§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: August 2009

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945

I was not surprised to discover that Tuchman won her second Pulitzer for this book. A biography of General Joseph Stilwell as well as a chronicle of official American interaction with China, focused primarily on WWII. It's a very complex story which Tuchman makes extremely readable and interesting, and which sheds light on the military and political problems of our own time in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, the US always wants to promote democracy but ends up supporting regimes which cannot sustain democracy--in the name of stability. Secondly, the US, when lead to support a foreign power that is weak but critically important for some reason, gets itself entwined trying to change basic cultural assumptions not likely to be changed by foreigners and, in any case, likely to take a long time to change. China's revolution of 1911 had ended the Manchu dynasty and the long line of emperors who had ruled China for centuries. Sun Yat-sen who promised to bring a liberal Western-type democracy, became president and Nanking, the capital, though Yuan Shih-kai, supporting the old regime, ruled separately at Peking (Beijing now). In 1912 Dr. Sun retired and Yuan became president and moved the capital to Peking. Without a strong revolutionary leader or support from the public, the new Chinese republic was anything but promising.

Stilwell was the US General rated by Marshall (Chief of Staff at the beginning of the WWI) as his top field commander, who, were it not for his extensive knowledge of and experience in China, might have been one of the great (and well-known) US generals of WWII in Europe. (Stilwell was first slated to command a landing in French West Africa.) He had first visited China in the year of the revolution when, on duty in Manila, he and his wife traveled first to Japan and then to China--and Stilwell began learning the language. His idea of a "vacation" was to travel everywhere--dangerous in the chaotic China of the time--to observe and talk to people. He was independent, egalitarian, irascible, plain spoken and extremely loyal. After serving in WWI, he accepted the army's offer to learn Chinese and in 1920--after an unsatisfactory course of language study at Berkeley--set sail with his family for China. Once there, they found themselves in a fluid situation--bullets though the dining room once-- and Stilwell took every opportunity to get away from the diplomatic community (he hated stuffed shirts) to "see China", taking long walking holidays alone and once volunteering for a job building a road. He came to love China and the Chinese people and to understand them better than just about any other American. And he had little interest in or sympathy with other foreigners in China--especially with the British and other "treaty powers" whose goal he saw as merely to protect the economic interests they'd gained from treaties with emporers of the past. He also had little sympathy with the missionaries.

Flash forward from the twenties to 1941. Generalissimo ("the G-mo") Chiang Kai-shek (also "Peanut") head of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party)--with no experience (philosophically or personally) of the West as had Sun Yet-sen--ruled China from Chungking (where they'd moved after the Japanese took Nanking in 1937). Stilwell was sent to China as a military attache and administrator for Lend Lease. WWII from Stilwell's position was more grim and certainly less rewarding than had he been a commander in the European theatre. Early on Chiang Kai-shek preached an old Chinese proverb to the effect that if you have a problem the best thing to do is nothing and it will solve itself. That's what Chiang did. He needed the US, primarily for the supplies he could get through Lend Lease and the international support that allowed China to emerge from the war as a "great power", though he always refused to fight, even when Stilwell trained his armies and commanded himself. (The men loved him because he didn't leave them to bleed to death on the battle field and actually fed them, which the Chinese did not do. Once men were airlifted "over the hump" to join a division about to go into action, but were made to fly naked because they'd need new uniforms when they arrived. Many died of the cold. One general told Stilwell that he didn't think 6000 dead in a small battle was significant--soldiers came from the worst class anyway--and that he wouldn't get concerned until combat deaths reached 50 million!). Stillwell was a hands-on commander who was familiar to all his men--he once led the remnant of a army out of Burma into India on foot and most men--Chinese and American--credited him personally with saving their lives, not the least with his personal example.

Chiang always refused to fight for fear of losing--when he'd then be vulnerable to takeover by the Communists in the north or replacement by some ambitious commander in his own army. The US needed China in the short term to control the Japanese who were coming from Manchuria to take over Burma aiming ultimately at India but also it envisioned China as an staging ground for the ultimate invasion of the Japanese home islands. The latter was not necessary, though whether the island-hopping approach to Japan replaced the China strategy as "better" or just "necessary" because of Chiang's refusal to fight is not clear. In any case, late in the war, millions of dollars of American war materiel was found cached in caves in southern China, weapons that American pilots had suffered and died to fly in.

But Stilwell was indiscreet. He was also truthful which at least he saw as by definition not diplomatic. Much of his frustration came out in his diaries, which Tuchman uses liberally in this book, but he always assumed if he could put the case as clearly as possible to Chiang he could get him to move decisively. In the end, the best course seemed to be to make common cause with the Communists (until after the war, communism was not the bugaboo it became afterwards). Chiang agreed but set impossible conditions. Chiang never did act on Stilwell's advice and eventually started agitating for his removal. Stilwell was protected by Marshall who knew of no other American officer as fitted for the China job. Roosevelt was not as understanding (FDR had initially been charmed by the Chiangs during their visit to the US but disillusioned by Chiang's indecision at the Cairo conference) and eventually Stillwell was removed, but not until nearly the end of the war. Those who replaced him did no better.

After the war, several American diplomats were hounded out of the State Department, accused of Communist sympathies for their part in trying to put together an alliance between Chiang and the communists in the North. Stilwell was also charged--by columnist Joseph Alsop who spent much of the war in China supporting General Chennault (a long story)--based on a misinterpreted public comment after the war. Stilwell died in 1946, before the full impact of the "communist scare".

I loved this book though knew so little of China's history that I'm determined to remedy that now. I liked Stilwell too, essentially a selfless man who was never out for his own glory or advancement, but possibly as a result, was not well equipped to deal with those who were.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Possession by AS Byatt

This is my second reading and I enjoyed it soooo much more than the first time when I was impatient at all the pseudo-19th century poetry. I think I liked it better because I paid more (not less) attention to the poetry and was blown away that Byatt could do that—could not only make up two 19th century poets as characters but could write their poetry for them. I also didn’t take the book all that seriously the first time—finding it fun but “unserious”. I obviously didn’t notice that she prefaced it by those great lines about “romance” from Hawthorne’s introduction to The House of the Seven Gables: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to had he professed to be writing a novel.” A distinction generally lost in our time, but an important one and one that fits this work perfectly; it does not aim at fidelity to the possible or to the probable, but it does aim at the “truth of the human heart”.

I have always been fascinated by the author who builds a novel (or a romance) out of diverse documents which the characters come across, in this case not only the poems of the two poets, but their letters, a few stories retold from parents, journals of those closely involved—his wife and her lover, critical analysis and biography by scholars, etc. Even some fanciful sections where the author imagines events and feelings on the part of 19th century characters that could not have been known, even through the serendipity of finding the documents that were found. Having read a great deal more of Byatt than when I first read this novel, I see this tendency to weave documents into the story as characteristic of her as a writer, used most effectively in her most recent novel, The Children’s Book.

Possession is about two young academics in the 1980s who form a partnership based on a common interest in the two poets whose romance is discovered accidentally in a letter found in a old book, owned by one of the poets, and currently residing in the London Library. It’s a mystery, with clues that lead to a cache of letters in the turret on a dilapidated estate, to Brittany, back England and a metal box buried by the wife of one of the lovers. The story is a “romance” in both senses of the word: a story about love and passion and a book that’s full of coincidence and improbability in everything except its human joy and tragedy and redemption. And of course the two young academics fall in love too, slowly and as believably as their 19th century counterparts. It’s a tale of academic rivalry too, as the scholars jockey for position around "the find" the original pair can’t keep hidden—academic rivalry that rises to high comedy and even farce.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

This was a good story, but not an interesting novel—if that makes any sense. Let me explain: I find that I resent an author who gives me a novel designed primarily to raise my consciousness about a current issue or about an historical period it currently makes sense to understand. The assumption is that I’m too lazy to bother with the issue unless I’m seduced by a good story. I had an extremely bad reaction to A Thousand Splendid Suns because it seemed to me that the author started out with a list of all the bad things that could happen to a woman in Afghanistan and then constructed a story around them, with the primary goal of making readers understand the position of women in Afghanistan. In the same way this novel seems to me to be written primarily to inform readers about the hard lives of Africans who were captured and sent to work as slaves on American plantations, as well as explore the return of some freed slaves to Africa in the 19th century. The latter task was accomplished more honestly by historian Simon Shama in his book Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution as well as in other nonfiction works.

I’m discovering that I want to read novels that do something unique and excellent as novels rather than just read a good story. Books like this one are often advertised with comments like “everyone should read this book”, meaning that everyone will benefit from the lessons it teaches. I for one am more interested in fiction as art than fiction that teaches. Underscoring my perception that this book’s purpose was didactic is the fact that its name was changed for American audiences, the marketers among publishers deciding that Americans would not read something called The Book of Negroes, its original Canadian title. (The “N” word now includes the original descriptive word from which the racial slur derives.) How could anyone possibly learn a lesson from a book that uses the N word, they seem to assume.

I’m sure there’s a place for novels that teach and for the assumption that some readers will not explore a subject in any other way. But I’m not the intended reader and I find them at least mildly insulting. Particularly if the historical material plays into contemporary issues, particularly if the writer seems to imply reading this book will be “good for me”, I’m likely to rebel. On the other hand, I don’t hate all historical novels, though I frequently find them lacking in interest as novels. But again my least favorite are those historical novels that want to teach me a lesson.