February 26, 1936 The Road to War

While unsuccessful, the incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate internationalist politicians, putting an end to effective civilian control over the army while increasing the military’s influence over civilian government. 

As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.  Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han.

48d1a1f4d1544d2b0e6a6093b3455ca8The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible class system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans.  At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural work, and expected to provide the income to make the whole system work.

Concerned about 17th century Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion into Asia made possible by Catholic missionaries, the Tokugawa Shōgunate issued three edicts of expulsion beginning in the early 1630s, effecting a complete ban on Christianity in the Japanese home islands.  The policy ushered in a period of national seclusion, where Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad, and foreign contact limited to a small number of Dutch and Chinese merchants, trading through the port of Nagasaki.

Economically, the production of fine silk and cotton fabrics, the manufacture of paper and porcelain and sake brewing operations thrived in the larger urban centers, bringing considerable wealth to the merchant class.  Meanwhile, the daimyō and samurai classes remained dependent on a fixed stipend tied to agricultural production, particularly in the smaller han.

The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste.

Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west.  By force, if necessary.

main-qimg-bcbcbd9d5177f80c4a51fcaa82d8ccb5In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868.  The divisions would last, well into the 20th century.

By the 1920s, two factions had evolved within the Japanese Imperial Army.  The Kōdō-ha or “Imperial Way” members were the radical nationalists, resentful of civilian control over the military.  This group sought a “Shōwa Restoration”, purging Japan of western ideas and returning the Emperor to what they believed to be his rightful place.  By force, if necessary.  Incensed by the rural poverty they blamed on the privileged classes, the group was vehemently anti-capitalist, seeking to eliminate corrupt party politics and establish a totalitarian state-socialist government, run by the military.

Opposed to this group was the much larger Tōsei-ha or “Control faction” within the army, who stressed the need for technological development within the military, while taking a more conciliatory tone with the government when it came to military spending.

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Rebel occupation of the Sannō Hotel

In the Fall of 1930, a group of young officers of the Kōdō-ha attempted the assassinations of Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi, Prince Saionji Kinmochi. and Lord Privy Seal Makino Nobuaki.  The group attempted a coup the following March, and the installation of soldier-stateman Ugaki Kazushige, as Premier.  Ugaki himself was of the more moderate faction and took no role in the attempted coup, though he assumed responsibility and resigned his post.

That September, the ultra-nationalists launched an invasion of Manchuria, without authorization from the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff Office, and over objections from the civilian government.  A month later the group launched another coup attempt.  This too was unsuccessful but, as with the “March Incident” of six months earlier, the government’s response was excessively mild.   Ringleaders were sentenced to 10 or 20 days’ house arrest, and other participants were merely transferred.  For the radicals, such lenience became a virtual hall pass, ensuring that there would be future such efforts.

This “Righteous Army” faction remained influential throughout the period known as “government by assassination“, due largely to the threat that it posed. Sympathizers among the general staff and imperial family included Prince Chichibu, the Emperor’s own brother.  Years later, Winston Churchill would describe Hitler’s appeasers as “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. Despite being fiercely anti-capitalist, this particular crocodile received sustenance from zaibatsu – the industrial and financial business leaders who hoped that their support would shield themselves.

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The February 26 incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate, internationalist leaders, including Finance minister Takahashi Korekiyo (left) and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Saitō Makoto.

General Tetsuzan Nagata was murdered in 1935, following the discovery of yet another coup plot and the Army’s arrest and subsequent expulsion of its leaders.

In 1931, Japan abandoned the gold standard in an effort to defeat deflationary forces exerted by worldwide depression.  The “John Maynard Keynes of Japan”, the moderate politician and Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, argued for government deficit spending to stimulate demand.   The country emerged from the worst parts of the depression two years later, but Takahashi’s efforts to reign in military spending created a conspiracy mindset among more radical army officers.

On February 26, 1936, 1,438 soldiers divided into six groups attacked Prime Minister Admiral Keisuke Okada, former Prime Minister and now-Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, Grand Chamberlain Admiral Suzuki Kantarō, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and former Prime Minister Saitō Makoto, the Ministry of War, the offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Tokyo police headquarters and attempted to seize the Imperial palace of the Emperor himself.

While unsuccessful, the incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate internationalist politicians, putting an end to effective civilian control over the army while increasing the military’s influence over civilian government.  Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was reassigned to sea to prevent his assassination by army hard-liners.  Another step had been taken, on the road to war.

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February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

January 27, 1945 Cabanatuan

The Japanese atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  Seventy-three years ago, the place was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

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1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.

pows-cabanatuan20,000 died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Cabanatuan-prisoncamp-report_555Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.

2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.

A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

Palawan_Massacre_POW_Burial_Site_1945On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames.   Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one.  Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale.  139 were burned, clubbed or machine gunned to death.

The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the United States Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.

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6th Ranger Battalion Capt. Robert Prince

On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.

The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, serving as guides and helping in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison.  As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

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Filipino Guerilla fighters of Captain Juan Pajota

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out in the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers were killed in the raid, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate.  Another died of illness on the long trip back.  464 American soldiers were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Carabao cart, similar to the ones used after the raid on Cabanatuan

Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out.  He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity.  One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”.  He “knew the Americans had arrived” but he rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he had “Cabanatuan all my own.”

POWs_celebrateHe dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, the Americans among them representing virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin, Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 6, 1929 Saint from the Gutter

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

In Albanian, “Gonxhe” means “Rosebud”.   Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910, in what is now Uskup, the capital of Macedonia, then Skopje, part of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother raised the girl in the Roman Catholic faith after her father died in 1919.  By age 12, she was committed to a religious life.  “Agnes” had always been fascinated with the lives of missionaries, joining the Sisters of Loreto at the age of 18 to become one.  Though she would live to 87, Agnes would never again see her mother, or her sister.

The Sisters taught English to school children in India, a language she learned in the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland.

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She arrived in India on January 6, 1929, beginning her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayas. There she learned to speak Bengali, teaching at St. Teresa’s School, near her convent. Agnes took her first religious vows as a nun in 1931, choosing the name Thérèse de Lisieux, after the patron saint of missionaries. Another nun in the convent had already chosen the name, so Agnes adopted the Spanish spelling, becoming Sister Teresa on May 24.

Teresa would take her solemn vows six years later, while teaching at the Loreto School in Entally, eastern Calcutta, a position she would hold until 1944.

Today, about 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India, making up close to 15% of the population. The number was much higher in 1944, as much as 2/3rds in some regions. The idea of the Muslim population breaking off India and forming an independent Pakistan had come up as early as 1930, and become a major force with the breakup of British rule over the Indian subcontinent, the “British Raj”, at the end of WW2.

Tensions spilled over in the province of Bengal in August 1946, as violence between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh mobs left thousands dead. Violence was particularly bad in Calcutta, where the massive riots of August 16-19 left over 4,000 dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

India would be partitioned the following year, and Pakistan declared an independent nation in August. For now, the violence of 1946, following on the heels of the Bengal famine of 1943, left Calcutta in a state of despair.

MOTHER TERESASister Teresa was looking out from the train carrying her from Darjeeling to Calcutta on September 10, when she heard the call. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”

No one knew it at the time, but “Sister Teresa” had become “Mother Teresa”.

Mother Teresa spent a few months at Holy Family Hospital receiving medical training, venturing into the slums of Calcutta to begin her missionary work in 1948. A small group of women joined in her ministry to the “poorest among the poor”, as she wrote in her diary of begging for food and supplies. The hardships were severe, as was the near-constant temptation to return to the ease and comfort of the convent.

Teresa received permission from the Vatican on October 7, 1950, to start the diocesan congregation which would become the Missionaries of Charity.  With only 13 members in Calcutta, their mission was caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa refused the traditional honor banquet, requesting instead that the $192K cost be given to help the poor of India.

With the help of Indian officials, Teresa opened the Kalighat Home for the Dying in an abandoned temple, where dying Muslims were read from the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics were read the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted”.

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Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

By the time of her death on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members. They operated 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for victims of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. There were soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools.

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Mother Teresa was canonized on September 4, 2016 in Vatican City, becoming Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  The ceremony at St. Peter’s Square was attended by over 1,500 homeless.

Even saints have critics, in her case usually the warm and well-fed likes of Christopher Hitchens, the “New Left Review” and the German magazine Stern.  Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu once said “Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.  Let that be the woman’s answer to the critics.

December 28, 1955 Juche

In the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK), Kim Il-sung built a cult of personality, a communist totalitarian dictatorship established under an ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay)

We tend to look at WW2 in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end.  In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day.  Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was borne of WWII.

Korea’s brief period of modern sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was divided into two occupied zones; the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States.

The Cairo Declaration of 1943 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.

Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

koreanwar-fourmaps1200Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of whom were Americans.  The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000 on all sides, combining military and civilian.

The Korean War ended in July 1953.  The two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.

Korea at Night, NASAThe night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next.  In the south, the Republic of Korea (ROK) developed into a successful constitutional Republic, a G-20 nation with an economy ranking 11th in the world in nominal GDP, and 13th in terms of purchasing power parity.

 

In the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK), Kim Il-sung built a cult of personality, a communist totalitarian dictatorship established under an ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).

The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955.  Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required.

In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all.  According to recent amendments to the DPRK constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.

PulgasariSon of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung Il, was an enthusiastic film buff. In a move that would make Caligula blush, Kim had South Korean film maker Shin Sang Ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun Hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” to re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.

The couple escaped, unlike untold numbers of unfortunates “recruited” with the help of chloroform soaked rags.

North Korea broke ground on the Ryugyong hotel in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. 105 stories tall with eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would be the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opens.

Ryugyong hotel, 2017
Ryugyong hotel, 2017

Begun thirty years ago by the grandfather of the current “Dear Leader”, the “Hotel of Doom” is still under construction.  The project appears to hold particular significance for Kim Jung Un, who probably needs to show that he can get things done.  Perhaps 2018 will be the year.  For now, Travelocity notes under all its Pyongyang attractions: “Our online travel partners don’t provide prices for this accommodation, but we can search other options in Pyongyang”.

As the tallest unoccupied building in the world rose above the streets of Pyongyang, anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the 1990s.

Authorities warned the nation of yet another famine impending in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

The DPRK government enforces its will with a murderous system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps, complete with crematoria.  A 2014 UN report estimated that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners” have died in North Korean gulags over the past 50 years amid “unspeakable atrocities.”

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As of 2010, the DPRK Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, absorbing nearly 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 33-year old who had his half-brother assassinated in Kuala Lumpur, using VX nerve gas.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” in North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, but a cordial hatred for the United States have bound the two together, the last remaining members of President George W. Bush’ “Axis of Evil”.

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Recently, the Obama administration concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, replete with secret “side deals” and sealed with pallets of taxpayer cash.  CIA Director John Brennan conceded last September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance.  It doesn’t seem a stretch.  There have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two, since the 1980s.

The relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and a man who banished Christmas and ordered North Koreans to worship his grandmother, as a god.   Two among five nations on earth, designated by the US State Department, as “State Sponsors of Terrorism.”  I can’t imagine what could go wrong.

December 12, 1937  The Road to Pearl Harbor

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

crew02Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking as American citizens evacuated the city.  The last of them boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time, and captured part of the attack.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was more than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain, in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.

US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack, indicating that aircraft were operating under orders.  The Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

images (13)The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.

The “accidental attack” narrative appears to be a safe story which both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments at that time, were toxic.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

Letters came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without the knowledge of their husbands, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up. What’s been called the “Rape of Nanking”, began the day after the Panay incident.  On December 13, Japanese forces smashed into the city of 600,000, murdering fully half of the inhabitants.  Newsreel footage may be found of live prisoners being used for bayonet practice, being mowed down by machine guns, or doused with accelerant and burnt alive.

The US placed an embargo on September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel, in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms which allowed them to keep newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.

General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

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In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

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The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.

 

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