Thursday, March 31, 2016

War is Rice

The major narratives of the Pacific War are Navy gun battles and the heroism and ultimate sacrifice of Marines on countless islands. The big story I've started to learn about is the war in China, which set the stage for the bamboo curtain in the Cold War.

China had essentially been engaged in regional civil wars since the Boxer Rebellion and the reign of the last emperor. While the Republic of China was established in 1911 as Asia's oldest democracy (that being a loose term), the government's power wasn't consolidated until 1928. Ten years later, Japan invaded south of Manchuria, leading China into war again. The Chinese people endured great numbers of casualties, including the Rape of Nanking. This would lead China's generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to make the difficult decision to divert the Yellow River in 1938 to stop the advance of the Japanese into central China.

Had Chiang done nothing, the Japanese could've surrounded China's key military elements, forcing a surrender. The other option was to break the dykes of the Yellow River, flooding millions of acres of cropland and displacing over a million people. It was Chiang's last option, like sacrificing a queen on the chessboard. Detractors say that China's gain was minimal, and led to the rise of Communist activity  in the flooded areas. Others noted that the critical region was defended for six more years until Japan's final offensive. The peasants who died in the flooding were damned either way- death by the invader or death for a greater good. Belated appreciation for their sacrifice came at the end of the war.

The Yellow River was China's sorrow that kept giving, though: a 1942 famine in the Henan province- memorialized in a recent movie-  was partly attributed to the river's diversion. This famine was documented in Time Magazine, and the author remarked that he never had difficulty finding an open restaurant- highlighting an income inequality that Mao derided. Remembering what Joseph Needham, the "man who loved China", said about life in Nationalist versus Communist china, the photos- despite the desperation of the people- show a colorful China, where people retained their traditions and manner of dress, be it a large coat or an animal skin. The effects of a bad harvest were amplified by the war. Chiang's government was reluctant to reduce tax revenue in the form of rice; he had millions of troops to feed. Upon hearing that peasants were forced to sell tools and animals, the government ensured that they would take no more than the peasants had produced. Great relief.

China hobbled onwards to victory in 1945, assisted by Allies like an elderly man I met while attending Kings Point. During the War, he had been in the US Army Air Force in China. Japan's surrender should've held much promise for China; however, ceasefires between Mao's Communist troops and Chiang's Nationalists troops failed. Still at war, China suffered hyperinflation, squeezing the poor yet again. More troops defected to the Communists. Mao, after all, was an "agrarian reformer". The peasants didn't know that the Great Leap Forward would kill millions of their countrymen, nor the restrictions on civil liberties would inhibit social life.They just wanted to eat.

Sun Yat Sen's,  'Three Principles' carried by the Nationalist government, held little sway with the hungry masses. Over in India, Gandhi struck a chord with fellow subjects of colonial rule. He knew the poor could care less about abstract freedom, so he attacked the salt tax, an essential ingredient of life in India. 1947 and 1948 were the years that the world's two most populous countries were democracies. Had China followed Chiang Kai-Shek's course, I image that China would've resembled the diversity in wealth and culture that India offers.

 In January 1949, Mao took Peking, and by the end of the year, had conquered most of the mainland. He had to build up an amphibious force to take over the last two island provinces. Hainan fell, but, with the start of the Korean war, Taiwan's defenses were strengthened. For Chinag Kai-Shek, Taiwan was a manageable piece of China. With the help of international aid and American protection, the last holdout of Republican China became an economic miracle, where famine is a distant memory.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

100 Nights...Again

    At the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, there's going to be a party to celebrate 100 nights to Graduation Day. It's going to be  a great time, and all senior midshipmen are encouraged to go. The morning afterwards, the revellers will think to themselves: "the party's over", which it is, because of this pesky but ultimately rewarding thing called "Licenses".

     Merchant Mariner Licenses, issued by the US Coast Guard and required for graduation from the USMMA, is the thing that figuratively sets up Kings Point different than the other service academies. 
  Second semester senior year at other Academies, I heard, is a relative coast towards graduation compared to the rigors of previous years. They have a ball, throw their hats in the air, and leave their well-manicured campuses with PCS (permanent change of station) orders in their hands. Still hard at work, we try to tune that out. For Kings Point seniors, things ramp up quickly in May.

     In contrast to self-regulating sectors of the economy like banking's FDIC, railroad's self-certification of train engineers, and technology's industry standards; the maritime industry lost the privilege of self-regulation over a hundred years ago, and with just cause: even Huckleberry Finn talks about the boiler explosion on an 1840's Mississippi River paddlewheel ship. What resulted is that licenses are required for lucrative commercial sailing jobs, and a big part of the licensing process is the licensing tests, as well as seagoing experience. So what's on the test? Knowledge of 1960's-era relay circuits and boiler technology? Modern stack gas analysis? It's in there for engineers. Celestial Navigation, which is returning to the Naval Academy after a 20-year hiatus? Prospective mates have never gotten a break from the topic.

     On the engineering side, licenses are designed to make sure that the ship's crew, with a minimum supply of spare parts, and no outside technical support, can keep a ship sailing. This is a total break from the modern world's just-in-time, outsourced economy; 490 questions in 7 tests in 4 days are used to determine this competency.  For mates, the goal is to not beach or reef the ship, and to avoid collisions through knowledge of "rules of the road"; and do so alone with little to no OJT (on-the-job training). While most tests require 70% to pass, some of the mate's tests require 80% or 90% proficiency.

     Why do I care about the King Point Class of 2016's celebration of 100 nights? I've "long passed" this hurdle. It's because I want everything to go right for my brother. Really, I shouldn't worry. He's doing well in class; and more importantly, performs well on the type of multiple-choice tests that make up licensing. But like a godfather, I want no May surprises; no drama. Planning my vacation around this event, I'd like my brother to have a Disney-perfect conclusion to his time at Kings Point. As a graduate, I want to confer that fabled "legacy alumni privilege" on him. Since my brother is a prospective mate, and I graduated as an engineer, I get to keep a proper distance, not becoming a long-distance tutor or micro-manager. I know my place.  

      The pieces fall into place for most graduating midshipmen, a process that requires concurrence by the Dean's office, the Navy Reserve, and the Coast Guard's verification of meeting all licensing requirements.  If these requirements are met, you get your diploma in the spotlight of the stage. If there is an outstanding item on graduation day, you'll get a photo opportunity with the administrative assistant later on. For those who've had graduation this way, it's a proud moment nonetheless, but without the pomp and circumstance. Completion of the licensing exams, just three weeks before graduation day, is typically the last piece of the graduation puzzle, so there is immense joy when successful results are posted.

      And speaking of pomp and circumstance, finishing licenses the first week- passing seven of seven tests- affords several awesome opportunities: ringing the bell, going out for what is billed as the "craziest night of their lives", and getting 10 days of pre-graduation leave. Job offers are made final upon receiving a license.
I've scheduled my vacation around the events of my brother's graduation. 

     What I'm harping here is vicarious living at its finest; nostalgia for a different time. I've been out of college for almost a year. Yes, there are times at work that I think: "it never gets easier". Nostalgia for the past? I'll move on after my brother's graduation, but for now, part of my heart is still at Kings Point. It's true, though, that as a midshipman I'd admire the young, happy graduates I'd see in Greenwich Village, New York on Saturday nights. This June, I'll be one of them as I anticipate my brother's graduation.

My last blog post was on Groundhog's day, and writing about 100 nights makes me feel as if I'm in the namesake movie. It's still winter in Korea.