Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Bataan "Hike": Premeditated or Negligent?

Yet for all its horrors, the march was not a premeditated atrocity. For the most part, the brutalities occurred in a piecemeal fashion against a backdrop of escalating confusion and seething racial hatred. Miscues, bad intelligence, cultural misunderstandings, sweltering heat, and a devolution of Imperial Army discipline all conspired to create an environment of tragic drift. The Bataan Death March, as the event later came to be called by the American media (most prisoners at the time simply called it, with characteristic understatement, “the Hike”), took place not according to plan, but rather as a result of the chaos that flourished under a plan that was fatally flawed. Once it became apparent that the original evacuation scheme was radically out of step with the circumstances on the ground, the Japanese failed to alter the plan to accommodate new facts. Their estimate of the number of prisoners was off, incredibly, by as many as 60,000 people, and their assessment of the health and stamina of the Fil-American forces was equally off base.

Realizing this, the Japanese should have instantly begun a wholesale rethinking of the logistics. Arrangements would have to be made for more vehicles, more food, more hospitals. Most obvious of all, more time would be needed to complete the move. But the Japanese Army, for all its many strengths, had rarely demonstrated a talent for reversing course in midstream once an error was recognized. Steeped in a rigid Confucian-influenced culture in which an order was considered final and any attempt to change it impugned the wisdom of the superior who conceived and issued it, the Japanese war planners were bold in action but often deficient in the improvisational skills needed for quick and supple reaction. Instead of alerting General Homma to the new exigencies on Bataan, the planners forcibly tried to make the old provisions—and timetables—work. The results were catastrophic.

For whatever reason, the Japanese elected not to honor General King’s request that American vehicles be used to transport his men to prison camp. In truth, some of the trucks had been irreparably sabotaged by Americans who mistakenly thought they were supposed to destroy everything of potential value the day before the surrender. Many of the American vehicles were confiscated for military purposes, and were later seen towing Japanese artillery pieces toward southern Bataan. The Japanese Army was not heavily motorized; it remained, to a great extent, a foot army. This was partly a matter of choice and partly a matter of necessity, for Japan suffered from a desperate shortage of oil and enjoyed access to few outside sources of petroleum. Japan’s extreme oil scarcity, exacerbated by the oil embargo that had been put in place by the United States and other Western powers before the war, had been one of the major factors that precipitated the outbreak of hostilities. Capturing the oil wells of the Dutch East Indies became Japan’s paramount goal upon initiating the war. Because every drop of gasoline was considered virtually sacred, the Japanese Army chose to invest little in troop-carrying trucks, jeeps, and other modes of ground transport. What little gasoline existed was reserved primarily for planes, ships, and tanks. Soldiers were expected to hike long distances—twenty-five or thirty miles a day—as a matter of course. Marching represented a much more significant part of theJapanese training regimen than it did for the American foot soldier. Japanese troops generally marched more often, for longer duration, and at a faster pace than did the Americans, who relied heavily on vehicles in large part due to the U.S. Army’s ready access to cheap and plentiful gas. This major difference in the two armies contributed to a gulf in the perception of what constituted a reasonable distance for a day’s march. The Japanese unrealistically expected the starved and diseased Filipino-American forces to meet the Imperial Army’s norms for marching—again, with tragic consequences.

There was another major cultural difference that influenced many encounters between the Japanese and their new captives: The two armies entertained radically different views on the matter of corporal punishment. Beating had long been an acceptable and routine method of discipline within the Japanese Army. Soldiers could strike subordinates with no questions asked and no explanation warranted. The slightest distinction between ranks was of critical importance because it meant the difference between who could inflict blows, and who could expect to receive them. This sort of institutionalized brutality had a tendency to work its way down the ranks to the lowliest private. One can imagine what would happen when an enlisted man, hardened by this psychology of top-down violence, found himself suddenly thrown into a foreign and not altogether distasteful situation in which he was the superior, in charge of a group of helpless prisoners. For some, the temptation to beat proved irresistible. For others, beating was only the beginning.

It was also true that many of the Imperial Army soldiers were themselves desperately hungry and ravaged by the same diseases that ravaged their captives. Although they hadn’t deteriorated as far as the Americans had, many Japanese soldiers were showing signs of emaciation and battle fatigue. “We were all starving,” recalled Shiro Asada, a Fourteenth Army soldier on Bataan. “We had dried fish paste and pickles to eat, that was all. Canned goods like the Americans had were a luxury to us. It seemed to us that some of the Americans were better fed than we were.” As a matter of official policy, the Imperial Army showed a remarkable reluctance to provision its own troops. Army quartermasters provided only a bare minimurn of such staples as miso and rice, but soldiers were expected to forage and steal to make up the caloric deficit. Thus, swiping rations or canteens from American prisoners wasn’t merely a matter of the strong taking advantage of the weak—it was practically an Imperial Army imperative. The Americans, already living so close to the bone, would have to make do with even less, for how could an army that barely fed its own be expected to provide adequate meals for 78,000 enemy prisoners?

SOURCE: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, by Hampton Sides (Anchor Books, 2002), pp. 91-93

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Shall I Confess to Being a Capitalist or a Prostitute?

In front of a crowd full of sleepy faces, my mother was directed to speak about herself, not as a form of self-introduction, but in a confession of her past sins against the Communist party and the new government. Standing alone onstage with a microphone in her hand, my mother rushed through the major events of her life, trying to convey enough sincerity to keep herself out of trouble. She acknowledged her guilt and ignorance during the Republican era, and praised the enlightened attitudes she had since learned. Her Communist vocabulary had improved a great deal through her encounters with Mr. Tran, and she incorporated his words into her speech, maintaining her eye contact with everyone except Lam. He sat among a group of men, acting as inconspicuous as possible.

When my mother had finished, the community leader stepped up to the podium. Unlike Mr. Tran, who had earned his position through spying, the new leader was a high-ranking officer in the Vietcong’s military. He was in his early fifties, with thin silver hair and a catchy smile. He had spent the past ten years of his life in the Truong Son Mountains, trekking the Ho Chi Minh trail. Rumors had it that he was now waiting to be reunited with his wife and children.

Taking the microphone in his hand, he said, “Thank you, Miss Khuon. What a story! Does anyone care to give any feedback? It is time for some constructive criticism, so without further ado, let’s start. May I remind you that each time anyone among you makes a statement, he or she will earn a point toward community work.”

A man stood up. My mother recognized him as one of her regular customers at her bank during her pre-Revolutionary days. A chill shot through her, since his appearance conjured up in her mind the hundreds of angry customers who had confronted her only a short time ago. As for the man, earning up to thirty points would exempt him from a day of volunteer work in the jungle; however, he also understood my mother’s capacity to hurt him, through her knowledge of his past business affairs.

He cleared his throat and said, “It was a sincere story, told from the heart. But are you leaving out any details? I want to know more about your personal life. Do you have any children? And how many? Have you been married?”

The Communist leader looked at my mother, waiting for her reply. “Well, to tell the truth,” my mother began, mechanically touching her stomach through her blouse, “I have never been married. I have two sons, and a new child on the way.”

“Tell us about your sons,” a voice said. It belonged to a woman who lived in a farm a few blocks away from my house. She was the wife of the town butcher.

“What do you want to know about my sons?” my mother said. “They are still very young.”

The butcher’s wife stood, looking up and down at my mother. Then she blurted out, “I’ve been watching you since you moved into this neighborhood. I don’t need you to tell me how old your children are. What I want to know is the nature of their ethnicity. Are they half-breeds or not? Because if they are, it is an issue to us.”

“Yes, they are.” My mother swallowed.

“Then how did you get these children—through a catalogue?”

“I got them the same way you got your children, through intercourse, of course.” My mother’s answer stirred up a round of laughter in the crowd.

The community leader warned my mother, “Behave yourself, lady. This isn’t a nightclub.”

The butcher’s wife turned bright red but was not giving up. “Under the Imperialist government,” she said fervently, “there are two possible ways for a person to have had mixed-blood children: through prostitution or through adoption. You have admitted earlier that fucking was how you got them, so you must be a hooker.” She ended triumphantly, looking around the audience for affirmation.

My mother swallowed again. She knew at that moment she had to make up her mind about her past status before these strangers. They wanted to label her so that later, they could justify any action taken against her. What was the lesser of the two evils she could admit to being a lowly prostitute or an arrogant capitalist? To the new regime, capitalism was considered the higher crime. Fifteen seconds dragged by before she could speak. Finally, with the crowd’s full attention, my mother nodded in agreement. “Yes, I was,” she said. “A prostitute is exactly what I was. And I am utterly ashamed of it.”

SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 109-111

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Good Soldier Outlier: Student Teacher

The only reason I ended up in the Army in 1969 was because I had dropped out of college while the draft was still on. But I quickly resumed my formal and informal education as soon as I finished boot camp. After my idyllic nine months of formal but fun Romanian language study at the Defense Language Institute–West Coast, I was assigned to the do-nothing 95th Civil Affairs Group at Fort Gordon near Augusta, Georgia.

At Fort Gordon, I initially spent a lot of my off-duty time at the small public library near my barracks and even took a couple of on-base extension courses from Augusta College: physical anthropology and “humanities” (mostly Greek classics). But as my language skills atrophied from disuse, I began spending time at the language lab on base, where I tried to refresh my childhood Japanese by plodding through Eleanor Jordan’s Japanese language textbooks—listening to the audio portion on vinyl records!

The language lab didn’t have any Romanian materials, but it did offer occasional introductory classes in languages soldiers might expect to encounter when posted abroad. I signed up for a short introduction to Korean, taught by a ROK army officer who might have been studying at the Army Signal School. He managed to teach his class of beginners a few very formal phrases, the rudiments of the most excellent Korean alphabet, and one version of the national folksong, Arirang.

The director of the lab (and its sole full-time employee) was a friendly DoD civilian from Puerto Rico. I spent as much time chatting with him as I did trying to study Japanese on my own, and he recruited me to teach a few English conversation classes, one to a group of lovely GI wives, mostly from Thailand, and another to a rather tougher group of officers from South Korea, Turkey, and possibly Iran.

By that time, my civil affairs unit had transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, leaving me behind with the base Personnel Control Facility because I was due to get out soon. In order to escape my boring new duty of escorting would-be deserters to their military tribunals, I had signed up for a six-week, full-time cement masonry class under Project Transition, designed ostensibly to help us become productive civilians.

One problem for me was that both my daytime class studying cement masonry and my evening class teaching English to foreign officers were a long way from my barracks, and I no longer had a car. I had to wear my uniform during Project Transition, but there was no way I was going to appear in my enlisted man’s uniform in front of a class of status-conscious foreign officers. So I had to hike a long way back and forth to my barracks at the far end of the post every evening in order to make the transition from student soldier to (ostensibly) civilian teacher.

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Teaching a Fishy English Lesson, Nhatrang, 1978

Jimmy and I attended the local elementary school, where our studies focused on math, literature, history, and science. All were taught from the Communist point of view. Miss San, who continued to teach my class, decided to hold a free tutorial session at her home every Sunday afternoon. Those were the only lectures in my experience that were not delivered with any political overtone.

Miss San lived in a two-story dwelling several blocks away from my street. She used her first floor as a fish-sauce factory, and three enormous earthenware jars were constantly at work there. Each container could hold two to three hundred pounds of fish, marinating in an equal amount of salt. She explained to us that making fish sauce was her main source of income. Teaching was just a recreational activity. The rancid smell of rotten fish was deadly, like the stench of tooth decay, only stronger. The odor permanently clung to her clothes, seeped into her hair, and like a miasma, spread to her surroundings. The adults, especially men, avoided her. They feared her eccentric nature. Children, however, were drawn to her warm personality, and no one found her more magnetic than I did.

As each Sunday afternoon approached, we eagerly wondered what surprise she had in store for us this week. Sitting on the floor in her rumpled bedroom among her scattered clothes, we waited for her appearance like the audience of a performing artist. One of Miss San’s favorite subjects was English. “The only way for us to grow as a nation is to learn from other countries’ technologies,” she often told us. “How can you learn their technologies? You can start by learning the universal language — English.”

She winked at us with a mischievous smile. “Today, let’s not learn from the textbook. Instead, let’s test our vocabularies, shall we? For the next hour, all of us must speak in English. I know this is a very difficult game, but we can try. Let’s have some fun together.”

We were trembling with excitement. Abandoning our language in a large group discussion such as this one was a forbidden act, yet it seemed so natural and harmless to us in that moment. As if she sensed our uncertainty, Miss San continued, “Let’s keep this our own little secret, children.”

She switched to English and the lesson began. “Duy went out last night,” she said, and I saw my friend sit up a little straighter. Pointing at a small girl in a ponytail, Miss San ordered, “Chi, please finish that thought.”

Chi pondered a few seconds and then said carefully, “Duy went out with a girl last night.”

There were some giggles among the students. The image of Duy with a girl was funny in any language. Miss San turned to me. “Kien, please?” she asked.

“Who was that girl? ” I formed a sentence quickly.

“Yes, that is a good question,” she said. “Tell us who that girl was, Duy.”

Duy stood up. Scratching his ears, he stuttered, searching the room for help. Someone whispered an answer, and he seized it as though he were drowning. “That girl was — was — was — my — mother,” he shouted. His voice cracked from the excitement. We fell into each other’s arms with laughter. Leaning against the wall, Miss San, too, was smiling. In the shadow of the room, I thought she was quite a beautiful lady, almost like a vision.

SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 139-141

Miss San abruptly disappeared soon thereafter.

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Hakuho Wins Osaka Basho

OSAKA, Japan [AP] — Mongolian Hakuho defeated compatriot Asashoryu in a playoff today to win the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament.

Hakuho sidestepped a charging Asashoryu at the faceoff and then swatted the grand champion down to win his second Emperor’s Cup.

Asashoryu lost his first two bouts of the 15-day tourney at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium and then reeled off 13 straight wins to force the playoff with his Mongolian counterpart.

Sumo’s lone grand champion was bidding for his 21st title and entered the tournament on the heels of accusations that he was involved in fixing matches.

The Japan Sumo Association cleared Asashoryu of any wrongdoing but it was clear he was not himself during the first two days of the tournament.

Hakuho showed a lot of poise throughout the tournament but elected to dodge to his side in the playoff, a move that is frowned upon by sumo purists.

Asashoryu forced a playoff when he swatted down ozeki Chiyotaikai in the final bout of regulation to improve to 13-2.

Chiyotaikai attempted to use his trademark arm thrusts but was no match for Asashoryu.

Hakuho ensured himself of at least a place in the playoffs when he hauled down Bulgarian Kotooshu to move to 13-2.

Ozeki Kotooshu finished at 8-7, good enough to maintain his ozeki rank for the next tournament.

Ozeki Kaio wrapped up a winning record on the final day when he forced out Mongolian Ama to improve to 8-7. Komusubi Ama also finished at 8-7.

Hakuho has now won two tournaments and compiled a record of 179 wins and 70 losses in the highest division. He’s very likely to be the next ozeki (champion) promoted to yokozuna (grand champion).

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Trying to Leave Saigon, April 1975

SAIGON WAS IN its last free hours. The smell of chaos filled the air, and confusion was written all over the faces of the people on the street. Groups of armed convicts were breaking into houses, screaming up and down the streets, and shooting into the sky. Furniture flew onto the street, blocking the traffic. Discarded items were set on fire, either by accident or purposely; the smoke and flames added to the terror. Soldiers ran in all directions, tossing their rifles into trash bins, and stripping off their uniforms as if they were on fire. Some children who had lost their parents huddled on a street corner, crying. Above their heads, fire was consuming a coconut tree, and sparks of flame rained down on them. From the car window, they looked as if they were being burned alive in some sacrificial ritual.

We did not get far. The streets were blocked by hordes of desperate people, all with the same futile intention of getting to the airport. Just as we reached the freeway, a painful truth dawned on us: we weren’t going anywhere. As far as we could see, the highway was clogged with civilian vehicles and military tanks. The hellish shriek of panic was dreadful in the hot air. People were abandoning their cars, running over each other, jumping on top of one another, climbing onto anything within their reach in order to move forward. Dead bodies lay in contorted positions, grinning horribly at the living. A few steps away from our van, a pregnant woman lay dead near the sidewalk. Her stomach had been ripped open by many hasty footsteps, and next to her lay her dying fetus, moving weakly under a dark mob of curious flies. A pool of dark blood beneath her dried slowly under the harsh sun. My mother quivered and recoiled in her seat, pulling us closer to her.

All along the freeway, people flowed like water down a stream. The crying of lost children looking for their parents, the screams of people being robbed, the songs blaring from the radio, the gunshots, the wailing of the wounded victims all blended into an incoherent symphony of grief. And like the humidity evaporating in the air, this collective keening lifted higher and higher, mixing with the noxious tear gas in a dark cloud of suffering.

Inside the car, my brother and I were too afraid to make a sound. Lam no longer looked relaxed. His long hair fell over his forehead, which was slick with sweat. His fingers, which held to the wheel tightly, were white at the knuckles. His head shook uncontrollably with each breath he took, and his eyes were opened wide, exaggerating the whiteness of his eyeballs.

Lam let out a loud, frustrated scream, as he pounded the horn in a fury. He turned to face my mother. “We have to get the fuck out of the car,” he spat. “This is not going to work just sitting here. You take the children and move.”

My mother’s lips tightened into a straight line. She grasped my arm, and I felt her fingernails dig deeply into my flesh.

“Are you insane?” she replied. “Look at these people! I am not leaving this car.”

Lam leaned within an inch of my mother’s face. I could see his jugular veins, engorged with blood like two swollen earthworms, as they stared at each other. At last Lam broke the silence.

“Then give me my damned ticket and my passport. I am sick of listening to you, wretched woman. I am leaving with or without you.”

My mother did not respond. “Now!” he cried.

The scream startled my mother. She shook her head as if to clear it, then reached for her purse.

Lam’s eyes followed her hands. “Give me your ticket and passport as well,” he blurted. “I am taking Loan with me.”

“Why her?” my mother asked. Lam focused on something invisible on the floor. “She is having my baby.”

Loan let out a small cry. My mother ignored her. After exhaling a deep breath, she gazed at Lam calmly.

“So am I. How do you explain this to me? Can’t you see that I am also pregnant with your child? ” she asked.

“So what? You don’t need me. You never did,” he said bitterly. “Trust me, you will do just fine.”

He yanked the purse out of my mother’s hand, searching intensely until he found what he was looking for. In addition to the papers, he grabbed a thick bundle of cash. Waving them teasingly in front of my mother, Lam said, “You just consider this payment for my devoted services.”

Behind my mother, Loan finally spoke up. “I am not leaving with you, Lam. I am staying here with the mistress.”

He turned to look at her as if she were deranged. Then, his lips pulled back in a distorted smile. “Fine, you stupid servant. Stay. Be my guest.”

He picked out my mother’s passport and ticket and threw them together with her purse back in her lap. Keeping the money and his own passport, Lam rammed them into the front pocket of his pants. Then, the smile returned to his face. He sank back in his seat, adjusting his clothing, before opening the door to let himself out. Oddly, he turned back one last time to look at us.

“Have a nice life, all of you,” was all he said before he disappeared into the crowd.

SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 25-27

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The Race for Burma’s Natural Gas

The February issue of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN reports on the competition for Burma’s huge deposits of natural gas and what it means for human rights in one of the most oppressive regimes in Asia.

Even as Southasia’s energy-strapped, fast-growing economies have led many to wonder whether antagonistic neighbours may be pushed together into forced cooperation, on the eastern edge of the region a less optimistic dynamic is playing out. Indeed, the huge natural-gas reserves of Burma have caused many Asian governments to turn a blind eye to Rangoon’s continued oppressive and non-democratic tactics.

Burma stands on the world’s tenth largest natural-gas reserves, estimated at more than 90 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 19 on-shore and three major offshore fields. As the economies of South, Southeast and East Asia have soared upwards in recent years, the Shwe ‘gas block’ in western Burma’s Arakan state has instigated intense competition between India, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and Singapore. South Korea’s Daewoo International estimates that just two blocks from the Shwe gas field together have a reserve of about 20 tcf, equivalent to about 3.5 billion barrels of oil. There are currently four stakeholders in the Shwe Gas Project – Daewoo (which controls 60 percent), KOGAS of South Korea, and two Indian interests, the Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL)….

Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in Asia, despite promises for political reform and national reconciliation by its government, which continues to spend 40 percent of the country’s national budget on defence, and just five to ten percent on health and education. Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, is Southeast Asia’s second largest conventional force, estimated at over 400,000 troops. The junta stands to profit by up to USD 17 billion dollars from the Shwe Gas Project over its lifespan, which could become the government’s single largest source of revenue – up to USD 825 million per year….

Meanwhile, in early January 2007, just days after China and Russia jointly blocked a proposal before the United Nations Security Council to censure Rangoon’s continued human-rights abuses, the Chinese government landed a new deal to further explore Burma’s petroleum resources. Negotiations between India and Burma over gas pricing are continuing, with an agreement expected by the middle of the year. Such is the desperation for Burmese natural gas in India, and such a fear of growing Chinese influence on Burma, that human-rights issues will cut much ice in New Delhi – particularly if the Indian civil society continues to keep mum.

via The Marmot

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