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

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, almost 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 interference from foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties to the south.
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 he 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. His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.
natgeo-cover-afghan-girl  The 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. They have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses apiece, and are able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep their horses fresh. In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including backward. The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with stretching 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 of an English longbow is 70-80 lbs. The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs.
After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Chief of state (Khan) 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 circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.
13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one they 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. It was this day, December 6, 1240, when Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev after several days’ struggle.
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 roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth, 40 to 72 million souls dead in a few short years. By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one by one by edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.
By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of mongolsHungary, to parts of Austria, to Eastern Persia.   Plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy in December, 1241, when news arrived informing them of the death of the Great Khan. Ögedei and 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 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.” 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, entirely under Mongol control. The “Black Death” of the 14th century would begin to change that. 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.
The Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as they fell to squabbling over bloodlines. 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, have never entirely recovered. Best known for the pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to Tamerlane’s murderous regime.
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 .5% of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby holding the blood clot, Genghis Khan.

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December 2, 1899 Filipino Thermopylae

On December 2, 60 handpicked Filipino guerillas turned to face the 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

After three wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States.  It was the third of these, the “Little War”, when the US intervened directly on behalf of Cuba, and which finally won the island nation its freedom.  That intervention led to the Spanish–American War in 1898.  Before long, US attacks on Spain’s Pacific possessions led to American involvement in the Philippine Revolution.

When it was over, Filipino revolutionaries were no more excited about what they saw as American Imperialism, than they were that of the Spanish.

Emilio Famy Aguinaldo was 25 when he joined the Katipunan, a secret organization dedicated to the armed expulsion of Spain and independence for the Philippines.  By the age of 29, Aguinaldo was elected the first President of the Philippines, calling himself “Magdalo”, in honor of Mary Magdalene.

Aguinaldo accepted a substantial bribe from Spain and removed himself to Hong Kong in 1897.  By the following year, he was back.

By 1899, the United States had yet another war on their hands, variously known as the Philippine Insurrection and the Philippine–American War.
The US and Spain signed a Peace protocol on the 12th of August, in which neither party recognized the June 12 declaration of Philippine independence.  Insurgents prepared a triumphant entry into the capital city of Manila, only to be denied access by the Americans.  They were honoring their agreement with Spanish authorities, who had stipulated that they wanted to surrender to Americans, and not to the insurgents who’d been making war on them.  To the Revolutionaries, it was a de facto partnership between the former combatants, with themselves on the outside.

It was only a matter of time before Filipino-American relations took a turn for the worse.
Fighting erupted between US and Filipino revolutionary forces on February 4, 1899. Without investigation, General Arthur MacArthur ordered his troops to advance against Filipino troops the following day, beginning a full-scale battle for Manila.

By June of that year, the First Philippine Republic had officially declared war on the United States. By November, President Aguinaldo had disbanded the regular Filipino army into guerrilla units, as he fled through the mountainous terrain of Bayambang.  Reaching the strategic bottleneck of Tirad Pass (Pasong Tirad) on November 23, Aguinaldo left a rear-guard under General Gregorio del Pilar to turn and face the pursuing Americans.  The handpicked force of 60 constructed trenches and stone barricades on both sides of the pass.

On December 2, they turned to meet Major Peyton C. March’s 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

The position was unassailable, but for the trail which outflanked the defenders and came up behind the position.  As Efialtes betrayed Leonidas’ 300 Spartans to Xerxes almost 2,400 years earlier, an Igorot villager named Januario Galut led the attackers around to the rear of the fortified position.  When it was over, the 33rd Infantry had lost 2, the Filipino rearguard 52.tirad-pass-movie

The Philippine Insurrection formally ended on July 4, 1902, though fighting would continue as late as 1913 with several minority factions.

There is an oft repeated story concerning General “Black Jack” Pershing’s treatment of a Muslim uprising, in the south of the country, among a people called the Moro.  The story involves American forces executing 49 out of 50 Moros with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, allowing the last to go back and warn his people not to mess with these guys.  The information is contradictory.  The story may be apocryphal, but not entirely so.  The closest I could come to confirming the story comes from the diary of Rear Admiral D.P. Mannix III, who fought the Moros as a young Lieutenant.   He refers to “…the custom of wrapping the dead man in a pig’s skin and stuffing his mouth with pork. As the pig was an unclean animal, this was considered unspeakable defilement.”

Interestingly, it was John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, whose name adheres to one of 5 known copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s own hand, who served as Secretary of State during this period.    President Theodore Roosevelt’s October 25, 1903 executive order set aside land in the Benguet region of the Philippines for a military reservation, named Camp John Hay in his honor.  The property was turned over to the Philippines in 1991, on the expiration of the Philippine-US Bases Agreement.  A private developer transformed the property into a world class resort in 1997.  It retains the name of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, to this day.

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

“What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called ‘la sale guerre’. The ‘dirty war'”.

Speak of France, and most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.
That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, French forces faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. It was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.
What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”.  The “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
The war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.
Late in the preceding year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.
In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu:  a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.
“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as supplies, troops, and engineering equipment poured into the isolated base.
Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each reportedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.
Vo felt that he’d made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.
The French staff based their battle plan on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.
French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

dien_bien_phu-base
Enemy artillery virtually ringed the French position by March of 1953.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.
“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

victory_in_battle_of_dien_bien_phu
Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison, on May 7. By nightfall it was over.

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.
The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in north and south alike.
US support for the south increased as France withdrew its own.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.
The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

November 29, 2004 Godzilla

“He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one”

In 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific. On March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to a western sky that “lit up like a sunrise”. For eight minutes, they watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  And then came the sound of the explosion. Next came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll that fell like snow from the sky.

These fishermen returned to Yaizu, Japan two weeks later, all 23 suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  They were now “hibakusha”.   “Explosion-effected people”.

It had been only nine years since the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arse a metaphor for all that destruction.  Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster:  “Godzilla”.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, meaning gorilla, and “kujira”, meaning whale. It was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on its back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

MCDGODZ EC052The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, becoming the standard for most of the Godzilla films.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little confusing in the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

Godzilla appeared in 28 original films by the Toho Co., Ltd studios, and countless remakes. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

On this date, November 29, 2004, Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”, timed to coincide with the release of the movie “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version is spawned by “environmental pollution”.  It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film grossed less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million, so ol’ Godzilla may stay frozen up for a while, this time. But you never can tell about these things.