J. Robert Oppenheimer and President’s Day 2019

I appreciate that February only has four weeks, but must they be as long as they are? What? They’re the same length as those in June? No, can’t be. You’re making that up. Next week is National Tell Me A Fairy Tale Day, not this week.

Nuclear Club: Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer 
LIFE Magazine cover, 1947.

Well, given that…Julius Robert Oppenheimer (known either as Robert or Oppie) was born on 22 April 1904 in New York City to an affluent first-generation German Jewish immigrant family in the textile business. Young Robert’s early education was typical of secular Jews in Manhattan, but untypically Robert was introduced to the quasi-Christian/quasi-atheist Ethical Culture movement in the primary grades, which may have informed his life thereafter. 

Young Robert, like the physicist Oppie would become, had a wide-ranging mind and interests that ranged from English and French literature to horseback riding and mineralogy. At Harvard he majored in chemistry but gravitated to physics, graduating summa cum laude in just three years. He moved on to Cambridge and to the University of Göttingen, where he earned his PhD in physics at the age of 23 while he developed his most cited work, the Born–Oppenheimer approximation in quantum physics.

After university, Oppie (from a Dutch-derived nickname) was much sought after, dividing his time between the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and Harvard for a year. Known to work himself to exhaustion while still in school, he was also subject to fits of depression. He had no spare time, dividing himself between hard science and Eastern philosophy, learning Sanskrit on his own so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. He supported communist ideals in the ’30s while supporting refugee scientists from Europe–including many who he would work with on the atomic bomb. At the same time he practically ignored the world around him, and was unaware of the Wall Street crash of 1929 until he was told about it two years later.

Morally Oppenheimer could be described as a mess. He had an affair with divorcee Jean Tatlock, a fellow communist sympathizer who really was a communist, that supposedly ended in 1938. Then he married another communist, divorcee Katherine Puening, who had two children with him while he was still sleeping with Tatlock from time to time. All of this made for interesting reading and constant surveillance while he worked on the most secret project of WWII.

Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 as the head scientist, in part because he was a good referee. Oppie was the one world-class physicist among all those in the Western world who all the others would work for. The military head of the project, Army brat Leslie R. Groves, had been the overseer for the building of the Pentagon and was regarded as one of the best civil engineers in the Army. The unlikely pair–unruly and eccentric Oppenheimer and straight-laced career soldier Groves–got along famously and became lifelong friends, though Groves was always concerned about Oppenheimer’s serial indiscretions. 

In July 1945 Oppie and thousands of other workers watched the Trinity device–a plutonium core nuclear bomb–ignite the very air in the New Mexico desert.  His reaction over the years has been described and reinterpreted, but the one that makes the most sense was relief. After all, the Manhattan Engineer District had cost the United States $3,000,000 for every man, woman, and child in North America. There were scientists who thought that the thing wouldn’t work and others who thought that it would cause a continuing chain reaction and consume the Earth. If he thought of the Bhagavad Gita at that instant we can’t know now, even as much as he said he did later.

His early flirtations with communist organizations, direct or not, caught up with him in the coming Cold War. He lost his security clearance in 1954, and his situation was made worse by his pronouncements that science knew no politics. As the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton from 1947 until 1966 when he began chemotherapy for throat cancer, he encouraged research of all kinds and consistently spoke for harnessing science for the public good. J. Robert Oppenheimer died 18 February 1967, eulogized by many and remembered as a cautionary yet unapologetic voice for the harnessing of science for the public good.

President’s Day 2019

From right, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in College Station, Texas,  Oct. 21, 2017.  (AP Photo/LM Otero) ORG XMIT: TXMO103

The appellation “President’s Day” originated in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which took effect in 1971. The Act established Washington’s birthday as the third Monday in February, in the week of 15-21 February; it didn’t officially merge Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, nor did it establish a “President’s Day” by law…pop culture seems to have done that all on its own. 

The photo up top is of a unique club: five men who get to be called “Mister President” at the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. There’s another to the right: a hurricane relief concert in 2017 when there were five living former presidents. WIth the incumbent in the White House, this was a period during which there were six living members of the President’s Club, which has happened four times. There have been six periods when there were no living former presidents:

  • When George Washington died in 1799;
  • When Andrew Johnson died in 1875;
  • When Grover Cleveland died in 1908;
  • When Calvin Coolidge died in 1933;
  • When Lyndon Johnston died in 1973.

Richard Nixon is the only person to have been both the only living US president (January 1973, after Johnson died, to August 1974, when he resigned) and one of six living presidents (January 1993, after Clinton’s inauguration, to his death in April 1994). Everyone should be known for something odd.

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Meiji Constitution and Valentine’s Day 2019

Mid-February: still ice everywhere despite what may have come as a thaw in late January–it often does for a few days in the Great Lakes. Then it drops down to sub-zero again, even after Groundhog Day. Don’t expect the mall snow piles to be gone for another couple of months. Climate change my royal behind…

Today is many things, but the three most important, in order are:

  • My granddaughter Madeline’s  birthday, and I won’t say how old she is other than she’s eligible to vote and can drink legally in any state of the Union;
  • Foundation Day in Japan, celebrating the traditional beginning of the Empire of Japan in 660 AD;
  • Constitution Day in Japan from 1889 to 1947.

The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, known colloquially as the Meiji Constitution, was proclaimed on 11 February 1889 by the Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito and became effective on 29 November 1890. Before then Japan, like many other states, had no written constitution but a body of law, traditions, and habits for formalizing the government and institutions. That it was issued on Japan’s Foundation Day was not a coincidence, because it in effect reinforced the fact that, though many changes social and technological changes were sweeping across Japan in the late 19th century, the emperor and the samurai were still on the top of Japan’s heap.

One of the salient features of the Meiji Constitution was that it was in effect the Emperor’s to obey or ignore at his discretion. The US Constitution outlines a structure for a government, then goes on to limit the powers of that government. Whatever the Emperor did under the Meiji Constitution or–more ominously–whatever was done in the Emperor’s name was OK. It was his to dispose of or obey at will. In practice, the Diet was used to raise taxes and pass civil laws, and the courts were there to legitimize governmental actions. The primary restraint to any of the three emperors who reigned under it was that it provided a veneer of Western appearance that was almost universally recognized. The Meiji Constitution thus made many in the West (those who never read it) believe that Japan was just like them.

The Meiji Constitution set up a government, allowed for a politically-chosen and elected Diet (analogous to the House of Representatives), and an upper house of nobles (more like Britain’s House of Lords than the US Senate), a chief executive (Prime Minister) and a cabinet to control governmental functions. It then states that the Prime Minister was to be appointed by the Emperor on the advice of a privy council and the Genro of elder statesmen (who were all men) and they didn’t need to be members of the elected Diet–and in practice they rarely were. Thus, the government of Japan was not necessarily responsible to the electorate.

Finally, the Meiji Constitution made the military co-equal with the civil government, in effect making it a fourth branch of the Emperor’s controlling apparatus. If the military didn’t send a minister–a War Minister/general from the Imperial Japanese Army and an admiral/Navy Minister from the Imperial Japanese Navy–to a Prime Minister’s cabinet, or if one service or the other withdrew its minister, the government had to be dissolved and, usually, another Prime Minister chosen. The military did this when they didn’t get their way over and over again right up to 1941.

Generals and admirals were Prime Ministers about a third of the time between 1890 and 1945. From the outbreak of WWII in Europe to the surrender, “political parties” in Japan as they were understood in the West ceased to exist, replaced by the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA), an amalgamation of all Japan’s political parties (except the communists, founded in 1922, which was repressed) into one. By that time it no longer truly mattered what the civil government had to say: the decision to attack the West in 1941 and all the planning for it took place under Konoe Fumimaro, the last non-military Prime Minister before August 1945. 

The Meiji Constitution was technically revised in 1947, but it was an entirely new document under its same official name, fashioned after the US Constitution by the occupation forces. In it, the Emperor was reduced to a figurehead; the Prime Minister elected by the Diet, and the use of force and role of the military severely curtailed. No longer a veneer, Japan’s Constitution may one day end up as a model for a UK Constitutuion, should they ever write one.

Valentine’s Day 2019

Yeah, OK, a greeting card holiday. Ain’t we tired of saying that all the time, every year?  Yeah, it “celebrates” an execution–maybe (there are at least three saints named Valentine who were said to have been executed on 14 February). Only Medieval legends had such a saint performing marriage rituals, not any contemporary accounts doing so in their Third Century lives. Then what? Hey: it’s mid-February, time to feel warm about someone else. 

Initial cover for Tideline

Family loves you if you think you deserve it or not. You only have to love them back.

From Tideline

Yeah, this is another plug for another book. That’s what this blog is for.  This one’s not about anybody getting killed, though it does involve the military.  Tideline: A Story of Friendship should be ready mid-year. As my loyal readers (all three of you) know, Tideline is about two people growing up in the ’50s and ’60s  in suburban Detroit. They spend their teen and most of their young adult lives apart for reasons beyond their control. Yet, for all those years–nearly half their lives–they never entirely forget each other.

A friend will help you move; a buddy will help you move a body.

From Tideline

He joins the Army for a lot of reasons; she, the Navy for just as many. They run into each other in 1985 in the book’s first prime location, Key West Florida. They learn of each other’s lives again, yet their services could rip them apart at any time. But these two survivors of the Summer of Love (1967) cannot resist the temptations of the flesh without deciding on limits to their passions: a tideline.

TIdeline is a story of enduring friendship, heartache, and joy, adventure, and romance, of trust and two people’s grim determination to not just stay together but to convince their services to allow them to stay together and keep their careers. It was a time of chaos in the ’60s when the streets flooded with protests, and the ’80s iin the turmoil of widespread social, legal and structural changes in the post-Vietnam US armed services, and when “social media” was still a written letter.

Hey, not bad, eh? Look for Tideline about mid-year…probably.

Emperor Norton I of the US and National Create a Vacuum Day

February in the Great Lakes: still in the depths of winter, but there are rimes of ice around everything by now. Feet don’t fail me now, we gotta make it until spring.

On 4 February 1818*, Joshua Abraham Norton was born somewhere in England (Deptford, near London, is the best candidate). At the age of two, he and his family moved to South Africa as members of the 1820 Settlers, sanctioned by the British government.  Not much more is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849 with some capital in his pocket–though how much is unclear and at this point unknowable. What is known is that he was a savvy investor who did well in real estate and commodities, and by 1852 was one of the wealthiest people in San Francisco, which for that time and place is saying a great deal. But he tried to corner the market in rice and lost his shirt doing it, filing bankruptcy and was living in a boarding house by 1859.

On 17 September 1859, Norton declared himself Norton I, Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton I, circa 1875

Well, good for him: everyone needs an emperor now and then. Having been a prominent businessman just months before, the San Francisco newspapers were more than happy to publish his announcement, and like many others regarded him as a harmless crank. It didn’t take long for His Majesty to start issuing proclamations removing and appointing the governor of Virginia (17 September 1859), dissolving the United States (16 July 1860), forbidding Congress to meet in Washington, D.C. (1 October 1860), and abolishing the Democratic and Republican parties (12 August 1869). All the while, newspaper editors attributed scores of other declarations and decrees to him, few of which were his, many were amusing, others quasi-serious.

While it was clear to nearly everyone that the guy was unhinged, it seems that he was indulged well beyond what would be tolerated a century later. Police and militiamen saluted him on the streets; society swells doffed their hats and curtsied; restaurants fed him at no charge; workmen would stop their work as he inspected; his boardinghouse used him as free advertising. Even the 1870 census listed his occupation as “emperor.”

But all good things must come to an end, and on 8 January 1880, Emperor Norton I dropped dead at California Street and Grant Avenue, on his way to a lecture.  He was adequately eulogized in the newspapers and buried at the Masonic Cemetery on 10 January. The procession was two miles long, attended by some 10,000 mourners. Since then his body was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery, where it rests today, maintained by the city of San Francisco. The City by the Bay has never hesitated to suck whatever whimsey or publicity out of Norton that it could. Persons playing the role give tours of the city, dressed in whatever imaginary finery they could imagine. Businessman, crank, emperor and tour guide: quite a career.

*The year of Norton’s birth is in dispute: as early as 1814 or as late as 1819.

Create A Vacuum Day

Um…no, not necessarily the one on the left

Today is National Create a Vacuum Day because the good folks at the National Day Calendar say so.  As we all know, vacuums (the atmospheric state) are an absence of, well, principally gas. So why is it my vacuum cleaner is always full of something–hair, dirt, paper, dust or I just don’t know what? That’s because what we call a vacuum is an absence of air. A true or perfect vacuum which is devoid of all matter is only theoretical and can’t actually be created, exist or be detected…except by the US Congress, which makes one practically every time they meet.

Now, according to Doc Elliot’s Mixology, whose graphic I borrowed above, the reason your drink shaker creates a vacuum when you shake it is because the contents of that shaker cool and contract, creating a partial vacuum that holds the lid on. Have to take their word for it because I don’t do that: hard liquor just doesn’t appeal to me.

This look is something new: a new editor for WordPress that seems easier to use.  Every paragraph, graphic, quote or what-have-you here is a separate, reusable block. It makes moving the elements around easier, but I’m nowhere near bright enough to take advantage of all this stuff. So it might look different, but it’s still my same old rambling.

January 28th Incident and Groundhog Day 2019

As January grinds down once again, it’s time to reflect on a few truths. It’s cold in the Great Lakes, and it is in most of North America this time of year. It’s also wet, and cold and wet is the most miserable way to feel. Therefore, a good roof and furnace is vital; I hope you have both.

Since its successes of the late 19th century, the Japanese military leadership had been ever searching to expand Japan’s power base. WWI demonstrated to them that the single most important thing any state needed on its own was resources. While Japan had some things in abundance in the Home Islands–coal and silk–it lacked many of the resources that modern states needed to be competitive in the world market. Unfortunately, as an agrarian state, Japan was too poor to buy them. So the military leadership steeped in the samurai traditions resolved to take by force that which she needed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China-Manchukuo-map.svg

East Asia, 1932. Japanese Empire in salmon; Manchukuo in green. Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s annexation of Korea and aggrandizing its South Manchuria Railroad holdings to include all of Manchuria while China was in a state of civil war was relatively easy, often bloodless. By 1932 China itself had settled down after Kuomintang (KMT) party had taken control of the administrative apparatus of the country.

China in 1932 was a tinderbox waiting for a light, and Japan was more than willing to supply the flame. The cosmopolitan city of Shanghai on the Wangpoa River near the East China Sea coast was a busy seaport and Pacific Rim financial center, with several “concessions”–European quasi-colonies resulting from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Japan saw Shanghai as a potential target for another takeover…as long as it could make up a reason to do so.

On 18 January 1932, five Japanese Buddhist monks were beaten by a Chinese mob in Shanghai: one died. Later that same day, a factory was burned down and a policeman killed. It is impossible to think that these incidents were not brought about at the instigation of the Japanese military, who were adept at creating “incidents” of this kind. They weren’t necessarily sanctioned by the government in Tokyo, but the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) didn’t necessarily care: they created these situations knowing that the leadership would–eventually–back them.

By 27 January, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had positioned 7,000 IJA troops, some 40 warships (including Japan’s first aircraft carrier task force of 38,000-ton Kaga and 9,000-ton Hosho) and 40 combat aircraft for the coming battle. Also, there was the Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) of some 2,000 men. The force that would become the Shanghai Expeditionary Army was commanded by Shirakawa Yoshinori. Just outside Shanghai, the Chinese 19th Route Army*–called by some little more than a warlord force–containing about 20,000 men in three divisions. Though they had been paid to go away, they were in the city when the fighting started. With fortress garrisons and armored trains, China had maybe 30,000 initially available men for the defense of Shanghai, overall commanded by Cai Tingkai.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/132996995218105171/?lp=true

Shanghai, 1932

On 27 January, the Japanese issued an ultimatum to China, demanding reparations for any damage to Japanese property or harm to Japanese citizens. While China agreed by the deadline, Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Shanghai at midnight on 28 January, the first major aircraft carrier attack in East Asia and a foretaste of the terror bombing of civilian populations that would follow. Simultaneously, IJA troops attacked targets all over the city, meeting fierce Chinese resistance.

As the fighting spread throughout the city, the members of the international communities tried to broker a cease-fire, which the Japanese at first refused, pouring more men and aircraft into the fighting up until 12 February, when a half-day truce was agreed to so that civilians could get out of the way.  That same day, the Japanese demanded that all Chinese troops be withdrawn. The Chinese responded on 14 February by sending the Chinese 5th Army– of two divisions and an independent brigade, perhaps another 20,000 men–to Shanghai.

The fighting continued until the Japanese had sent nearly 100,000 men into the battle. The two Chinese armies, pummeled by superior Japanese artillery and desperately short of supplies, had to withdraw on 29 February. Chinese casualties were about 13,000 to Japan’s 5,000.

The “peace process” brokered by the League of Nations that followed made a mockery of Chinese sovereignty, but there was no hope for it. Shanghai was “demilitarized” only of Chinese soldiers–the Japanese were allowed to keep a small garrison.

The 28 January Incident in Shanghai was yet another example of Japanese military passive-aggressive tactics that succeeded so often it gave them a sense of false confidence. They came to believe that anything they did–even a strong bluff like southern Indochina–they could eventually get away with because of their military prowess and the fear of the West of another war. When they went too far in 1941, their fate was sealed.

*A Chinese Route Army was a larger field force than an Army of more than two divisions, often more than three corps.


Yes, yes…Groundhog Day is 2 February; next Saturday. The American/Canadian custom date was first documented in 1840, in a Morgantown, Pennsylvania (traditionally Pennsylvania Dutch country) diary, where the locals believed that if a groundhog saw its shadow on Candlemas (also 2 February), the winter would be longer than if it didn’t.

My mother, of old German/English stock, knew the accuracy of the groundhog-swami to be absolute, declaring to my sisters and me that if the shadow were seen, winter would last another six weeks; if not, spring would arrive in just a month and a half.

Don’t overthink it.

The more formal custom followed in 1887 in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, which is known for nothing else at this writing. The beast is coaxed out of its lodgings at a given time, and its handlers declare whether or not Puxatawney Phil has seen its shadow. Accuracy figures are sketchy but don’t seem to exceed those of random chance.

SInce 1887, other locales have acquired their own overgrown squirrels, from Texas to Russia to Nova Scotia–and some are stuffed. Potomac Phil in Washington DC predicts the end not of winter but of Congressional gridlock–and has never been right.

SOMEONE has to point out that Bill Murray has turned an otherwise dull and mundane non-holiday into a freaking meme. For those who haven’t seen the 1993 Harold Ramis film,  Groundhog Day was released to generally favorable reviews and good sales worldwide. The story centers on a TV weatherman (Murray) who is trapped in a time loop, reliving the same 2 February over and over again with the same people, but he’s the only one who realizes it. While better film analysts and critics than I have dissected the film over and again, I have to state that I found it was mildly amusing the first time, but afterward was dull not because of the repetitive nature, but because, like many comedies, the fun stems from the unexpected.

Since the film’s release, “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand in popular culture for the repetitive nature of everyday life.  Frankly, the only thing about Groundhog Day that this correspondent finds repetitive is the insistence upon attention to it. But that’s me.

George Orwell and National Opposite Day

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t

Just to mess with your head a bit…still cold here in the Great Lakes; trust me. Today is the 52nd anniversary of the lowest daily high temperature ever recorded in the Detroit area: -26 below. Let’s hope that record is never quite met.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about a most extraordinary writer, a scrivener of ideas and thoughtful prose. George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) was born in India 25 June 1903, the son of an Englishman in Indian Civil Service and a Frenchwoman raised in Burma. Orwell and his older sister were taken to England when the boy was a year old. Though his father visited from time to time, he would not live with his father again until 1912.

As a boy, Orwell was attracted to writing poetry, stories and historical essays, earning prizes and scholarships, including one for Eton. Still too broke to graduate, he took a job with the Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. While there Orwell learned Burmese, grew a mustache, had his knuckles tattoed, started his path towards socialism, and caught dengue fever. After returning to England in 1927, he resigned from the Imperial Police to take up writing full time.

His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was an homage to Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), describing the seamier side of the largest European cities, its poverty, and degradation of people less fortunate than others. Working a number of odd jobs while writing essays and articles, Orwell associated with some of the organized labor and growing socialist movements in central Britain while writing The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which brought him to the attention of Britain’s Special Branch until the publication of his landmark–and last–book, 1984.

From late 1936 until mid-1937, Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War primarily as a fighter, but also as an observer of the political chaos that drove the many factions in Spain to cut each other’s throats with charges and counter-charges of “fascism” and “counter-revolutionary thought.” Wounded, he left Spain somewhat disillusioned about the future prospects of socialism if not even the socialists could agree with each other.

After a long recovery, Orwell published a novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), partly based on his childhood and partly not. Rejected for military service with the outbreak of WWII, he kept writing essays, reviews, poetry, stories and a journal, where he often spoke of his disillusionment with the socialist movement in practice but never in theory. He got work supervising BBC broadcasts for India, countering German propaganda.

In 1942 or thereabouts Orwell started writing his breakout book, Animal Farm, that would eventually be published in 1945. Along the way, he suffered many shocks, not the least of which was the death of his parents, losing his lodgings to a V-1 bomb, and the death of his wife. While it was in process with his publishers, it was rejected by his first publisher on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Ministry of Information official in charge of producing pro-Soviet propaganda during the war who turned out to be a Soviet agent. How this affected his later work is speculative since the connection only came after Orwell was dead. Nonetheless, 1984‘s Ministry of Truth did have a duty to change yesterday’s history to fit today’s reality.

Animal Farm won Orwell international acclaim, and without a family he submerged himself in work, producing over 130 essays and reviews in less than a year, and publishing a collection of his review essays. A boating incident in 1947 resulted in tuberculosis, which he barely survived by early 1949 while finishing his last book, published in June–it was an instant best-seller. On 21 January 1950, Eric Blair/George Orwell died at age 46.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set out six simple rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With his impressive published output, I can’t possibly disagree with these rules, but break them most of us do, and regularly. But they come from a man of contrasts, an atheist who embraced and thrived on traditional Church-of-England values, who provoked arguments endlessly but was a loner, aloof from even his most intimate friends. Sickly for much of his adult life, his views on humanism never wavered, while he raged at the humanitarians who didn’t–or couldn’t–provide enough relief for the downtrodden. He hated the idea of dictatorship, yet understood it better than nearly anyone else. He rejected the Soviet Union but embraced socialism all the more fervently. While the Special Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police maintained a file on Orwell as a possible subversive, the Home Office’s MI-5 was just as convinced that he was not only not a communist, the communists didn’t want anything to do with him.

Reading any of Orwell’s writings after reading 1984, however, is difficult because the haunted quality of his last novel almost feels as if he knew his end was coming sooner than later. Animal Farm, which I read first in the 1960s, was spectral but not with the same feeling of doom. Reading Burma Days about his life as an Imperial Policeman or Down and Out in Paris and London recalls Jack London’s desperate despair, but contains none of the feel of death that his last works have.

For those of you who know nothing of Orwell’s prodigious body of work, you should read the significant books in the order they were published.

And if you have read him already, pause today in memory of the late Eric Blair…when the clock strikes thirteen.


One of the most extraordinary things I get to do on this blog is making pithy observations about what people expect versus what is–ahem–real. It is with the height of irony that Friday, 25 February is called by some National Opposite Day. I say “by some” because not everyone agrees that 25 February is National Opposite Day; some insist that it’s 7 January, yet others demand recognition of the “fact” that the 25th of every month is Opposite Day. Several sources speak about “experts” in the field of national days.

Orwell would have loved/hated it. “Experts on national days”–there are such things? And the idea of opposite days–where you say one thing and do another–would have fit into his Oceania very well.

No one knows when or where “opposite days” started, but the earliest reference is in the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge declared “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” At this, the punditocracy began debating if he was running or not (he didn’t).

Opposite Day is a self-referential paradox, and the perfect way to commemorate the death of George Orwell. Declare Opposite Day, and there can never be one–Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth will ensure it. Declare an orgy on Opposite Day and Julia of the Junior Anti-Sex League will spend hours deciding if she should or not.

Double-plus-good!

Operation Ke and National Nothing Day

Mid-January already. Wow. While here in the Great Lakes we’re stuck in a deep freeze that started last November, I can only hope you aren’t. I can also hope that you keep reading.

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/coast-watchers-in-the-solomons/

The Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Guadalcanal is in the lower right just about 10 degrees S latitude and bisected by 160 degrees E longitude.

As early as November 1942, low-level Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) officers had been advising that Guadalcanal couldn’t be retaken or held. At the far end of a logistical chain that stretched over 3,500 air miles back to Japan, the nearest Japanese base to Guadalcanal of any size was Rabaul, still over 600 miles away with limited air cover in between.

By January 1943, Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) decided to pull out.  The Japanese weren’t used to retrograde operations, but they were so short on troops that they had to learn, and quickly.  In five months the Japanese forces on the island had gone from less than a thousand before the US Marine landing on 7 August 1942, to 36,000 at their peak in October, to 11,000 in January 1943, and the survivors were in awful shape. Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) resupply runs from Rabaul were increasingly hazardous due to the American buildup on the island. Conditions were so primitive on what the troops called Starvation Island–where the sick rate approached 50% on any given day– IJA Seventeenth Army’s commander Hyakutake Harukichi’s staff was less than ten men.  Mikawa Gunichi commanded the IJN Eighth Fleet at Rabaul responsible for the Solomon Islands. On him would fall the responsibility for the evacuation. dubbed Operation Ke.

Commanding the Allied naval forces in the South Pacific Area was William F. Halsey with two fleet carriers and six escort carriers, six battleships, and a relay of 12 light and heavy cruisers and sundry escorts and destroyers. Commanding the American ground troops on Guadalcanal was Alexander Patch with about 40,000 soldiers and Marines. Halsey enjoyed supremacy of ships, aircraft, and logistics over Mikawa; Patch had numbers and logistics over Hyakutake. At the same time, they knew that their opponents were no pushovers. Aware of an uptick in activity in early January 1943, the Americans suspected a major reinforcement of either Guadalcanal or New Guinea, and they moved to counter both.

A fresh battalion of infantry and a battery of guns were landed on 14 January to act as a rear-guard, which was the first time that Hyakutake was aware of the withdrawal. Backed by two aircraft carriers, an IJN air superiority campaign from Rabaul commenced at about the same time. The Japanese air campaign was not a severe threat to the Allies in the area since their air power in the region was outnumbered by about 500 Allied to 400 Japanese.

Aided by covering surface ship skirmishes, radio deception, desperate air attacks, and long-practiced deception operations on the ground, the IJA ground troops disengaged and moved off from the front. The Americans, attacking as ever, exploited the weak lines and pushed forward. Still fearing a counterattack on his weary ground troops, Patch again moved cautiously. It should be remembered that tropical conditions weren’t to the liking of the Americans either: their sick rate was close to 20%. At the same time, a withdrawal was not thought to be in the Japanese playbook.

Still suspecting that a reinforcement was underway, a small surface task force under Robert C. Giffen was sent to patrol between the south coast of Guadalcanal and Rennell Island. In a confused air-surface night action 29-30 January, USS Chicago was sunk, and another US destroyer damaged to 12 IJN torpedo bombers shot down. But this minor battle had the effect of brushing back the Americans, enabling the evacuations to continue unimpeded by heavy surface forces.

The first IJN evacuation was conducted 1-2 February, pulling nearly 5,000 sick and emaciated soldiers off the island in 11 destroyers. It was opposed primarily by PT boats and ground-based aircraft from Guadalcanal. The second (4-5 February) and third (7-8 February) lifts were similarly opposed by light forces. Halsey’s ships were 200 miles away to the south. Unaware of how high Japanese casualties were among their long-range medium bombers, he did not venture to interfere in a major way. Halsey and the other commanders were also becoming convinced that the Japanese were evacuating Guadalcanal–not reinforcing–since the resistance on the ground was rapidly vanishing, and saw no need to keep the Japanese from leaving the rock that they had fought over for six months.

Operation Ke was arguably one of the last Japanese successes in WWII.  Called an “operational success” by some sources, it was nonetheless a retreat–not on the scale of Dunkirk but a retreat nonetheless.  It cost the Japanese a destroyer and a submarine sunk and 56 aircraft shot down to save a little over 10,000 sick and emaciated soldiers, about a third of whom would never serve in the field again. The Allies lost a cruiser, a destroyer, and three PT boats, in addition to 53 aircraft. The balance sheet tilted slightly towards the Japanese in raw numbers, but they also lost the southern Solomon Islands, a position they could–unlike the British and French after Dunkirk–never regain.

The Americans weren’t asking for negotiations: in fact, with the Casablanca conference underway between US, British and French leaders, such thoughts seemed ages away. After the collapse of German resistance at Stalingrad on 2 February, the Soviets weren’t giving up either.

One by one, Japanese prewar miscalculations were adding up to doom.


Wednesday, 16 January,  is traditionally recognized as National Nothing Day since it was allegedly invented in 1972 by Harold Pullman Coffin, a San Francisco Examiner columnist who went to his nothing reward in 1981. He also created the National Nothing Foundation in California, which may have gone to nothing since as well.

https://electropiknik.cz/viral/7-duvodu-proc-by-s-vami-mel-vas-pes-spat-v-posteli/2017/08/

A great way to do nothing…

Nothing Day was supposed to be the one day that we were supposed to be able to recognize or celebrate or remember anything at all. In part, it has been co-opted by a “buy nothing” movement that has always been the alternative to Black Friday: the day after American Thanksgiving. Regrettably, for Coffin’s non-day, 16 January is also:

  • National Fig Newton Day (since…no one’s sure);
  • National Religious Freedom Day (since 1993);
  • National Without a Scalpel Day (since 2016).

While the idea is pretty neat, like everything else, time and events have a way of catching up to intent. When Washington first proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, he could not have imagined the Macy’s Parade. No American could imagine a greater catastrophe than Pearl Harbor in 1941, right up until 9/11.

Or, as the expression goes: Man proposes; God laughs.

 

 

Bataan Begins and National Cuddle-Up Day

So, you’ve survived The Holidays, that period between late November and the end of the year when the Western world goes mad for made-for-TV movies with the same plot, metalized paper strips, dead trees in their homes, and spending too much money on things that the recipients of your largesse don’t really want. Welcome to the depths of January.

The war that Japan started with the West in December 1941 had been going pretty much according to the plan by the end of the year. The earliest Japanese landings under Homma Masaharu on the big Philippine island of Luzon began on 10 December 1941. On 22 December the main offensive on Luzon began. Always outnumbered, 48,000 Japanese with complete air and sea supremacy pushed against the 151,000 American and Filipino troops who rarely saw friendly air support of any kind. The issue was never really in doubt.

https://vintagevisualizations.com/products/manila-bay-and-approaches-1

US Coast and Geodetic Survey map ca 1940. The Bataan Peninsula is right (west) of Manila Bay.

The prewar plan that the Philippines’ senior officer, Douglas MacArthur, had out was for the ground forces to fall back into the Bataan Peninsula to deny any attackers free use of Luzon’s greatest asset: Manila Bay. The evacuation to Bataan was fairly orderly, with 80,000 troops of two US/Philippine army corps filing in, along with 26,000 civilian refugees, and needed supplies ferried in from Manila.

The first problem for the Americans was that the supplies earmarked for the upcoming siege was only for 46,000 people, not 106,000. The first problem for the Japanese was that the defensive lines, the American artillery, and the American determination to make a stand were not a part of the Japanese plan.

On 7 January 1942, the same day that the Soviets declared victory at Moscow and began their own counteroffensive, Homma started a general assault on the Bataan defensive lines and was repulsed at every point. Also on that day, President Roosevelt announced the largest increase in defense spending in American history, tripling the size of the US military in 18 months. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans were acting according to the Japanese plan.

While the Bataan battle was raging, the Americans and their Filipino allies were starving, and the Japanese–some of them, anyway–were starting to wonder what went wrong with their brilliant plan. The Declaration by the United Nations, where the US, China, Great Britain, and her Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, all the governments-in-exile from Europe and Scandinavia, and a host of smaller states declared that they would fight on for as long as possible, and none would seek a separate (unilateral, like Russian pulling out of WWI) peace with any “signatory of the Tripartite Pact.” This Declaration was a direct attack on Japan’s main goal for attacking the West in the first place: a negotiated settlement to Japan’s advantage.

The American/Filipino Bataan plan was borne of the outdated hope that a US fleet and avenging army would be only a few months away from succoring the Philippines. However, as early as 1910 US planners knew that a rescue of a Philippine garrison was logistically impossible. In the 1920s, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was built on the idea that the US would crawl across the Pacific into a massive ambush. By 1940 that plan was scrapped, but the entire fleet had been trained for it, and every ship built for it. Though hastily retrained and reorganized, it was hard to get that obsolete plan out of many Japanese sailor’s heads.

But the US Bataan plan was meant to make the invader hurt–and that it did. For three months the ragtag army held out, inflicting over 20,000 casualties on the Japanese, including China campaign veterans who were impossible to replace. By the time the last position was overrun on Bataan, some 76,000 captives were in Japanese hands, more men than the Japanese had started the campaign with, and four times what they were prepared for. While the Japanese eventually defeated the Americans and Filipinos on Bataan, they did it at a cost that it would have been unsustainable, was two months behind schedule, and had consumed far more resources–especially fuel–than had been planned for.

And the Americans were showing no signs of heading to the negotiating table.

Bataan and Wake Island were only two of many early “victories” that Japan obtained in the early days of the war that were but portents of the resistance they would encounter. Read all about it in Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly now available from JDB Communications, LLC.

WHY_07_CUT

Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan


Yesterday was National Cuddle-Up Day because:

  • The good folks at the National Day Calendar said it was;
  • 6 January is also my sister’s birthday–which has nothing to do with Cuddle-Up Day but I just thought I’d give her a holler: Hi, Barb! Happy Day yesterday! How many anniversaries of your 39th birthday have you had now?

January typically contains some of the coldest days of the year, so what better way to stay warm and reap health benefits than by cuddling with a loved one on National Cuddle Up Day? Whether it’s a three-dog-night (not the musicians but what they were named after: a night so cold it takes three dogs to cuddle up with to stay warm) or only slightly chilly, there are many benefits to cuddling with human or canine or other warm-blooded pet.

http://97zokonline.com/yes-its-cold-so-good-thing-its-national-cuddle-up-day/

The original and still the best pain-and-stress reliever

Cuddling (defined as holding another close as a means of showing affection) releases oxytocin, which gives us warm-and-fuzzies and reduces minor pain. When the cold makes muscles and joints ache, cuddling can help. Oxytocin also helps reduce heart disease, reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety. If it weren’t free, cuddling would be covered by health insurance–but don’t give anyone any ideas.

In the days before humans became fleshy extensions of social media that they have become, personal presence was important. Communication is more than just e-mails and texts (or blogs, for that matter). Physical contact can communicate trust, commitment, safety, and reassurance. This goes for human-to-human contact as well as human-to pet-contact. Cuddling expresses everything vital in a healthy relationship.

Dopamine released while in close contact with a loved one stimulates the brain to seek pleasure…a little or a lot. Cuddling can also boost sexual desire, so, ah, hence the “warning” on the sign up on top.

Eh, just hope it was enough for ya…timer or not.