Monthly Archives: December 2008

Holiday Hiatus

Our daughter is home for a week after her first semester teaching in Josiah Quincy Upper School. Then I head off for a small family reunion on the occasion of my father’s 84th birthday hosted by my brother who lives in the micropolitan area embracing Metropolis, Monkey’s Eyebrow, and Possum Trot. How many readers already knew where that is?

Among the university press books I will pass along to family members are In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar for my father (a retired foreign missionary and small-town pastor), The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia for my brother in Virginia, and What Reconstruction Meant for my librarian brother in Kentucky.

My in-flight reading will be Great Leader, Dear Leader and Under the Heel of the Dragon, and bedtime reading will be Lipstick Jihad. Excerpts to follow in 2009.

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The Korean War as Mao’s Triumph

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 634, 636, 638:

Because the Chinese viewed Korea as a great success, Mao became more than ever the dominant figure in Chinese politics. He had shrewdly understood the domestic political benefits of having his country at war with the Americans. As he had predicted, the war had been a defining moment between the old China and the new one, and it had helped isolate those supporters of the old China—those Chinese who had been connected to Westerners—and turned them into enemies of the state. Many were destroyed—either murdered or ruined economically—in the purges that accompanied and then followed the war. From then on there was no alternative political force to check Mao; he had been the great, all-powerful Mao before the war began, and now, more than ever, his greatness was assured in the eyes of his peers on the Central Committee, who were no longer, of course, his peers. Before the war he had been the dominant figure of the Central Committee, a man without equals; afterward he was the equivalent of a new kind of Chinese leader, a people’s emperor. He stood alone. No one had more houses, more privileges, more young women thrown at him, eager to pay him homage, more people to taste his food lest he be poisoned at one of his different residences. No one could have been contradicted less frequently. The cult of personality, which he had once been so critical of, soon came to please him, and in China his cult matched that of Stalin.

There was in all this a scenario not just for political miscalculation but for something darker, for potential madness with so much power vested in one man, a man to whom so much damage had been done earlier in his life. That was always a critical element of what happened next: Mao as a young man, not unlike Stalin, had been hunted too long and too relentlessly, as it were, by so many enemies; the deepest, most unwavering kind of paranoia grew out of that past and was the most natural part of his emotional and political makeup. At the same time he had become the principal architect of an entirely new political economic-social system. He existed and operated in a nation without any personal limits on him and yet where everyone could be an enemy. Both his power and his paranoia were without limits. He who had been for so long the ultimate outsider now lived a life of imperial grandiosity. He no longer needed to listen to others; if the others differed from him on issues, it was because they did not hold China’s welfare as close to their hearts as he did, and were perhaps enemies of his and of China as well—the two he judged to be the same.

He was sure that he was right on all issues—his words as they escaped his mouth were worthy of being codified as laws. China, he had decided, his China, was ready to rush into modernity—the Great Leap Forward, it was called, and the burden of turning a poor agricultural society into a modern industrial state virtually overnight fell on the peasants. If he had once been uniquely sensitive to their needs, more tuned to them as a political force than anyone else in the leadership, he now seemed prepared to put the entire burden of modernization, brutal though it would be, on them for his larger purpose. His new China would, if need be, be built on their backs. It was their job to make his dreams, no matter how unlikely, come true. The Great Leap Forward was probably the first example of a turn toward madness: as it went on, the peasants suffered more and more, under growing pressure to produce more agriculturally than ever before, even as there were conflicting pressures—for them to convert to a kind of primitive industrial base, as if there were to be a small foundry in every Chinese backyard. The Great Leap Forward was always more vision than reality. Figures on agricultural production were severely doctored to make the program look like a success. Almost everyone in the bureaucracy knew that it was largely a failure—the phrase that the distinguished Yale historian Jonathan Spence used was “catastrophic hardship”—but for a long time no one dared challenge Mao. The genuine independence of the rest of the Central Committee seemed in decline; the power and authority of Mao in a constant ascent. His will had become the national will; his truths were everyone’s truths. He was never wrong. If he said that night was day, then night had become day.

Because his hold over the government was so complete, because his need to dominate every decision was so total, he forced anyone who was a potential critic or dissenter, no matter how essentially loyal, into the most dangerous role. Those who challenged him were not merely wrong, they could become, if the issue were serious enough, enemies of the people. Those who thought they were his friends and peers and old colleagues were, it turned out, badly mistaken; they were his friends and allies only as long as they agreed with him on all issues all the time. No one suffered more than one of his oldest allies, Marshal Peng. He was a simple man who had always known his limits and thus his place, a true Communist, a man who always deferred to Mao on politics. But Peng was also a proud man, every bit as confident of his sense of the peasants’ welfare. Peng became a dissenter almost involuntarily—almost, it seemed, as if Mao wanted a break with him, wanted to turn on him and make him an enemy. By 1959, the early results of the Great Leap Forward were in and China was in the midst of a terrible famine. Yet ever higher agricultural yields were being reported. Almost , every senior official understood this—that the chairman’s Great Leap was buttressed by lies and falsified statistics, but no one dared take him on.

Finally Peng did. He was by then the minister of defense …

By the time he died from his beatings, he had been interrogated 130 times. As Mao destroyed Peng, he destroyed much of what had been the best and most idealistic part of the Chinese revolution, turning his government in the process into one where only his own monomania could flourish.

This book has been a good read in parts, but I’m more impressed by Halberstam’s storytelling than by his scholarship. The major strengths, as far as I can see, are (1) his many gripping accounts of the fighting, based on interviews with survivors; (2) helpful maps; and (3) his incorporation of much new research, especially that based on recent access to Chinese archives. Otherwise, he just seems to be digesting a lot of secondary sources. Moreover, much of his very extended political spin (all Democrats, good; all Republicans, bad; anticommunism, worse than communism) is both tedious and tendentious, and his handling of sources often seems rather sloppy, as does his handling of lesser-known Sinitic names (like Han Liqin). The 669 pages of text contain no source citations whatsoever. Instead, endnotes list page numbers, quoted passages, and short reference citations.

However, in the passage cited above and elsewhere in the chapter, Halberstam quotes the words of Jonathan Spence, whose name appears neither in the bibliography nor in any endnote. In fact, there are no notes at all for pages 631–647, which includes the entirety of Chapter 53, Section 11, “The Consequences.” Readers who do a little extra research on their own are thus left to assume that Halberstam’s insights into the consequences for Mao perhaps come from somewhere in the 208 pages of Spence’s 1999 Mao Zedong, leavened with who-knows-what.

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Niall Ferguson on Current Economic Prospects

Economic historian Niall Ferguson weighs in on China’s and America’s role in the current global economic crisis under the provocative headline, What “Chimerica” Hath Wrought.

The most important thing to understand about the world economy over the past decade has been the relationship between China and America. If you think of it as one economy called Chimerica, that relationship accounts for around 13 percent of the world’s land surface, a quarter of its population, about a third of its gross domestic product, and somewhere over half of the global economic growth of the past six years….

Yet commentators should hesitate before prophesying the decline and fall of the United States. It has come through disastrous financial crises before—not just the Great Depression, but also the Great Stagflation of the 1970s—and emerged with its geopolitical position enhanced. That happened in the 1940s and again in the 1980s.

Part of the reason it happened is that the United States has long offered the world’s most benign environment for technological innovation and entrepreneurship. The Depression saw a 30 percent contraction in economic output and 25 percent unemployment. But throughout the 1930s American companies continued to pioneer new ways of making and doing things: think of DuPont (nylon), Proctor & Gamble (soap powder), Revlon (cosmetics), RCA (radio) and IBM (accounting machines). In the same way, the double-digit inflation of the 1970s didn’t deter Bill Gates from founding Microsoft in 1975, or Steve Jobs from founding Apple a year later….

But the most important reason why the United States bounces back from even the worst financial crises is that these crises, bad as they seem at home, always have worse effects on America’s rivals. Think of the Great Depression. Though its macroeconomic effects were roughly equal in the United States and Germany, the political consequence in the United States was the New Deal; in Germany it was the Third Reich. Germany ended up starting the world’s worst war; the United States ended up winning it. The American credit crunch is already having much worse economic effects abroad than at home. It will be no surprise if it is also more politically disruptive to America’s rivals.

Among the other developed economies, both the Eurozone and Japan are already officially in recession, ahead of the United States. The European situation is especially precarious because, contrary to popular belief, European banks are in worse shape than their American counterparts. Average bank leverage in the United States is around 12:1. In Germany the figure is 52:1. Short-term bank liabilities are equivalent to 15 percent of U.S. GDP; the British figure is 156 percent. Indeed, the United Kingdom runs a real risk of being Greater Iceland—an economy crushed by a super-sized financial sector.

Moreover, unlike the United States, there is no single European Treasury that can implement multibillion-dollar fiscal stimulus. Monetary policy may be uniform throughout the Eurozone, but fiscal policy is still a case of every man for himself.

Emerging markets, too, have been hammered harder by the crisis than the “decoupling” thesis promised. In the year to the end of October 2008, the U.S. stock market declined by 34 percent. But Brazil’s was down 54 percent, China’s 58 percent, India’s 64 percent and Russia’s 66 percent. When Goldman Sachs christened these four countries the BRICs, they little realized that their equity markets would one day be dropping like bricks. These figures are scarcely good advertisements for the more regulated, state-led economic models favored in Beijing and Moscow.

via A&L Daily

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Mao as MacArthur, Peng as Ridgway

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 506-509, 512-513:

If politics, as Mao believed, had its special truths that they knew better than anyone else, then military men like Peng Dehuai, political though they also were, knew that the battlefield had its truths as well. The political and military truths had dovetailed perfectly during the Chinese civil war, but they would separate in Korea, where Chinese troops in the eyes of most Koreans would be simply another foreign army and where the appearance of Chinese soldiers would have its own colonial implications.

After the battles along the Chongchon, Mao was ever more confident; Marshal Peng on the other hand was aware that much of his success had stemmed from the fact that the Americans had stupidly stumbled into a trap. He was concerned as his troops headed south; he had no air cover, and his logistical limitations were clear to him from the start. In Mao’s mind, however, the Americans had behaved as he had predicted, as capitalist pawns pressed reluctantly into an unwanted war. There were times now, as the Chinese moved south and Mao pressed for a more aggressive strategy, that Peng would shake his head, turn to his aide, Major Han Liquin [sic (prob. Liqin); “Major Liquin” (rather than Han), p. 515], and complain about Mao becoming drunk with success. In Peng’s much more conservative view, there had already been serious signs of the difficulties ahead. Just feeding his vast army was a problem—in much of December they had gotten by subsisting largely on rations that the Americans had left behind, but their troops were now, he felt, half-starved….

But as the Americans retreated down the long, thin peninsula, the Chinese began to experience some of the very problems that had frustrated their enemies—most particularly the problem of extended supply lines in a country with primitive roads and rail systems. Because they lacked air and sea power, this was a significantly more serious problem for them. When the Americans had moved north, they had been able to use trucks and trains without fear of being attacked from the air. They could, if necessary, transport badly needed ammo and food by air and sea. Not only did the Chinese have far fewer motorized vehicles to supply a vast army, but the trucks and trains were a perfect target for the ever stronger American air wing. It was Mao’s turn now to be distanced from the battlefield, and to see it, as MacArthur had, not as it actually was, but as he wanted it to be in his mind. Mao had misread the easy early victory up north, even as some of his commanders understood why it might not happen so readily again. As the historian Bin Yu noted, Mao now “encouraged by China’s initial gains began to pursue goals that were beyond [his] force’s capabilities.” That placed the burden of dealing with reality squarely on Peng’s shoulders.

In away Peng was an almost perfect counterpart to Ridgway—they could not have been more similar in what drove them and the way they saw and handled their own men. It would not be hard to imagine some switch in ancestry and an American version of Peng commanding the UN forces, and Ridgway, in a Chinese incarnation, the Chinese. Like Ridgway, Peng was a soldier’s soldier, unusually popular with his men, because he was sensitive to their needs….

He was straightforward and no less blunt than Ridgway. It amused him when some of his former colleagues in what had been in the beginning a peasant army began to take on airs once they defeated the Nationalists. Peng still preferred to bathe in cold water, even when hot water was available, because he had always done so, and because this was what peasants did. In his lifestyle he preferred an almost monastic simplicity, and was uneasy with unwanted creature comforts….

Peng was a good deal shrewder than some of the other people in the politburo gave him credit for. He had never been fooled by his early success up along the Chongchon. Even before the war began, he had believed that, given the unusual nature of the Korean peninsula, the opposing armies would have a terrible time getting supplies to either end of the country. “Korea,” he had told his staff before the war began, “will be a battle of supply.” That was why he argued successfully with Mao that when they hit the Americans all-out for the first time, they should do it from positions as far north as possible….

He was furious when both the Russians and North Koreans argued strongly in December that his troops should pursue the Americans more aggressively. The Russians were not putting their men into the field, and as for the North Koreans, he was bailing them out from their own incredible mistakes and poor leadership. He hated the pressure they put not so much on him, but on Mao, to move more rashly, the implication being that the Chinese were showing the world that they were not as good Communists, or as brave as Russians might have been in the same circumstances….

The idea that the Russians might think the Chinese timid appalled Mao. The balance between the two countries might change significantly in the next decade—as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev started a de-Stalinization campaign and the Chinese claimed the mantle of Communist purists—but at that point, China was still the untested junior partner, and the Russians still had the right to judge the Chinese. Thus, it was easy for the Russians to goad Mao. Russian representatives in Beijing kept pressuring Mao to pursue the enemy. So too did Kim Il Sung. He met with Peng at his headquarters and asked him to pursue the Americans more audaciously.

Peng controlled his temper. The Americans were not actually defeated, he said. They had held their army together better than Kim realized. They might simply be trying to lure the Chinese too far south, so that they could strike back with another amphibious landing (a not so subtle reminder of mistakes made in the past). Still, the retaking of Seoul seemed like a significant propaganda victory, and there were huge rallies in China celebrating its recapture. In late January, Mao cabled Peng with his directives for the next campaign. In the process, Mao suggested, Peng’s forces would wipe out twenty to thirty thousand enemy soldiers. It was as if the chairman had not heard a word Peng had said in the last few weeks, caught up as he was in his own dreams of glory.

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Where Gandhi Learned His Methods

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 24-26:

ON 2 OCTOBER 1869, A SON WAS BORN INTO A MIDDLE-CLASS family in Gujarat, a collection of princely states under British authority on the western coast of India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an ordinary childhood, culminating, as ordinary childhoods often do, in a teenage rebellion. This revealed a boy whose desire to experiment was usually halted by an immobilizing timidity in the actual act of defiance. He tried smoking and stole gold from his family to finance it; but this upset him morally, and so he stopped. Though from a strictly vegetarian family, he tried eating meat; but this upset him physically, and then morally as well, and then he dreamed of a live goat trapped in his stomach, bleating, so he stopped that too. Once he was egged on to visit a prostitute, but stood in the brothel having a crisis of confidence until the woman shouted at him to go away. On another occasion, he and a cousin ventured into the jungle to kill themselves by overdosing on datura, the narcotic seeds of the thorn apple; but, once they found the plant, they lost their nerve.

This boy’s family was reasonably well-off and of a middling but respectable caste. Hindu society had been divided for over seventeen hundred years into four main castes, reflecting second-century social groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Sudras (farmers). Within each of these were hundreds of minute subdivisions, and below them a mass of outcastes, or “Untouchables”—those unfortunates who, condemned by the bad karma of previous incarnations, were destined to spend their lives sweeping, begging, scrubbing latrines and cleaning up corpses. The Gandhi family were Vaishyas, and within that were of the Bania subdivision. Banias were notorious for being hard-bargaining salesmen, a trait which young Mohan evidently inherited and would one day apply to spiritual and political ends with unprecedented effect.

Mohan’s rebellion was perhaps more unusual because the supposed cure for youthful misbehavior had already been administered. Karamchand and Putliba Gandhi had already married their thirteen-year-old son to a girl from a staunchly religious family. The girl who had been chosen, Kasturbai Makanji (known according to local tradition as Kasturba later in life, when she became matriarch of the household), was also just thirteen.

During daylight hours, etiquette decreed that Mohan and Kasturbai should ignore each other completely. Even an affectionate word between husband and wife was considered taboo. As darkness fell, they were left to their own devices, though neither had much idea what those should be. Mohan went to the bazaar to buy pamphlets, hoping to learn about his conjugal rights and duties. He was taken with the concept of fidelity and decided it should be his task to extract this from Kasturbai. He told her that she could no longer leave the house without his consent.

But, despite her youth, Kasturbai had already mastered the most effective technique available to women who live in extremely restrictive societies: that of passive resistance. She was a devout Hindu from a very traditional background and would not openly disobey her husband. Instead, she found a loophole.

Mohan’s mother asked Kasturbai to accompany her to the temple every day. Because this request was made in the daytime, when the young spouses were not supposed to communicate, Kasturbai was unable to ask Mohan’s permission. To disobey the command of the matriarch, on the other hand, would have been a terrible sin. So Kasturbai went with Putliba to the temple and returned to have her first fight with her husband, which she won by the sheer power of logic. Mohan was forced to remove the restrictions he had placed on Kasturbai.

This small incident would hardly be worthy of note, except for the fact that it formed the basis for Gandhi’s entire political method. In later years, when he found that he was at a disadvantage being an Indian in a white world, he would remember and develop the tactic of a woman in a man’s world. All Gandhi’s most famous tactics—passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical argument, nonviolence in the face of violence, emotional blackmail—had come from Kasturbai’s influence. He freely admitted this: “I learned the lesson of nonviolence from my wife.”

This, I regret to say, is my last excerpt from one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Von Tunzelmann is both a wonderful storyteller and a diligent researcher. (In that she is the equal, in my estimation, of Barbara Tuchman, one of my all-time favorite narrators of history; and I hope she already has another manuscript in the works.) In my many excerpts, I have excised all the endnote references, leaving no indication that supporting notes, maps, and glossaries consume almost 20% of a book nearly 500 pages long.

My historian brother has done a lot of research on Gandhi and is very critical of him, as are many revisionist historians. Von Tunzelmann also dishes plenty of dirt on Gandhi (and the other principal actors), while crediting him with two outstanding achievements: launching an effective campaign of nonviolence with the Salt March in 1930 and dampening communal violence in Bengal during the partition in 1947, a partition that he fervently opposed but unwittingly abetted. Between those two events, many of his efforts were irrelevant, at best, and counterproductive, at worst.

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Ridgway’s Repair Job in Korea, 1950

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 499-501:

More than most senior American commanders of his era, Matt Ridgway had a passion for intelligence. The American Army had always taken its intelligence functions somewhat casually; the men assigned to intelligence duty tended to have been passed over in their careers, not quite good enough for the prized command positions. Often the lower ranks in the Army’s intelligence shop were very good, but their superiors were not respected by their peers. Perhaps it was the nature of the modern American Army—it had so much force and materiel that when it finally joined battle, intelligence tended to be treated as a secondary matter, on the assumption that any enemy could simply be outmuscled and ground down.

There were a number of reasons for Ridgway’s obsession with intelligence. Some of it was his own superior intellectual abilities; he was simply smarter than most great commanders. Some of it was his innate conservatism, his belief that the better your intelligence, the fewer of your own men’s lives you were likely to sacrifice. A great deal of it was his training in the airborne, where you made dangerous drops behind enemy lines with limited firepower and were almost always outnumbered and vulnerable to larger enemy forces…. George Allen—who as a young CIA field officer in Vietnam briefed Ridgway daily for several weeks as the French war in Indochina was coming to its climax in 1954, later said he had never dealt with a man so acute and demanding, not even Walter Bedell Smith, who had been Dwight Eisenhower’s tough guy in Europe and later took over the CIA. Ridgway’s sense of the larger picture was so accurate, Allen believed, because of his determination to get the smallest details right. It was Ridgway’s subsequent report on what entering the war in Indochina would mean—five hundred thousand to one million men, forty engineering battalions, and significant increases in the draft—that helped keep America out of the war for a time….

The CIA, blocked from the Korean theater by MacArthur and Willoughby, was soon welcomed back. Starting at Eighth Army headquarters and running through the command, there was going to be a healthy new respect for the enemy. The Chinese had identifiable characteristics on the battlefield. They also had good, tough soldiers. Some units were clearly better than others, some division commanders better than others, and it was vital to know which these were and where they were. Now Ridgway intended to study them. There would be no more windy talk about the mind of the Oriental. The questions would be: How many miles can they move on a given night? How fixed are their orders once a battle begins? How much ammo and food do they carry into each battle—that is, how long can they sustain a given battle? Ridgway was going to separate battlefield realities from theoretical discussions about the nature of Communism. The essential question was: How exactly can we tilt the battlefield to our advantage?

Ridgway now intended to play at least as big a role in the selection of the battlefield as his Chinese opposites. For a time, he started his day by getting in a small plane and, with Lynch at the controls, flying as low as they could, looking for the enemy. With that many Chinese coming at his army, there had to be signs of them, evidence that they existed, but he saw almost nothing. That he found nothing did not, as had happened in November after Unsan, create a lack of respect for them—rather it brought greater respect for the way they could move around seemingly invisible. Gradually Ridgway began to put together a portrait of who the Chinese were and how they fought—and so, how he intended to fight them. The Chinese were good, no doubt about that. But they were not supermen, just ordinary human beings from a very poor country with limited resources. Not only did the Chinese operate from a large technological disadvantage, they had significant logistical and communications weaknesses. The bugles and flutes announcing their attacks could be terrifying in the middle of the night, but the truth was that, with only musical instruments, they could not react quickly to sudden changes on the battlefield. If they had a breakthrough, they often lacked the capacity to exploit it immediately. That was a severe limitation; it meant that a great deal of blood might be shed without their getting adequate benefits. In addition, certain logistical limitations were built into any attack they made—the ammunition and food they could carry was finite indeed. The American Army could resupply in a way inconceivable to the Chinese and so could sustain a given battle far longer.

Ridgway spent his first few weeks in country pressing everyone for information about the Chinese fighting machine. By the middle of January, he felt he knew much of what he needed to know. This war, he decided, was no longer going to be primarily about gaining terrain as an end in itself, but about selecting the most advantageous positions available, making a stand, and bleeding enemy forces, inflicting maximum casualties on them. The key operative word would be “pyrrhic.” What he now sought was an ongoing confrontation in which every battle resulted in staggering losses for the Chinese. At a certain point, even a country with a demographic pool like China’s had to feel the pain from the loss of good troops. He wanted to speed up that moment, to let his adversaries know that there were no more easy victories out there for the picking, no second shot at a big surprise attack. If the war was to be a grinder then the great question was: which side would do the more effective job of grinding up the other?

The first thing Ridgway realized was that it was a disaster to retreat once the Chinese hit. The key to their offensive philosophy was to stab at a unit, create panic, and then, from advantageous positions already set up in its rear, maul it when it retreated. All armies are vulnerable in retreat, but an American unit, because of all its hardware, condemned to the narrow, bending Korean roads, was exceptionally so. What the Chinese had done at Kunuri, Ridgway learned, matched their MO when they fought the Nationalists in their civil war. But no one, it appeared, had been paying much attention. The disaster at Kunuri, he believed, had not been writ so large because the Chinese were such magnificent soldiers or even had such an overwhelming advantage in manpower. Even as far north and as vulnerable as they were, if the American units had been well buttoned down at night, if each unit had had interlocking fields of firepower with reliable flanking units (and had not counted on the ROKs to protect them), the outcome of the battle might have been different. Even at Kunuri, the military had had the capacity to resupply the troops by air until the Chinese were exhausted. Ridgway’s long training as an airborne man was critical to the strategy he sought now. He meant to create strong islands of his own, sustain unit integrity with great fields of fire, and then let the enemy attack. It was, he believed, why Colonel John Michaelis, with his Twenty-seventh Regiment Wolfhounds, had been so much more successful than other regimental commanders in the early part of the war. Michaelis was an airborne guy, and he did not mind if his men were cut off as long as unit integrity was preserved. He knew he could always be resupplied by air.

What Ridgway wanted to do was start the Eighth Army moving north again—for reasons of morale as much as anything.

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“One Million Dead”: Just a Number

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 273-275:

“ONE MILLION DEAD”: This is the most convenient number to have come out of the wildly varying estimates of how many people may have been killed following partition. Mountbatten preferred the lowest available estimate, which was two hundred thousand, and has been widely condemned for it; the denial of holocausts is always a sticky business, and yet more so when one may be implicated personally. Indian estimates have ranged as high as two million. Many historians have settled for a figure of somewhere between half a million and a million. The figure of one million dead has now been repeated so often that it is accepted as historical fact. “What is the basis for this acceptance?” asked the historian Gyanendra Pandey. “That it appears like something of a median?” Unfortunately so, for the truth is that no one knows how many people were killed, nor how many were raped, mutilated or traumatized. The numbers anyone chooses say more about their political inclination than about the facts. Fewer than four hundred thousand suggests an apologia for British rule; four hundred thousand to one million moderation; a million or more usually indicates that the person intends to blame the deaths on a specific party, the most usual culprits being one or more of Mountbatten, Patel, Jinnah or the Sikhs.

Beyond the dead, there were more numbers, too, plucked from the extrapolations and imaginations of regional officials, army, police and historians. Refugees on the move by the beginning of September: five hundred thousand, or perhaps one million. Women abducted and raped: 75,000, or perhaps 125,000. Total who would migrate from one dominion to the other between 1947 and 1948: ten million, or perhaps twelve million, or perhaps fifteen million. The Indian National Archives contain sheaves of charts scribbled by British and Indian officials, recording eighty-seven killed in Bengal here, forty-three injured in Madras there. “The figures make no pretence to accuracy,” admitted the Home Department. The Punjab government reported that its casualty estimates were “increasing daily as investigation uncovers further tragedies”; the North-West Frontier Province government referred to “stray murders,” which were not counted! Usually it was impossible to count the number of victims amid the “confused heap of rubble & corpses” that was left behind after riots. Sir Francis Mudie, governor of the West Punjab, remembered, “[I had to] ignore any report of a riot unless it alleged that there were at least a thousand dead. If there were, I asked for a further report, but I cannot remember any case in which I was able to do anything.”

In Stalin’s famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million horrible and violent deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history. today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events in the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.

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