Sunday, July 30, 2017

death after a thousand cuts

It's a sad day when a really useful tool gives up the ghost. This little Ryobi saw was one of the very first of the interchangeable battery models from that maker here in Oz, and over the years it cut the curved planks for two boat builds and two re-fits, innumerable cuts in house renovations, built-in furniture, decks and cladding. It was just getting to know it's second blade when I pushed it a little too hard. A little smoke delivered the bad news. I was to blame really because I had used it to cross cut 35mm hardwood boards for some bookcase tops in Julia's study and these small saws don't really appreciate thick hardwood especially late in life...

The thin kerf of this saw allows us to cut gentle (quite fair) curves in plywood with ease- so much more cleanly and steadily than a bandsaw or jig saw. Navigator Annie's planking needed very little edge clean-up between saw and paint; just a bit of time with a plane to level some irregularities.

I was worried that the replacement saw seemed bigger and bulkier, but the new design just feels more refined somehow and even better balanced with the battery on the side rather than behind the blade. The dust extraction port is also a great addition.

And I just include this picture of Ziggy looking philosophical because I find it comforting that even greyhounds struggle with the big existential questions.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Asking the question behind the question

It seems that readers are inclined to take interest in bite sized chunks of a book to read online -if it seems relevant to them- when they might feel daunted by 400 odd pages of small print on the bedside table. My last post on Fascism and Philosophy was included here for my own personal reasons, but it has surprised me by getting very regular attention since. 

Back in 2007 when the book was written, it seemed to me that the big story behind the Pacific War was in fact the catastrophic humiliation and later re-birth of  China and the coming of age of Asia. Even then in 2007, China was only beginning to strut it's stuff, and the West was still universally dominant. The ten years since have made me feel these things more strongly- especially since Western people and their governments have failed to adjust their behaviour  significantly or recognise the seismic shift that began in the 1920's and is playing out very quickly now. 

So here is the introduction to the same book, in which I try to argue a case for spending some small amount of time reading about the context of the Pacific War to help come to terms with some of the international aggression with which we are living now.

What caused the war with Japan and is it relevant now anyway?



Rabaul, New Britain. January 23 1942.

As it had done throughout China, Indochina, and the Pacific, the 
Imperial Japanese war machine made real the ideas elaborated by the militarists at home on the islands of Japan. The abstraction of a ‘Greater Asia’ was being smudged across the atlas where nineteenth-century European concepts of dominion had remained unchallenged for generations.

The awesome steel expression of this idea rumbled along the coast of New Britain in the form of an armada manned by battle-hardened men whose confidence was matched by the pride of its achievements. Their path had been prepared by waves of air strikes toppling the guns at Praed Point and killing the first of over 1000 Australians who would die as a consequence of the defense of this peripheral outpost of Australian Administration. More than 3000 Japanese soldiers died in the subsequent battle to secure the beaches of this beautiful volcanic island adjacent to New Guinea, north of Australia.

What were they doing there? Why had the 1,400 Australian soldiers of the 2/22 Battalion faced an invasion force numbering over 15,000? Why were Australian allies from World War I invading Australian Mandated Territory? What had unleashed this brutality, at such human cost, over the vast area of the Pacific? Why had the world retreated once again into carnage?

This book began as a personal search for particular answers to these questions and those implied in the title, but with the search came the astonishing realization that these issues are hardly discussed in Australia, nor are they a significant part of the Australian public awareness.

It is probably fair to say that many Australians think of Europe when they think of the war, even though their own family experience may have been of war in Southeast Asia or northern Australia. Australians had traditionally seen themselves as shadows of the real world (an island off the coast of France), but as society changed in the years since the War, Australia’s real position in relation to Asia has become more obvious and significant.
The garrison forces stationed in a precarious, sacrificial arc to the north of Australia, from Singapore, Ambon, and Timor to New Guinea and New Britain, consisted mostly of men who enlisted in the belief that they would be fighting alongside the British forces in the European War.

The bulk of Australian Infantry was already serving in the northern hemisphere. We can explain this sense of the ‘real’ war being in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in the predominant attitude of the time, that Australia was a British nation, separated only by geography.

The British Empire was a global phenomenon; in fact, it was widely regarded as a positive, creative one in Australia. Nevertheless, Australia’s real war was a separate, very local one, which began in China during the 1930s, and through which America gained enormous influence and power throughout the vast area of the Pacific Ocean.

With the passing of many of those who survived World War II, a new interest has been kindled amongst subsequent generations in the events of the war. There is a real need amongst descendents of these generations to re- examine the wartime challenges through new eyes, their parents and grandparents having passed away.

Some of us need to ‘connect the dots’ concerning the family experience simply because painful events and memories were never openly spoken about. Others of us sense that the very empathy we have for the experience makes a more objective understanding of the war very difficult, or even impossible.

We’ve grown up with the comfort of some home truths about the war. We’ve put the lid on our family tragedies and come to terms with them. The fact that family members may have been killed, wounded, or damaged makes us very sensitive to any analysis of the events that may challenge the conventional view of the war, but it is very important that we open ourselves to a deeper understanding of these things, particularly in the way that they relate to current issues. World events continue to throw at us the same old challenges to freedom, responsibility, and tolerance, and a new level of difficulty has also arisen in the government and self-determination of parts of the post-colonial world.

The pace and uncertainty of modern materialism make us receptive to stories that help define us or give our culture some sense of meaning. Stories of courage and sacrifice are worth telling, and some of those emerging now have been suppressed for decades by the silent suffering of grieving families.

Every year we see the solemn rekindling of respect for the actions of our soldiers from a growing number of young people who make pilgrimages to Gallipoli and Kokoda. Despite the passing of time, these places have grown in significance, becoming powerful symbols in the Australian national story. There is a poignant beauty in this, but there are also dangers in nurturing romantic and triumphal feelings about these places and events, especially if we allow them to feed into a tendency or need to see the wars in simple terms of good winning over evil.

War stories highlight the inspiration and heroism in the struggles of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. The facts, the actions, and battles tell us about the horrors as well as the capacities of people to become better, or worse, under awful pressure. However, these are not the only lessons to be learned from war.

The context and the causes of these struggles are often passed over superficially in the media, and there is a danger that our search for meaning and value can become self-congratulatory, blinding us to an uncomfortable possibility: Our people may have offered their lives for causes that were much more complex than they had been portrayed. They fought the good fight, but was it a ‘good’ war?

This is an incredibly challenging question. It is especially so for people whose remembrance of the war is still charged with emotion. It goes to the very heart of the meaning that we have attached to our family losses. It is only possible to address this question if a clear separation can be made in our minds between the causes of the war and the conduct of it.

One of the aims of this book is to compare the orthodox view of some of these events with various ‘positional’ views by historians. Inevitably, in one book this will be somewhat superficial, but it is very interesting to explore the difference between versions of events.
Most information is disseminated to advance the case for a particular point of view. That is arguing ‘from a position,’ and it will represent the worldview or bias of the writer or the people represented by the writer. An ‘orthodox view’ is often representative of those in control. For instance, the orthodox view of Apartheid in South Africa was that it was designed to allow for ‘separate development.’ Mandella’s view would have emphasized oppression more than separateness.

Even in an extreme case, a differing view may be a difference of emphasis more than of fact. Marxist historians often adopted a position that examined events through a theory of economics, and these often portrayed events as inevitable economic stages in the evolution of history.

The passing of the 20th Century and the end of the Cold War has led to the discrediting of many of these analyses, but it is important to see that one doesn’t need to be a Marxist to find insight or value in a Marxist historical point of view, if only because it provides another perspective, or makes sense of a sequence of events.

Sometimes, after considering all the available information, we may need to adopt a position on an event, but this is quite different from beginning with a position and finding the facts that demonstrate the truth of it. Much of the information that we have been exposed to since the war with Japan has its roots in the rhetoric of the time. This information needs to be seen for what is was.

In the 1950s, the simple answer to the schoolboy question: “What caused the war with Japan?” was, “It was caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” This is disturbingly simplistic, and it is worrying that many Australians and Americans have never been challenged to look beyond it.

The question becomes very murky when the issues are examined. The more we peel back the layers for a deeper understanding, the more gray the issues become and the more it seems that the West was involved in setting the scene and providing some motivating forces for the conflict.

The research for this book began with an attempt to understand the reasons underlying the Japanese attack on America, but ended exploring the factors that led the US and Japan to go to war with each other, involving others as well. You can see that the first question contains some assumptions. Those were relics of the author’s childhood and education.

Post-war generations in Australia were led to believe that a peaceful, morally good West was invaded by a militarist, morally corrupt Japan, and many people will always want to see it that way. But it just wasn’t that simple. This realization needn’t be threatening. We don’t have to excuse or put aside the horrors and atrocities of the Pacific War to admit that its causes were more complex than we were led to believe.

This process can be a very healing experience. Finding the truth about the forces at work in the creation of war allows us to build an empathy with individuals who were former enemies. They responded to the environment around them, the information available to them, and the call of their country just as our people did.

Only by personalizing the issues can we go beyond the blame and the rhetoric of wartime politics. Reading the names of individuals who grappled with the problems in Japanese society allows us to identify with them in our common struggle to live decent lives: To live them with viable governments, in the hope that they can protect us from the baser human instincts, but still allowing us the hope of achieving our potential.

The events of the 1930s clearly illustrate conditions under which nations, for all sorts of complicated reasons, sometimes cause other nations to behave badly.

We are dealing with more than a simple chronology of events. There are issues arising out of the Japanese emergence into the modern world, factors within America and within China, issues concerning European colonization of Asia, the future of the British Empire, as well as issues of nationhood and the rights of self-determination for peoples. And the most difficult issue of all, race.

The book begins with a brief outline of the sequence of events and issues that affected Japan’s emergence from almost total isolation, into the ‘modern’ 19th Century. While this commences well before the period of the war, the Japanese experience is so unique and so poorly understood in the West that it was felt that to omit this background would make the pre-war events more difficult to understand. This is particularly so because the difficulties faced by Japanese negotiators and diplomats trying to represent the foreign policy of their nation during the 1930s had their roots in the very structures upon which the modern Japanese state was based. There was also a cumulative effect in the Japanese relationship with the West, which provides the historical context for the 1941 negotiations.

Internal issues and themes that can add to our understanding of Japanese society as it developed are given particular attention. These take the form of essays within the narrative roughly in sequence, but because themes evolve over time, there is some overlap and out-of-sequence elaboration.

The final chapters examine the international situation, its issues, and the negotiations that ultimately converged into war.

Like many Australians, my family was deeply affected by the war, and current tensions across the world lead me to think that the issues of racism and colonialism, which I believe were inherent in the causes of World War II, are unraveling further. The West appears to have learned little, if the subsequent sixty years are any guide. As a moral or political force, Western governments will not be taken seriously in the Third World unless the implications of their colonial adventures are recognized, confronted, and addressed.

Western technological leadership became quite exploitative, and the maintenance of its dominance has inevitably created a great deal of resentment. It did not seem necessary to occupy the moral ‘high ground’ while the power balance was so disproportionately in the West’s favor. Western leaders should be asking on behalf of their people, how would we like to be treated in a world in which the power may, and probably will, be arranged differently?
What were the legacies of the ‘white man’ in Asia? And since the Japanese were the first to challenge this between 1905 and 1945, what lessons can be learned from the Japanese experience before the war? Their experience has never been more relevant to the world than it is now.

This book attempts to answer the questions associated with the beginnings, roots, and meanings of the war with Japan, partly from an Australian perspective.
America has provided the majority of post-war film and media images and stories of the war, and the point of view seems unerringly Western. Even the best popular, blockbuster views are often as dehumanizing as the worst propaganda.

All violence is failure at some level. World violence is world failure. One of the chief factors in this failure is the popular ignorance that allows even quite ‘liberal’ governments to harness a fear of ‘the other’ in motivating people for the purposes of aggression and power or internal repression.

A paradox in my hesitant view of the world is that in it, two cornerstones of conflict are by nature almost opposite. Certainty and ignorance are two of the corner stones, and in order to be possessed of the former, one needs to be under the influence of the latter. The other two cornerstones are greed and control. This book will illustrate that the industrial and economic agendas on both sides of the Pacific Ocean created the governments that were necessary for the pursuit of the imperialistic goals that caused the war.

We will see that the three major protagonists went to war for economic control of people, resources, and land that were external to their own territory. Japan was not alone in this.
In the battles for regional control Australia was a small player, of no great account to Britain, America, or Japan, but important in the sense that, in enemy hands, it could create significant difficulties of supply. Australia was therefore of some strategic value. It was also useful and potentially useful for the supply of food, soldiers, and a range of essential raw materials, but none of the major players needed to own or occupy Australia to control the use of these.

Many Australians have always assumed that the Japanese were invading them, but the attacks that occurred cannot be fully understood in such simple terms. There were certainly groups within Japan who had such plans, but Japanese intentions during the first four and a half decades of the Twentieth Century can never be represented simply, for reasons that become obvious in the text of this book.

Australia had a brief moment on the world stage at the 1919 Peace Conference, when its Prime Minister used the opportunity to give voice to Australia’s insecurity concerning its hold on a territory adjacent to Asia, by almost single-handedly defeating a Japanese proposal for the racial equality of nations. This caused a massive loss of face for the moderates in Japan.

In this, Australia was a contributor to the escalations that followed. Of course, there were powerful elements of fanatical racism in Japan at the time, but Western arrogance only added strength to their cause in the hatred of what they saw as ‘white Barbarians.’
The point is that hypocrisy does not make an effective weapon against irrationality, and Australia missed its small opportunity to be part of a meaningful change in world politics. The Australian Prime minister was not the only leader representing an insecure and fearful electorate, and it is difficult to know how judgmental to be in observing these events.
Australians need to feel that their dead were given for a worthwhile reason and that they had a value. In this, they are no different from those of the other combatant nations. Australia had no territorial or strategic goals beyond defensive and somewhat idealistic, supportive ones and a more robust truth about these things should be helpful in healing those of us who still harbor darkness.

Many Australian men enlisted willingly to defend the British Empire, but while Britain was preoccupied with Germany and the balance of power in Europe, the old Empire was strategically indefensible against the Japanese. This allowed America’s challenge to become its prize. Australia had no choice but to defend the old order. There was a desperate fear that a very angry enemy would consume Australia, but when the new order came, it was neither Japanese nor British.

Japan and Australia had enjoyed a mutually advantageous trading relationship right up to the declaration of war, and on various diplomatic and commercial levels, the two nations were in accord.

The Pacific War had its roots in a power struggle rehearsed since the 1920s by Japan and America, and was part of the inevitable emergence of the Asian peoples from their domination by Western Imperial powers. That emergence need not have occurred violently.

Amidst the pessimism and gloom of the dark days of 1942, Australia felt very alone and very vulnerable. America seemed to provide the only sources of additional equipment, know-how, manpower, and hope, as the euphoric Imperial Japanese war machine spun out cyclonically from the Asian mainland through the arc of colonial islands.

The United States delivered help in so many ways that Britain no longer could. Any old Digger will tell you that, without America, Australia would have ‘been sunk.’ That assertion rings true emotionally, but it is not as straightforward as it sounds.
The question arising from it is whether we would have had a Pacific war at all, if the American Administration had acted differently between 1931 and 1941.

If China was the anvil upon which the Japanese sword was forged, America in particular was the stone against which it was sharpened.

Remembrance poem, R. Ditterich, 2006.