Pearl Harbor — Outside The History Books


I love history.  It reads like a bad novel.  History has so many oddities, improbabilities and strange coincidences that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think it was all fake.  For example, today is the 77th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  (FYI: you can’t just say “Pearl Harbor” anymore; nobody knows what you’re talking about.)  Whatever you call it though, aside from the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima three and a half years later, Pearl Harbor was the most important event in the 20th century.  It turned a European civil war into World War II, ended the worst economic depression in history and catapulted smalltown Americans onto the global stage – a role they’ve never been comfortable with.  That’s the thing about history though it’s full of unintended consequences that very few people see at the time.  I doubt very much if many Americans — even today — realize that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not the opening salvo in a carefully orchestrated Japanese plan to dominate the Pacific.  In fact, I think they’d be surprised to learn that, in general, the Japanese didn’t even want to go to war with the US (they were much more interested in Britain) and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor was actually the direct result of a half-forgotten battle near the nowhere village of Nomonhan stuck somewhere on the Mongolian border.

Depending on how much time you’ve got, you can trace what Franklin Roosevelt called “December 7th, a day that will live in infamy” all the way back to a cold night in 1930, when a couple of Japanese colonels, stationed in Kwantung, China , got into the sake and hatched a plot to invade Manchuria.  Ishawara Kanji and Itagaki Seishiro, the particular colonels, knew what every person in Japan knows to this day.  Japan is a small bunch of islands that can hardly feed itself.  It has no natural resources, and unless it dominates international trade, it will always be at the mercy of every bullyboy with an attitude who happens to stroll by.  Remember, it was the American, Commodore Perry who dramatically pointed this out in 1853, when he sailed into Tokyo Bay, pointed his cannons  at anyone who poked their head up, and suggested the Japanese sign a treaty he just happened to have lying around the quarterdeck.  Anyway, Ishawara and Itagaki got to talking and decided that Japan needed a dependable source of raw materials (which, by coincidence, was going begging just across the border in Manchuria.)  They came up with a cunning plan, and on September 18th, 1931 manufactured an “incident” with China that sent Imperial Japanese troops across the border.  The Pacific Ocean, Pearl Harbor and America were never on the agenda.

In the 1930s, Japanese politics was so complicated it’s almost impossible to understand.  For example, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, who, as a living god, commanded absolute obedience from every Japanese citizen, never actually issued any orders just in case they weren’t obeyed.  However, in a nutshell, there were two political factions: the army (who saw the future intimately tied to mainland Asia) and the navy (who wanted a crack at the European imperial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands.)  For most of the decade, the army dominated the government in Tokyo.  They saw China falling apart at the seams and figured with a few armoured divisions, some airplanes, and maybe a little poison gas here and there, they could take advantage of the situation.  China would become a Japanese province with a vast pool of subservient labour and a ready market for Japanese goods.  They also saw the resources of Manchuria dwarfed by the almost limitless expanse of Soviet Russia, which (once again) was now just across the border.  Plus, Japan, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, was a member of the Anti-Comintern (anti-communist) Pact.  They saw the Soviets as their natural enemies.  Besides, quite a few senior army officers had been young soldiers when Japan slapped the snot out of Russia back in 1905.  They didn’t see any problem with pointing their tanks north again.  It was quick and easy and handy to the homeland.

In 1932, Japanese troops reached the border between Manchuria and Soviet Mongolia.  The well trained victorious Kwantung army didn’t really see any need to slam on the brakes when their natural enemy, the Soviet Union was just an imaginary line away from getting its ass kicked a second time.  Over the next seven years, there were hundreds of very bloody “incidents” in the undeclared border war.  These “incidents” escalated over time until 1939, when a bunch of Japanese officers (again, without permission from Tokyo) decided to get serious and see just how tough these Soviets were.  They sent a couple of divisions to occupy the disputed territory.

The battle of Khalkhin Gol went back and forth for a couple of months.  However, times were changing for the Soviet Union.  They were in the middle of negotiating a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, which they signed in August, 1939.  This gave them the freedom to send a lot of soldiers and armour — that weren’t going to be needed against Germany in Europe — to the Far East to settle scores with Japan.  They were commanded by General Zhukov (the guy who would go on to defend Stalingrad in 1942 and take the Nazi surrender in Berlin in 1945.)  He massed over 50,000 Soviet troops, complete with tanks and airplanes, in an offensive assault in August.  He encircled the Japanese forces, at a village called Nomonhan, and when they wouldn’t surrender, destroyed them.  It was a humiliating defeat and it broke the back of the army’s independent power in Tokyo.  The way north was now blocked by a resurgent enemy, the Soviet Union and a back-stabbing ally, the Germans.  It was the navy’s turn to run the show.

Japan still needed raw materials, and the only other place to get them was in southern Asia where the Europeans, preoccupied by their own war in Europe, were hanging on to their colonies by prestige alone.  There was rubber in British Malaysia and oil and gas in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies.)   The problem was, in the ocean, directly between Japan and Jakarta, was The Philippines, an American colony.   Japan could not run the risk of having their military cut off from the homeland by a belligerent American navy, possibly based in the Philippines.  They needed to neutralize American sea power in the Pacific before they could go after the resources of the crumbling European empires.  And where was the America Pacific fleet?  Pearl Harbor!

And the rest, as they say, is history.


Originally written in 2011

North Korea — Again!


I’m not going to turn this space into a political rant, but it bugs me — big time — when people’s World View IQ is lower than room temperature.  Last week, there was a lot of media ink spilled over North Korea, the USA and the impending nuclear holocaust.  Now that the rhetoric has died down and we’re unknotting our knickers, it’s time to remember George Santayana who wrote, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”  I wrote these two pieces four years ago.

North Korea: Time To Get Serious (April 3, 2013)

Could we just hit “Pause” for a second and think about this thing?  Maybe stand down the Stealth Bombers, unlock the lock and load and tone down the rhetoric?  I realize that when a punk like Kim Jong whatever-he’s-calling-himself-this-week is kicking sand in your face, it’s difficult to calm down – but let’s give it a try.  We need to remember a few things before somebody forgets what we’re dealing with and all hell breaks loose.

Okay, folks!  All aboard the reality train.

First of all, don’t let the tough talk fool you.  Ever since Dougie MacArthur, Truman’s ten-star general, threatened to turn Pyongyang into a mud puddle, the Kim boys of North Korea have been yipping a good fight without ever throwing down.  That’s not to say they won’t, but history has shown us that, like the elementary school bully, these guys are professional bum biters.  They pick their spots and never do anything serious enough to risk major retaliation.  They might talk like hard men and take a few cheap shots, but grandfather, father — and now, son — are smart enough to know just how far they can push it.  They realize that, if they ever did take a real run at the United States or any of her allies, they’d be out of a job by close of business Tuesday.  Cold War stalemates may have been all the rage in the 50s, but they’re pretty much passé these days.

Secondly, anybody who thinks Kim Jong-un is running the show north of the 38th parallel has got another think coming.  Yes, he’s the current Glorious Leader and latest member of the Kim dynasty that Stalin put on the throne back in the 40s — but that doesn’t mean much.  There’s an entrenched state apparatus in North Korea that’s been calling the shots for over sixty years.  These folks are the descendents of Kim il-Sung’s (Un’s grandpa) original band of gangsters revolutionaries.  They keep everything that’s worth controlling firmly in their grasp, and they’re not about to lighten up on that grip of steel any time soon.  In short, Kims may come and Kims may go, but the high-end folks of the Hermit Kingdom have a pretty good gig, and they’re not going to jeopardize it by taking a flyer on this kid’s nuclear adventuring.

Finally, and most importantly, North Korea is a “sovereign state” in name only.  It might have a flag and a national anthem, but in practical terms, it’s about as independent as Nebraska.   I doubt very much if the powers that be in Pyongyang go to the toilet without telling Beijing what they’re up to.  Unless you flunked history, economics and current events in high school, you realize that North Korea is China’s surrogate.  It is North Korea’s only serious trading partner, and, as such, controls over 70% of its economy – such as it is.  Besides, it’s not even close to plausible that the Chinese would allow a nuclear arsenal within spitting distance of the Dragon Throne if they didn’t have it on a leash.  And speaking of nuclear weapons, how does a “nation” without enough hard currency to buy a Happy Meal™ get its mitts on weapons-grade plutonium, never mind build the facilities it takes to make it work?  It’s obvious that China is pulling the strings south of the Yalu River.  This latest bit of sabre rattling may be nothing more than a no-consequence test of American resolve in the area.  Personally, I think it’s more than that (remember: China just launched its first aircraft carrier into the South China Sea.)  But then I’m not getting the big bucks from the State Department for my opinion.

However, if I were, I’d mention that this new kid in the Petty Little Dictator Club is trying to impress the neighbours and make a name for himself with the locals.  He’s talking a good fight, but like his daddy, he isn’t likely to launch anything more than his mouth — if he does, China spank.  We need to let him know, in no uncertain terms, he should back off before somebody (mostly he) gets hurt.  However, we also need to take our fingers off the trigger just in case somebody gets twitchy and this whole thing blows up – by accident.


John Kerry And The Dragon Throne (April 29th, 2013)

Do you ever wonder what happened to Kim Jong-un?  He’s that North Korean guy with all the nuclear weapons.  Believe it or not, it was just three weeks ago that he was striding around, threatening to rain fire and hell on anything and anybody from Seoul to Guam (and all points beyond) unless he got what he wanted — which, BTW, was never made clear.  It actually got so serious that President Obama sent in some military ordinance — with real people inside.  So what happened?  Did he just take his finger off the trigger and go further out to lunch?  Maybe — but I don’t think so.  Even though I don’t have a direct line to the inner workings of American foreign policy (who does?) this is what I figure happened.

Okay, you do remember John Kerry?  He’s the guy who took Hillary’s job at the US State Department so she could run for President.  John’s been kicking around politics since the 70s and around Washington since the mid 80s.  He was never what you’d call a go-to guy, though.  After all, when it came to the biggest political decision of his career (Who’s going to be my Vice President?) he chose John Edwards!  Clearly, Kerry’s not exactly a fellow who does his homework.  Anyway, John’s job description comes with a couple of pages on nuclear crisis, so when Kim Jong Whoever started cutting up rough, he packed his suitcase and headed for Asia.  After a couple of whistle stops in Korea and Japan (to reassure the locals that America would kick the snot out of Kimmie if it came to it) John went to China.  This is where it gets tricky.  Nobody in their right mind would suggest that the Secretary of State of the United States of America (President Obama’s personal representative on Earth) had been summoned to appear before the Dragon Throne.  However, a couple of Saturdays ago, there John Kerry was — all smiles and hairdo — standing around Beijing, diplomatic hat in hand.  Ostensibly, John was there to discuss the Korean problem with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.  Sounds legit, right?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Personally, I think the Chinese wanted something.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have let Kim Jong-un shoot his mouth off in the first place.  Secretary Kerry was there to find out what.

From here, nobody but John Kerry, Yang Jiechi and Wikileaks will ever actually know what went on — secret private talks are, after all, secret private.   However, unless you flunked history in high school (twice) you do understand that, despite a century of assurances to the contrary, secret protocols between nations do happen — with surprising regularity.  So it’s interesting to note that a couple of curious things have occurred since John and Jiechi put their heads together in the Forbidden City.  First, the Chinese government has suddenly jumped on the environmental protection bandwagon — which is totally odd because, less than a month ago, their official Party line was Climate Change was something the West had made up to piss them off.  Remember these are the folks who spray-painted the Beijing grass green to impress the IOC.  Secondly, and most curious of all, Kim Jong-un, who, two weeks ago, was mad enough to nuke a basket of puppies, has fallen off the radar entirely.  He doesn’t seem to want to vaporize his neighbours anymore, kill Imperialists, play with his warheads or even test his missiles.  In fact, aside from chillin’ with Dennis Rodman, nobody’s heard from the guy.

So what caused these momentous events?  There are three possibilities.  One, John Kerry is the greatest diplomat since Coenus the Weary convinced Alexander the Great to give it up at the Ganges River, turn around and go home.  That’s a nice idea, but I don’t think so (given John’s track record.)  Two, the Chinese suddenly discovered their Inner Altruist and couldn’t wait to share it with the world.  Again, a nice thought but…  Or, finally, three, the Chinese (who, as you know, play puppeteer to Kim Jong-un’s marionette) got what they wanted.  Then, happy as a clam, they told Kim to sit down and shut up, tossed Kerry some Climate Change rhetoric to take home and called it a day.  If you go with Door #3 on this one, I don’t know what you bet — but I think you won.

But the most curious thing of all is, even with a multibillion-dollar budget, it appears as if the folks down at Foggy Bottom have never seen fit to buy a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War — and if they have, they sure as hell have never read it.

Plus ça change …!

Remembrance Day 2016

remembranceI’ve seen a lot of war memorials in my time, from the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor to the Eternal Flame over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.  They’re all very much the same – structures cut out of quiet stone, asking us politely not to forget.  In Great Britain, every crossroads with a church and a pub has a cenotaph to World War I because that’s where those boys came from.  In France, there are rows and rows and rows of white gravestones because that’s where they ended up.  If you’ve ever seen them, you can never forget.

One hot summer day when I was a young man, I paused in front of the World War I cenotaph in Hedley, British Columbia.  It’s a single grey obelisk about two metres high.  I’d seen it many times before but never bothered to stop.  On that day in the glorious sunshine, its weathered grey was bright and warm and dry. There was no breeze in the drowsy afternoon, and no sound, just settling puffs of dust at my boot heels.  No one was there but me.  There were six or eight or maybe even ten names etched at the base (Hedley wasn’t a very big town in 1918.)  I touched the stone where the names were cut and read them to myself.  These were men (boys?) my age — sons and brothers.  They had looked at the same mountains I saw that day; saw the same creek wandering down to the Similkameen River.  They’d played games on that street, ran and laughed and learned how to talk to girls.  They were in their time what I was in mine — young and strong and full of the beauty of  the world.

Every year on November 11th, Remembrance Day, we pause for a moment and try, in silence, to touch names cut into stone.  And every year, I remember that I’ve forgotten the ones I held in my hand.

(Original version published in 2011)