what a metropolis it seems to us now!"
We can picture a young John Finn reading this book rapturously and enjoying the photos and drawings by the author.

USS John Finn (DDG 113) in Pearl Harbor. (Photo by Ens. Britney Duesler.
Last summer, in Pearl Harbor the Navy commissioned a new guided-missile destroyer: USS John Finn (DDG 113). The ship is homeported in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the John Finn whiteboat, one of several in Pearl Harbor with Sailors at the helm, is used nearly every day to take about 150 visitors per trip to the USS Arizona Memorial – more than a million-and-a-half people per year from throughout the world. 

Among the groups who visit Pearl Harbor each year are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Interestingly, Ernest Thompson Seton is considered to one of the "fathers" of Scouting. 
Politics, patriotism and even spirituality/religion are intertwined in a fascinating essay by David C. Scott and presented by Johnny Walker about Seton's role in the early days of Scouting.
Ernest Thompson Seton founded The Woodcraft Movement in 1901 and wrote the first Boy Scouts of America handbooks. The original 1910 BSA manual is subtitled "A Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-craft" (Seton and Baden-Powell, 1910). Seton also wrote "The Woodcraft Manual for Girls" in 1916. 
For perspective on Seton, consider that he was born in England in April 14, 1860, nearly one year to the day before the start of America's Civil War. He moved to Canada, where he lived and studied, before eventually moving to the United States and becoming a U.S. citizen, settling near Santa Fe, New Mexico – in the heart of his (and Finn's) beloved West.

Seton teaches young people about Indian culture as part of his Woodcraft Movement, 1903.
A complicated individual, Seton became enmeshed in an early 20th century controversy that ended up putting him somewhat at odds with his President Theodore Roosevelt over anthropomorphic portrayals of animals in nature. TR reportedly advised Seton to back up his views with facts, leading to volumes of academic and scientific investigations about animals.

Though apparently hobbled by his own ego and patriarchal thinking toward other races, he was an early champion of equal rights for women, and he had deep respect for Native American Indian culture.

Seton also reached across the Atlantic to his native England and sought to strengthen ties in World War I, reinforcing the ideal of service. 

In his "The Gospel of the Redman: An Indian Bible" Seton writes: "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, 'How much service have I rendered to my people?' His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world."

Seton died 71 years ago on Oct. 23, 1946, one year after the end of the war John Finn helped win. Today the Navy remembers the service of John Finn, who, though wounded and vulnerable, fought back, firing his mounted machine gun at attacking enemy planes on December 7, 1941 at Naval Station Kaneohe Bay, now Marine Corps Base Hawaii. We can imagine Finn's spirit aboard USS John Finn, at MCBH and in Pearl Harbor.

Extended family members and friends of the late John Finn visit his namesake whiteboat in Pearl Harbor July 17, 2017. (Photo by Ens. Britney Duesler)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Shadows, Reflections of 'Intimate' Vietnam

Review by Bill Doughty

How could we  get sucked into a civil war in Asia, and how could we stay stuck in that war for so many years? What is revealed in the shadows of that war and its aftermath?

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns answer those questions and present a comprehensive and compassionate work in their massive "The Vietnam War: An Intimate History" (Knopf, 2017). It's must reading for anyone who failed to understand or learn the lessons of Vietnam.

Of course, this book is a also a detailed compendium to the documentary film series (and website) by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. According to the authors:
"America's involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties."
The Vietnam War grew out of World War II as a national liberation war to prevent totalitarianism. "Ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world."

President-elect Nixon visits LBJ's White House in 1968.
Ward and Burns show how American leaders willingly inherited from the French a role in Vietnam's civil war, from Truman and Eisenhower through JFK and LBJ and, finally to President Richard Nixon, who, in President Lyndon B. Johnson's words, committed "treason" by preventing an early peace with North Vietnam in order to win election in 1968.

Nixon's own words are printed as transcripts.

In one exchange, in which Ward and Burns say "Nixon was lying," Nixon told President Johnson, in the midst of the 1968 election, "We've got to get this goddamned war off the plate ... Just the quicker the better and the hell with the political credit. Believe me, that's the way I feel about it."

President Lyndon B. Johnson (Johnson Library)
(Interrogation specialist Stan Walters says often people who frequently say "believe me" or "trust me" don't believe their own claims.)

LBJ's conversations with others – and growing conflicted conscience – are also part of the record. 

Johnson was "caught between his key advisors – and between his conflicting desires simultaneously to end a war and to keep from being the first president to lose one."

Ward and Burns show how the Gulf of Tonkin incident escalated our involvement in Vietnam, from a questionable encounter at sea involving U.S. Navy destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy turned into "one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history" and leading immediately to air attacks and soon a commitment to a land war.

USS Maddox operates off Oahu, Hawaii, March 21, 1964. (Photo by PH2 Antoine, NHHC)
This book is filled with images showing the pain, exhaustion, shock, desperation and destruction of the war. The book's cover shows through a rice paddy reflection the authors' intent to show perspectives from both sides.

Highlights and insights in this 600+ page book include the role of Anna Chan Chennault before, during and after the war; the stories and lives of veterans John Musgrave, Hal Kushner, Denton "Mogie" Crocker, Joan Furey and Vincent Okamoto; the patriotism and words of John Kerry, Robert F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and Merrill McPeak; and the pivotal moments of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation, the Tet Offensive, Cambodia incursion, My Lai massacre, Kent State shooting, evacuation of Saigon and release of POWs. Writers and thinkers like Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes and Neil Sheehan share their thoughts, and we get the perspectives of  former enemies, including Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Thank Tung, Nguyen Tai, and Bao Ninh.

Former North Vietnamese soldier and acclaimed writer, Bao Ninh.
From former North Vietnamese army soldier turned writer Bao Ninh:
"The last time I caught sight of American combat troops close up, on the ground, was late one morning in April 1971, near An Khe Pass. I saw a platoon of airborne troops on patrol on Highway 19. They seemed relaxed, not particularly cautious, walking down the road in single file, skirting the edge of their base. They didn’t know there were three of us scouts silently following their every move, monitoring them from behind thick camouflage on a hill about 100 meters off the road, and they had absolutely no idea that a strongly armed North Vietnamese Army unit was waiting for them at the bend of the road half a kilometer ahead. To this day, I see them clearly in my mind, as if they were right in front of me. I especially remember a radio operator carrying a PRC-25 backpack radio. I can’t understand why as radio operator he wasn’t beside the company commander, but instead was pulling up the rear, trailing behind the group. He seemed nonchalant, with no bulletproof vest, no helmet, no M-16 or grenade launcher, just the radio on his back. He had short brown hair, no beard or mustache. Through my binoculars I saw that he was chewing something, probably gum. He was just ambling along, kicking an empty Coke can as he walked. Fifteen minutes later the sound of gunfire told me his platoon had walked into our ambush. I never found out what happened to that radio man, have no idea whether he made it. "In 1998, during my first trip to the United States, whenever I was visiting a university or high school and saw young boys and girls in auditoriums and hanging out on the lawns, I would see again the face of that young soldier, hear the clatter of that empty Coke can on the road. He was just like a kid on the way home to his mother after school, playing with whatever he happened to come across."It’s been a long time, but I still have nightmares from the war. I still hear the hiss of hundreds of bombs being dropped from B-52s, the roar of artillery barrages and the thrum of the helicopter rotors. I still see platoons of American Marines in bulletproof vests and helmets jumping out of Chinook helicopters, brandishing their M-16s.Worst of all, I can’t forget the dreadful nightmare of dioxin. In the spring of 1971, when we were stationed west of Kon Tum, we were sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange. I didn’t know if the Americans on those C-123 Caribous knew anything about the terrible toxicity of the liquid they sprayed, or if only the chemical companies that manufactured it knew. We understood all too well its horrible destructive force. As soon as the Caribous passed over us, the sky would turn dark with a strange, thick, milky rain. The jungle canopy broke apart, ulcerated and fell to the ground. Leaves, flowers, fruits, even twigs, all silently dropped. Green leaves turned black, crumpled. Grass withered and died. I witnessed many cruel scenes in the war, but that brutal massacre of nature is what comes back to me most often and disturbs my sleep."
A shadow silhouette of then-President Barak Obama reflects on the Vietnam Memorial in 2012.
In the Vietnam War, blustery hubris and a "feeling of exceptionalism" on both sides led to escalation. Corruption, war-profiteering and political fears caused leaders to continue the war rather than seek peace. Blind obedience was confused as patriotism by a "silent majority" who eventually had to listen to a vocal minority.

Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a tribute to the more than 58,000 Americans who died in the "devastating calamity" so that, in the words of the Gold Star Mothers, "those who died should be remembered." 

Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat is remembered. (Army photo by SSgt. Bernardo Fuller)
Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs had the vision for a memorial to remember veterans of the war, but it was Maya Lin who envisioned what it would look like, a black V-shaped black granite wall etched with the names of those who died. The authors write:
"Throughout our long production, we were inspired by the architect Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially as controversial as the war itself, but which has become one of America’s sacred places. When she unveiled her design in 1981, Lin told the press that her memorial to the Americans who died in the war would be a journey 'that would make you experience death, and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead . . . [It isn’t] some­thing that was going to say, It’s all right, it’s all over. Because it’s not.' Nothing, certainly not our film or book, can make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But we can, and we must, honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served, those who died, and those who participated in the war against the war. As filmmakers, we have tried to do that the only way we know how: by listening to their stories. 'It’s almost going to make me cry,' Army veteran Vincent Okamoto told us, remembering the infantry company he led in Vietnam in 1968. 'Nineteen-, twenty-year-old high school dropouts that come from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society . . . they didn’t have the escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had . . . but to see these kids, who had the least to gain . . . they weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: how does America produce young men like this?'"
Soldiers at Hue City. (Photo from National Archives)
A Sailor reads and reflects aboard USS Maddox, 1965.
In an essay titled Ghosts, the authors conclude that divisions created by the war remain, but study of the war on all sides has brought about greater understanding. "The Vietnam war was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable," they write. "But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation."

According to the authors, "We can, and we must, honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served, those who died, and those who participated in the war against the war."

Recently, the Naval History and Heritage Command completed its The U.S. Navy and Vietnam War books/pamphlets series, showcasing the Navy's role.

According to a Naval History and Heritage Command press release, "Interested readers can download a free digital copy from the Naval History and Heritage Command's (NHHC) website ... or purchase a hard copy from the Government Printing Office (GPO)."

--The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945-1965; 
--Nixon's Trident: Naval Power in Southeast Asia, 1968-1972;
--The Battle Behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War; 
--Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon;
--Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam; 
--Naval Air War: The Rolling Thunder Campaign; 
--Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia;
--Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War; and
--End of the Saga: The Maritime Evacuation of South Vietnam and Cambodia.

I enjoyed reading Navy Medicine historian Jan Herman's "Navy Medicine in Vietnam" and saw a lot of information that added to the complete story of the Vietnam War.

A North Vietnamese motor gunboat burns in the Raonay River, 12 miles north of Dong Hoi, after being attacked by USS Midway aircraft, April 28, 1965. Note shadow of RF-8A recce plane. (National Archives and Naval History and Heritage Command)

Earlier this year I listed 50 books to represent 50 years of the Vietnam War, including multiple dimensions and perspectives. Ward and Burns's "The Vietnam War" belongs in every military library.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Understanding Mother of all Koreas

Review by Bill Doughty

Part of the Mansudae Grand Monument
North Korea says it wants a "blood reckoning" with the United States. B. R. Myers says believe them.

Myers, who bases his analysis on North Korean source materials, is author of "The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters" (MelvilleHouse 2010).

Unlike many other experts, Myers sees little value in freedom-loving people in the South smuggling CDs and DVDs to the North because most of the people in the DPRK are true believers who support the racist, military-first, repressed Juche philosophy of the Kim regime as their religion. "The masses' adoration of (founder) Kim Il-Sung has always been real." The true believers think it is just a matter of time before the people in the South will want to be reunited under the North's conditions.

According to Myers, compared with its communist neighbors, the North's system of government is closer to that of Imperial Japan during the colonial era, when the Japanese military occupied the peninsula, as it had several times for hundreds of years. The appeal of Soviet Russia or Communist China had nothing to compare with the hardcore racist nationalism of a century ago. The three Kims are "living symbols of the homeland." The culture is not Confucian either. "Confucius demanded rigorous self-cultivation through study; the Kim regime urges its subjects to remain as childlike and spontaneous as possible."

Kim Il-Sung celebrates the Chinese leaving North Korea in 1958.
Today, Kim Jong-Un looks remarkably like his grandfather in Kim Il-Sung's younger years, but the grandson is arguably more reckless. 

As opposed to being patriarchal, North Koreans' allegiance to the Kim regime, according to Myers, is matriarchal, with Kim Il-Sung seen as the mother of all Koreans, an appealing image to nationalists in the North. 

Myers says, "Far from being complex," the North Korean worldview "can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader," a strikingly similar worldview to that of fascist Imperial Japan.
"Kim Il Sung's peculiarly androgynous or hermaphroditic image also seems to exert a far more emotional attraction than any of the unambiguously paternal leaders of Eastern Europe were able to ... Sigmund Freud wrote of every child's yearning for a phallic mother, a truly omnipotent parent who is both sexes in one, and Ernest Becker agreed that the hermaphroditic image answers a striving for ontological wholeness that is inherent to man. This may explain why Jesus and Buddha are far more feminine and maternal figures in the popular imagination than in the original scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism. The North Koreans' (pure) race theory gives them extra reason to want a leader who is both mother enough to indulge their unique childlikeness and father enough to protect them from the evil world."
Kim Jong-Un is in the middle of a cult of personality and "hero" worship.
The book opens with an epigraph from a North Korean dictionary with a 109-word definition of "mother," that includes references to the Party and Comrade Platoon Leader and "a metaphor for the source from which something originates." The definition for "father" is six words: "the husband of one's birth mother."
"What emerges is a regime completely unlike the West's perception of it. This is neither a bastion of Stalinism nor a Confucian patriarchy, but a paranoid nationalist, 'military first' state on the far right of the political spectrum."
Though published seven years ago, this book predicts the line of succession through Kim Jong-Il to his son, current dictator Kim Jong-Un, and says to expect more, not less, nuclear proliferation, a storm of madman-like threats, and increased hatred toward the United States.

The worst thing that could happen to the Kims, Myers writes, is that the North Korean people stop seeing the West as a threat.
"The regime is worried that the masses might cease to perceive the United States as an enemy, thus leaving it with no way to justify its rule – or even to justify the existence of the DPRK as a separate state."
But there's a case for cautious optimism as the North's crazed propaganda and beliefs – that Myers calls "the Text" – runs a risk of losing credibility:
"It is but a matter of time before most North Koreans realize that their southern brethren are proud of the state, indifferent to the Dear Leader's very existence, and content to postpone reunification indefinitely. Such revelations may not bring down the regime at once, but they will certainly bring down the Text."
But that, along with a goal of diplomacy with the Kim regime, might be wishful thinking. Myers writes, "The unpleasant truth is that one can neither bully nor cajole a regime – least of all one with nuclear weapons – into committing political suicide."

In a recent interview with the Conversation, which grants free use of its content, B.R. Myers assesses the risk of war and reiterates some of the key points in "The Cleanest Race." The interview concludes:

B.R. Myers
How likely is a war?
"I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here. 
"On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
"Also, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Invisible Shipkillers, Winning the Great War

Review by Bill Doughty

Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare brought the United States into a war many Americans strongly opposed. Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1917, the United States Navy converted ocean liners to serve as troop transports, often rushing to move Soldiers and Marines to England and France. Invisible dangers threatened the ships: U-boats, saboteurs, lack of training, icebergs and a virus that would devastate the ranks of the military.

Those are some of the themes in this remarkable, well-paced book by Peter Hernon: "The Great Rescue: American Heroes, An Iconic Ship, and the Race to Save Europe in WWI" (HarperCollins 2017). Events and people intersect aboard USS Leviathan, a converted German liner.

Hernon follows some now-forgotten characters such as Corporal Freddie Stowers, Army Nurse Corps officer Emma Elizabeth Weaver, several Navy ship captains, and American journalist Irvin Cobb. One character, Congressman Royal Johnson of South Dakota, voted against entering the war out of loyalty to his constituents, but then he enlisted and distinguished himself in combat.

Sailor Humphrey Bogart
Other more well-known names with ties to USS Leviathan get some limelight too, including Navy Seaman Humphrey Bogart (who had a sketchy service record as a teenager); then-Col. Douglas MacArthur (who was flamboyant, vain but brilliant); General John Pershing (who had a tender love relationship with a French artist) and then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who showed diplomatic skills during a trip to Europe).

FDR suffered a life-threatening bout of influenza aboard Leviathan in a return to the States from France.
"The Leviathan was waiting for him out in the harbor, a gray monster with black coal smoke trailing from her tall stacks. By the time Roosevelt boarded her, he could barely stand. He'd been showing signs of illness for days. A week earlier, he'd run a 102-degree fever during a hair-raising all-night drive to Paris without headlights over crowded roads. He ignored the symptoms and refused to rest, pushing himself without letup. According to Roosevelt biographer Kenneth Davis, 'For weeks on end he had been driving his body beyond its capacity for self-renewal, using up every reserve of its strength in reckless disregard of the protests it made.' He was knotted up in pain when he was piped aboard the Leviathan and met Captain Bryan."
One hundred years ago, a killer version of the flu swept through the world and hit the U.S. Navy. "The illness spread fast, and within the tight confines of a ship at sea it could explode like a bomb."

Desperate to bring reinforcements to Europe, the Leviathan knowingly brought aboard hundreds of already-sick troops aboard. Hernon's characters see the "sickness of war" either at sea or in the trenches, where Soldiers and Marines experienced hand-to-hand combat, grenade and machine gun attacks and chemical weapon horrors. And there were other challenges:
"Johnson had to get used to the chronic lack of sleep, especially at night, when staying awake was a matter of life and death for anyone on duty. This was true even in the rear shelters, which regularly came under shell fire. The trenches and dugouts were infested with rats, the big black variety the soldiers had to club to death, and no matter how much the men tried to stay clean and keep their hair cut short, the lice, or 'cooties,' were always with them, burrowing deep into their uniforms and blankets until they were scratching or picking nits nearly every waking moment. In the morning, tormented soldiers angrily ripped off their shirts, looking for the vermin that abounded in the collars and sleeves."
Scenes aboard USS Leviathan
Hernon makes us care about the people he profiles, including African American Cpl. Freddie Stowers, who along with his regiment, overcame racial barriers and showed valor on the battlefield despite entrenched Germans at Verdun.
"The Germans had had four years to add a devilish array of defenses to the already challenging landscape of hills, ravines, and woods – seemingly countless numbers of machine gun pillboxes, a network of trenches, and barbed wire in lines four and five deep and concealed over the years with lush vines and brush. Artillery was positioned to provide flanking fire on infantry trying to move between the Meuse and the Argonne.This masterpiece of interlocking, mutually supportive firepower was designed to defend a critical railroad in the rear, the Sedan-Mezieres line, the only escape route to Germany. If it were broken, the German army would be trapped, unable to be resupplied or reinforced. The war would end."
The war did end, thanks to American presence and power. Hernon uses the battlefield and the sea as a stage for his characters, with USS Leviathan as a centerpiece, all to show an intimate history of World War I, thought to be a war to end all wars but which ended in a treaty described by MacArthur as "drastic ... more like a treaty of perpetual war than of perpetual peace."

USS Leviathan's work was not over after the treaty was signed. The ship joined other converted liners, commercial ships and war ships as part of a "massive logistical undertaking" to bring two million troops home from Europe.

We featured USS Leviathan in a Navy Reads post honoring the Statue of Liberty: According to the Naval Historical Center, "Leviathan (was) an appropriate name considering that she was then the largest ship in the U.S. Navy, and in the World. The Navy would not operate a bigger ship until 1945, when the slightly longer and heavier aircraft carrier Midway entered service."