Category Archives: military

Filipino 1st Recon Battalion (Special) in New Guinea

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 141–142:

In November 1944, Earl Walter and sixty-six jump-qualified members of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion were sweating out the war in “strategic reserve,” stuck in steamy but peaceful Hollandia [now Jayapura], Dutch New Guinea. The closest thing to excitement came when their battalion was renamed the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Special), known as the 1st Recon. The new name did nothing to change their idle fate. Neither did Walter’s promotion from lieutenant to captain.

As months passed, Allied forces under General MacArthur kept busy retaking the islands of the Philippines—one after another, from Leyte to Luzon, Palawan to Mindanao. As the fight progressed, paratroopers from the 503rd and 511th regiments carried out their dangerous and heroic missions on Corregidor and Luzon.

All the while, Walter and his men yearned to get out of the heat of Hollandia and into the fire of war. Their battalion’s devil-may-care motto of Bahala na! a phrase from the Tagalog dialect of the Philippines that can be translated as “Come what may!” [also compared to Inshallah] The more time passed without a mission, the more it seemed like a taunt. The problem, as Walter and his men saw it, was that nothing came their way.

While awaiting orders in Hollandia—some eighteen hundred miles southeast of Manila—Walter’s men pressed him for news. With families and roots in the Philippines, they wanted the honor and the satisfaction of driving the enemy from their homeland. They craved payback for more than two years of Japanese occupation. They wanted revenge for the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which Japanese troops killed or brutalized thousands of captured Filipino and American soldiers along a forced hundred-mile march to a prison camp. Newspapers had detailed the atrocities, fueling a combustible mix of fear and hatred of the Japanese, perhaps nowhere more so than among the men in Walter’s unit. One of them, Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez, had experienced the horrors of Bataan firsthand before making a daring escape.

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Filed under Indonesia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, U.S., war

Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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Filed under Cambodia, democracy, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S., Vietnam, war

UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197:

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”

The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?

By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.

The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.

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Filed under Cambodia, democracy, economics, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S.

Nationalist, not Moralist, Conflict in Asia

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 322-333, 585-592:

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post-Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Truly, in international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was possible only because the Serbian regime was not a great power armed with nuclear weapons, unlike the Russian regime, which at the same time was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya where the West did nothing; nor did the West do much against the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus because there, too, was a Russian sphere of influence. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make at least some room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? (And barring a social-economic collapse internally, China’s military will keep on expanding.) For it is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, that is often the best preserver of freedom. That also will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the twenty-first century—one more that humanists do not want to hear.

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Filed under China, democracy, economics, energy, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, philosophy, Russia, Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Formidable Military

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1619-1641:

Singapore’s independence began less with a declaration of such than with the building of a formidable military. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million. “Like the Israelis, the Singaporeans believe in air superiority. They pay their pilots well. They have AWACS,” a defense official from a neighboring country told me. In addition to its one hundred or so fighter jets, Singapore has twenty missile-carrying ships, six frigates, and, notably, six submarines—an extraordinary number given that far more populous countries in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam each have fewer. “Nobody can squeeze us through a blockade.”

It is not enough that Singapore has these air and sea platforms. For it is deadly serious about using them effectively. Because Singapore lacks empty space for military training, it regularly has four air squadrons training in the United States, ground troops training in Taiwan, and helicopter crews training in Australia. It allots sixty-five days a year for army maneuvers with leopard tanks. “We will not be hemmed in by our neighbors.” Too, Singapore has a conscript military. Said the same defense official: “There are only three developed countries in the world that are very serious about national service—South Korea, Israel, and us.” But the vast latent power of China still unsettles the Singaporeans, so much so that they feel they have no choice but to rely directly on the United States. As another diplomat told me: “We see American hard power as benign. The U.S. Navy defends globalization by protecting the sea lanes, which we, more than any other people, benefit from. To us, there is nothing dark or conspiratorial about the United States and its vast security apparatus.”

In 1998, the Singaporeans built Changi Naval Base solely to host American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. “We designed the piers to meet the dimensions of American warships,” a high-ranking military man here told me, in order to lure American naval platforms to Singaporean waters. “It’s kind of like, if you serve good coffee and tea, people will come.” Indeed, in 2011 there were 150 American warship visits to Singapore. Then there were the three American littoral combat ships that, it was announced in 2011, would be stationed in Singapore.

Finally, beyond military might, there is the power of diplomacy. Singapore externalizes its security not only through the American navy and air force, but through an alliance like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is about “socializing other states to a set of core values.” Those core values revolve around the independence of small and medium-sized states banding together in the face of a rising great power like China, even though no diplomat in the region will ever say that on the record.

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Filed under Australia, China, military, nationalism, Southeast Asia, U.S.

Burmese Junta’s Policies toward Minorities

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1569-1581:

In a way, the Burmese army’s policies towards their opponents were the direct opposite of the policy of Western governments towards the ruling junta. Western governments had employed economic embargoes and diplomatic isolation, hoping that by shunning the Burmese generals, the generals would eventually come around. They didn’t. The Burmese army employed very different tactics. They fêted their erstwhile foes, calling them ‘leaders of the national races’. They took them to the big cities, created new desires and allowed them to enrich themselves. Business links, even illicit ones, were actively promoted. They did this knowing that it would sap the insurgents’ strength as fighting organizations. By 2010 the Burmese army was in a far stronger position than when the ceasefires were first agreed.

Under the new constitution, some power would be devolved to local governments, each with their own semi-elected legislatures. It would be far from a federal system and the real authority of the local governments would be heavily circumscribed. But it was a small concession to ethnic minority leaders who had been fighting for genuine self-determination.

The Burmese military leadership also offered the ex-insurgent armies a deal on their future armed status: reorganize your men into a ‘Border Guard Force’, that will partly be officered by us and that will ultimately come under our authority. It meant a partial but not complete integration with the Burmese army. Acceptance would mean sweet business deals and a place for former rebel leaders in the new order. Some of the smaller militias accepted. The rest have not, so far.

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Filed under Burma, economics, language, military, nationalism

Hawaiians in the American Civil War

One of my earliest blogposts was on the American Civil War in the Pacific, which focused on the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah sent to the Pacific Ocean to attack American whalers, most of whom were from the New England states.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a small ceremony at Oahu Cemetery honoring one among at least 119 men from the Hawaiian Kingdom known to have joined the war effort, mostly on the Northern side. The ceremony dedicated a headstone for the grave of PVT J. R. Kealoha, who sailed to Pennsylvania in 1864 to enlist in the 41st Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, then fought at Petersburg and Appomattox, and returned to Honolulu, where he died in 1877. His burial site had been entered in the cemetery records, but no grave marker had survived. Two of the organizers of the event, Justin W. Vance and Anita Manning, recently published an article I highly recommend, “The Effects of the American Civil War on Hawai‘i and the Pacific” (World History Connected, October 2012).

At least a score of those who enlisted in Massachusetts regiments were descended from Protestant missionaries from the Bay State who had attended schools in New England. But at least 49 Native Hawaiians also served in either the Union or Confederate military, half of them at sea, where their sailing skills were highly valued. They had to use anglicized aliases, like “Friday Kanaka,” which make their records hard to track, and most of the soldiers served in the U.S. Colored Troops. Ten Hawaiian sailors were forced to enlist in the Confederate Navy after their whaling ship, Abigail (from New Bedford, Mass.) was captured by the CSS Shenandoah, which finally surrendered in England many months after the war ended. The most unusual Asians in the Confederate ranks were Christopher Wren Bunker and Steven Decatur Bunker, sons of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins,” who migrated from Siam via Boston, where they were moved to adopt the name Bunker, to North Carolina, where they became tobacco-planting slaveholders and strong Southern sympathizers.

The Western National Parks Association is due to publish a book on Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War some time this winter (2014–2015), and the Hawai‘i Sons of the Civil War are planning to a documentary film.

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Filed under Hawai'i, migration, military, Pacific, U.S., war