The Importance of Context, Historical and Otherwise

Marvel’s Agent Carter was an interesting experiment. A series of eight hour-length episodes, the miniseries-esque offering served to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) while allowing it’s sister show, Agents of SHIELD, a chance to regroup and air the second half of it’s season in one long continuous burst rather than chopping it’s episodes up in that weird spring schedule a lot of TV shows adopt. This certainly helps SHIELD tell a cohesive, overarching story and the idea of a miniseries expanding the MCU is a new angle we haven’t seen in TV before, in part because there’s never been anything quite like the MCU before to drive it.

That’s not to say Agent Carter is without flaws. I could find any number to nitpick at but the one that really jumps out at me does so because of how glaring it is. On the whole, not many characters in the series, outside leading lady Peggy Carter, showed much character growth or had their background delved into at any length. What I want to poke at is one of the attempts to provide that growth that fell somewhat flat. It concerns SSR Agent Jack Thompson.

Thompson is Carter’s foil in the SSR, the agent devoted to the idea that she couldn’t hack it in the high stakes world of cold war spy work. He’s a decorated marine who won the Navy Cross in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and he’s determined to prove he’s top dog. Eventually we find out why (and please be aware that this is a spoiler, if a minor one.)

You see, our boy Jack got the Navy Cross for saving his superiors life during a night ambush by the Japanese. He woke up, saw Japanese soldiers in their camp and started shooting. In the aftermath he found a white flag dropped on the ground and concludes the Japanese were surrendering and that he’d just incited the death of innocent men. Then he gets an award for it and the guilt really starts eating at him.

Jack tells Peggy this story after he freezes in the middle of a pitched gunfight and she asks him why, giving her and the audience a little more understanding of why he is the way he is. It’s a nice moment, well acted and well written. It has one problem.

The Japanese almost never surrendered.

Soldiers talk about fighting to the death all the time but a large percentage of them will surrender if it’s clear there’s nothing more they can do to win. Troops in WWII did it all the time. German troops, Italian troops, American troops, British troops, French troops, it was just a part of war and nothing to be ashamed of. For everyone, that is, but the Japanese.

The culture of Imperial Japan was fatalistic in the extreme, most famously manifesting in the kamikaze pilots at the end of the war, and it’s shocking how all pervasive the attitude was. Many Japanese troops captured during the war were incapacitated somehow and most of those capable of resisting chose to do so until killed, or did something suicidal like running at enemies with a grenade ticking in their hands or just committed suicide rather than submit to capture. This isn’t to say the Japanese didn’t surrender but those who did were a very small minority.

On the other hand, the Japanese knew the Americans surrendered and expected them to do the same. So Japanese troops would sometimes pretend to surrender, approaching with a white flag and hands in the air, only to drop the flag and attack when it looked like they were close enough to enemy lines. This tactic quickly became well known among American troops who viewed any attempt to surrender in a large group with a great deal of suspicion. It may have happened much less often than people talked about but it’s still a historical fact, confirmed by records on both sides of the conflict, that Japanese troops almost never surrendered during WWII.

This is something Jack Thompson should have known. He should not have been readily accepting of the notion that the Japanese troops who’d come into his camp were there to surrender because the historical context makes such an assumption highly unlikely. Failing to take this context into account when writing this scene strips the moment of all the credibility it’s good writing and acting earned it.

It’s not like this fact would have changed the scene a great deal if it had been included – Thompson could have been just as guilt-ridden over choosing not to wait to see if the Japanese really were surrendering before fighting back instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt no matter how little he may have thought they deserved it. In fact, that scene might have been even more believable and more suited to analyzing the horrors of war because Jack would have found himself in a situation where he was powerless to know whether he made the right choice or not. At least when he knows with concrete certainty that he was wrong he can look for some kind of penance. But the stark fact of war is that it dehumanizes those that participate and Jack’s inability to tell whether he did the right thing or not would be a powerful representation of that, one that would reinforce the ambiguous yet grim fate of the Japanese soldiers who found their way into his encampment.

Instead the writers failed to do their research and a scene that had the potential to be very impactful fell flat by failing to fit with the historical context it was intended to have. Agent Carter did a very good job recreating the mid to late 1940s in fashion, culture and even architecture and vehicles. That’s what makes this oversight particularly glaring – it’s a hole in the historical context that’s otherwise rock solid. Writers take note! If you’re going to add historical context make sure you get it all or your work is just going to come out flat.

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Ship of Ghosts

I recently watched the movie Unbroken, about down Army Air Force pilot Louis Zamperini and it reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. Ship of Ghosts is by James D. Hornfischer and it chronicles the ordeal of the USS Houston (CA-30). The Houston was one of the few ships of the US Asiatic Fleet that had the unenviable task of trying to hold back the Imperial Japanese Navy during the early days of the Second World War. Like so many ships in that fleet, the Houston was eventually sunk by the Japanese.

Most of the crew that survived fell into the hands of the Japanese.

For those unfamiliar with what that entailed, the Japanese had not signed the Geneva Conventions. Their military culture at the time also strongly believed that death for the country was one of the highest honors. The Japanese war machine simply had no allowance for soldiers who failed to fight to the death. On either side of a conflict.

The result was that those men captured by the Japanese would suffer some of the hardest years of their lives, enduring torture, forced labor, starvation, disease and death.

If the title was not enough to warn you, Ship of Ghosts is not a story of uplifting triumph. Some of the men do survive, in fact we only have the survivor’s voices to tell the tales. But what they endured is fascinating only in how horrible it was and in that anyone could survive it.

Like all good histories, Ship of Ghosts lets us meet the characters we’re about to learn about before things go wrong. We follow them out to the under supplied, aging Asiatic Fleet where almost nothing happens but where everyone expects something to go wrong soon enough. We watch the Houston run before the raging storm of the ascendant Japanese Navy. It fights and eventually dies, and the good ship’s labors are done. But the men have three long years to survive.

What they endure is not fun reading. But it is the kind of thing everyone should read. People did endure these things, they did survive them. Kind of puts our lives into perspective. And they did these things for us. And that, perhaps, is why we don’t want to hear about them. Because if we accept that these events are real, and they have real motivations, what are the consequences for our lives? Have we been grateful for what they gave? And do they deserve something beyond gratitude?

Frankly, until you’ve read a book like Ship of Ghosts, those are questions you can’t even begin to appreciate, much less answer. And even if appreciating the question is all you can do, you’ll be better for it.

Under Siege: Two and a Half Years in Leningrad

Leningrad (which was and is known St. Petersburg) was the seat of culture in Soviet Russia to the same extent that Moscow was  the center of administration. In the late 1930s it was also a city, and in fact Russia was a country, in pain. Brutal purges had swept through the Soviet power structure, particularly in the military circles, and left people reeling. Families lost fathers and mothers and the cream of up-and-coming Soviet leadership was exiled, if they were lucky, or executed, if they were not.

It was also a city literally on the brink of war. There wasn’t a great deal of territory between Leningrad and the Soviet border with Nazi Germany. Although the Winter War with Poland had bought Russia some breathing room, the Russian soldiers along the frontier weren’t at readiness, even though the Wehrmacht was quietly gathering troops there. Most people weren’t concerned, since the Kremlin assured them that any war would be fought on German soil, not Russian.

Hitler had other plans.

On June 22nd, 1941 Operation Barbarossa sent nearly one hundred and thirty divisions of Wehrmacht troops across the border and into Russia. The offensive would grind to a stop just outside Moscow and the people of Russia would be fighting for their lives for years until they could finally begin to push the Germans out. The story of the war on the Eastern Front is a trial that equals and exceeds just about anything that happened in Western Europe, but it remains mostly unknown in the West.

Some part of this is undoubtedly due to the distance between us and the Cold War, which quickly transformed Russia from ally into enemy. Part of it may be a natural tendency to focus on what we’ve done, rather than what others have. Regardless, if pressed to name one major event on the Eastern Front, the vast majority of Americans will mention the battle of Stalingrad. If pressed they probably won’t be able to think of another.

However, until Stalingrad the symbol of Russia under attack was Leningrad. Depending on when you date the beginning and end of the siege, one can say it lasted for anywhere from about 875 to 900 days. Not the longest siege in history, but certainly one of the most destructive.

From the moment the noose drew closed, Leningrad was in peril. The Soviet propaganda insisted that Comrade Stalin and his military chiefs wouldn’t allow the Nazis to last long on Russian ground. In keeping with that line, whether people believed it or not, not many people (especially children) were sent out of the city nor were sufficient supplies for the city brought in. The city couldn’t be made ready for siege without someone being accused of being unpatriotic.

The Nazis didn’t even plan to keep the city once it was captured. It was valuable as a symbol of Russia, and once it was proven Germany was able to take possession of it in spite of the best resistance the Soviets could muster, and once all the propaganda value in Hitler driving down Nevsky Prospekt was gathered, the city was to be demolished and the population dispersed into the countryside, sparing the Third Reich the expense of provisioning the city and ruining the legacy of Peter the Great for good.

Reality turned out a bit different. Operation Barbarossa didn’t quite manage to sweep up Leningrad, but it did manage to surround it. Instead of a brutal occupation followed by swift destruction the city instead wound up facing the more-brutal specter of starvation. Worse, the greatest weapon in the Russian arsenal was a two edged sword – General Winter would not distinguish between friend and foe. With no way to easily transport in fuel for the power plants, winter in Leningrad would be fatally cold.

The last months of 1941 and 1942 would take an unbelievable toll on Leningrad’s people, showing off every facet of human nature.

Bureaucratic brilliance would keep the rations, such as they were, moving to the men and women in the street, while at the same time the same bureaucrats would interfere with the projects Leningraders would rely on to keep them motivated and alive from day to day. Ingenuity would help the people find things to eat long after the official stores of meat and vegetables were all but exhausted, but sometimes that boiled down to trading everything one had on the black market. And that came after all the birds and vermin had been hunted down. Even now, there is debate about what extent cannibalism was practiced. Certainly, many were executed for it.

There were amazing feats done throughout the siege. In the first winter the primary means of supplying the city was a long truck route that wound across the frozen water of Lake Ladoga. The opposite shore was still in Soviet hands and a small town there became a supply depot. Hundreds of trucks wound their way back and forth across the ice round the clock, sometimes under air attack, to deliver the supplies that would keep Leningrad alive. It was hazardous and not just because of the attacks, for with little in the way of landmarks it was easy to get lost. Stories tell of one driver who reached the far shore hours late due to loosing his way, to find a note on the assignment board addressed to him. “Because of you,” it scolded, “five hundred Leningraders will have no bread ration!”

The bizarre and gruesome also reared it’s head. One man would walk to work through the killing cold, unwilling to stay home lest the will to live simply leave him through inactivity. On the way he would stop in a frozen streetcar, where there was always another man sitting. At first, the man thought his companion was simply going to work, just like he was. It took nearly a week for him to realize there was only one living man in the vehicle. In fact, people dead of cold or starvation were everywhere in the city, popping out of snow banks in the spring or just dropping over dead as they passed through the halls of their apartments.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 was dedicated to the city. Though Shostakovich did not care for the Soviet government he felt a need to stand with his country, Russia, greater than man’s mismanagement and in need of the spirit to endure another bitter conflict. With great effort an orchestra was assembled in the city and the piece was performed. Not only performed, but broadcast over loudspeakers and radio, so that the enemy could hear. To accompany it, the General overseeing operations ordered a massive artillery bombardment. In it’s own way, an act of defiance.

When the city finally found itself free of attackers in late January of 1944, what was left was a city transformed. It had entered the world a city of sorrows, struck by many small griefs by it’s own government. It left a city united by sorrow.

The most conservative estimates place the death toll well over half a million civilians dead in Leningrad as a direct result of the fighting or an indirect result of cold and starvation brought about by the siege. Others estimate between 1.1 and 1.5 million. The numbers are inexact in part due to the undocumented flood of refugees into the city from the surrounding area before the Germans encircled it and in part because of the difficulty of keeping any kind of records during the siege.

There was pride in survival, even as the Soviet authorities did everything they could to take what glory there was for themselves and hide the disastrous mistakes they made and their costs. The siege of Leningrad is a testament to human endurance, made all the more amazing because many of the people who lived through it continued and, in a few rare cases today, continue to live in the same city. Their lives are a testament to the spirit of their city and their people.

Further reading:

 The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, by Harrison E. Salisbury – The first comprehensive English language history of the siege. While Salisbury was hindered by the fact that he wrote while the Soviets were still in power and many kept silent out of fear of them, and while many records were still secret, the bones of the siege are there and it serves as a foundation for further reading.

Leningrad: State of Siege, by Michael Jones – A more recent history, taking advantage of new accounts and private diaries left to children and now made available to researchers, focusing primarily on eyewitness testimony.

Leningrad, The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944, by Anna Reid – Another recent history, this draws on old archives and extensive translations of Russian works, as well as personal, individual interviews by and previously unavailable materials.

Writing History

It’s one of the most absurd truisms of the modern age that the victor writes the history books. I’m not really sure how this idea got started. The original quote is typically attributed to Winston Churchill, although no one’s quite sure who said it first. My biggest problem with this idea is how vigorously actual history seems to contradict it.

Take the Peloponnesian wars. Thucydides wrote a history of them, one of the early scholarly histories. He was from Alimos, a small place just outside of Athens. But they lost the war, so Thucydides had no business writing history books about it, right?

Another example from antiquity is Josephus, the historian who wrote a history of the Jews while they were under the rule of Rome. The Jews would not have a nation to call their home for more than 1800 years, living an existence that was pretty much the total opposite of a victor, but Josephus still wrote the history of his own people.

Or, more recently, consider the American Civil War (or War Between The States, or what have you). In spite of the fact that no one has fired a bullet in that conflict in nearly a hundred and fifty years, no one can agree on the history of it. Was it a war of northern aggression? Was it a war to liberate slaves? Was it a war to protect the Union? Do they even mention protecting the Union in history books any more? How did the premier cause of the victors wind up getting so totally lost in the retelling? Weren’t these people writing the history books? And how did the South get away with creating the legend of the Lost Cause if they weren’t writing any of the history books?

There are other examples, to be sure. From monasteries on the British Isles writing records of being sacked by raiders to Masanori Ito’s book Fall of the Imperial Japanese Navy right up to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the defeated have been chronicling their own history and doing their best to both remember and learn from their defeats ever since the study of history first came about.

To me it frequently feels like this idea that the history books are written by the winners actually has its roots in a famous quote from someone on the other side of the English Channel from Churchill. Joseph Goebbels told us that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to regard it as truth. We’ve come to accept this as a truth, that if we can just get a platform to push out agenda loudly enough and often enough, we can make people think whatever we want about anything, even history.

However, in spite of telling his lies for 12 years, Goebbels is not now thought of as a great historian, a visionary thinker or a leader. He’s thought of as a liar.

Perhaps the real problem is the lack of scope in this way of thinking. There are no victors in history, there are only people who come for a short time and then quickly fade away. We don’t write history. Rather, history is written on us, its letters and words the lives of people and the traditions, values and literature they leave to their culture. History shows through how we live and what we do far more than what we say. After all, you can’t know the winner until everything’s over, and in history, the end has not yet been written…

Something Different: Battle of Samar

Early in the morning of 25 October, 1944, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita led one of the largest collections of naval gun power ever seen through San Bernardino Strait, a narrow passage between the Philippine islands of Luzon and Samar. In spite of his incredible firepower Kurita was uncertain. He was only one part of a large, massively complex plan to strike at the Allied invasion of Leyte and prevent the reconquest of the Philippines. Kurita had very little in the way of air support, most of it promised from army air bases in the area, and the necessity of radio silence left him entirely blind to the progress of the other parts of the operation.

A total of four separate elements of the Japanese Navy was involved in the Japanese counteroffensive. Kurita’s was the largest, and the primary strike force. To his north, another fleet comprised of the dregs of Japanese naval air power dangled itself as bait, hoping to lure away the powerful battleships and carriers of the United States’ Third Fleet. To the south, two more smaller fleets sailed for Surigao Strait, hoping to come up and meet Kurita and catch the Seventh Fleet and the landing forces of General Douglas MacArthur unawares, destroying the Sixth Army’s troop and supply ships and shelling the troops until they surrendered or the Third Fleet returned and drove them off.

The complexity of the plan had already proven costly once. The absence of Kurita’s air support the previous day had resulted in the mauling of his fleet by planes from Admiral William Halsey’s carriers in Third Fleet. Before that, they had been ambushed by submarines in the Sibuyan Sea.

While Kurita couldn’t know it, the southern arms of the fleet had encountered the battleships of Seventh Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. One group of ships was almost entirely destroyed, the other withdrew rather than risk the same fate.

At the same time, the northern arm had met with a certain degree of success. Halsey had spotted the carrier force to his north and, knowing the power of carriers in modern naval warfare, concluded they must be the real threat. Hoping to destroy the last of Japanese naval air power, he moved to the north with his fleet in tow.

A crucial string of miscommunications and wrong assumptions led everyone from MacArthur to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, stationed in Hawaii, to believe that Halsey had left a task force of battleships to guard the strait. The upshot was that no one was watching San Bernardino when Kurita came through.

With Third Fleet sailing to the north and Seventh Fleet’s battle line still mopping up Surigao Strait there was almost nothing at all between the full might of Kurita’s warships and the transports in Leyte Gulf. Almost nothing, but not nothing at all.

Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague commanded Seventh Fleet’s Task Unit 3, identified over the radio as Taffy 3. As its name implies, it was one of three virtually identical groups of small aircraft carriers, known as escort carriers, assigned to patrol airspace around Luzon, support the Army troops and chase subs. As the sun rose over the Philippines, Sprague’s command was preparing to send up its first combat air and anti-submarine patrols. A scout plane was dispatched with instructions to scout San Bernardino Strait.

Rather than the battleships of Third Fleet they were expecting, the scouts found twenty three Japanese warships with enough firepower to sink all of Taffy 3 in twenty minutes, practically without breaking stride. The stage was set for the battle off Samar Island.

The scale of the mismatch alone is incredible. Taffy 3 included six Casablanca-class escort carriers, three Fletcher-class destroyers and four John C. Butler-class destroyer escorts. Together, all thirteen ships displaced about as much water in dry dock as Kurita’s flagship, IJN Yamato. The largest guns among the American ships were five-inchers, peashooters when compared to Yamato’s massive 18.1 inch guns and still woefully underpowered even when compared to the 11 and 14 inch guns of the heavy cruisers in Kurita’s formation.

Casablanca-class carriers could manage a top speed of about seventeen knots, and the top speed of a pursued group is really no better than its slowest ship. Kurita’s fastest ships could nearly double that. Even the Yamato, damaged in the bombings of the day before and weighted down by water in its double hull, still managed to top twenty knots.

Yamato was the flagship and pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and her crew were some of the best and brightest. The rest of Kurita’s battle line was likely staffed by regular navy sailors. Sprague’s force was crewed in large part by reserves and new recruits, many not even past their twentieth birthday.

Taffy 3’s planes were one of its major advantages and, in addition to the compliment of its own six carriers one of its sister groups, Taffy 2, sent its planes to support Sprague’s beleaguered group. However, only Taffy 2’s planes had the time to arm with torpedoes and the heavier bombs suitable for use against warships. Taffy 3’s planes would fly into combat armed with little more than light antipersonnel bombs, depth charges and rockets. Taffy 3’s bees could sting, but not kill.

Such was the situation at 6:59 AM when the guns on Yamato trained on the American ships and opened fire.

Sprague had little in the way of options. He couldn’t run, his ships were too slow. He couldn’t move towards the landing zones or they’d come under fire, and there was no one to help him there anyways. And he had no idea where any of the battleships from either fleet were. There was nothing to do but fight.

For the next two and a half hours Taffy 3 would run before Kurita’s fleet like a clipper ship before a storm. The three destroyers of the group’s screen, along with one very brave destroyer escort, put themselves between the carriers and the Japanese, making smoke to hide the ships and harrying the enemy as best they could with guns and torpedoes.

The planes did all they could with the weapons they carried. They would empty their bomb bays, their ammunition reserves and still fly until their fuel tanks were empty, hoping somehow to distract the Japanese enough to keep their carriers alive.

Sprague maneuvered his ships in any way he could, hiding in rain squalls and behind smokescreens in a desperate bid to last until help arrived.

But help was hours away. The battle line of Third Fleet wouldn’t turn around to head back towards Samar until after the action was over. Oldendorf’s battleships were running low on ammunition and not in place.

Then, with no apparent reason that the Americans could see, the Japanese pulled back and left with nothing to show for their time and effort than a handful of downed planes and four US ships, two destroyers, one destroyer escort and one escort carrier, sent to the bottom.

Taffy 3 had won, thought they might have found it hard to believe in the moment.

After that, Taffy 3 was mostly forgotten. They would be given awards and have the assurance of a job well done, but their work is rarely addressed in the history books. For all they faced and did in those few hours on the other side of the globe, they were overshadowed by names like Midway and Guadalcanal on one side and Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the other.

Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of the Battle off Samar. It’s not a particularly auspicious number, or a well known occasion. But it’s important. Most of the men who were there were fighting and suffering because they hoped that, by doing so, they could make the lives of their friends and family just a little bit better. They didn’t expect great fame or reward what they did, they only hoped they could live to see the outcome.

In a world that often tells us that any kind of suffering is naturally wrong, and that there’s nothing in this world worth dying for, their example stands in stark contrast. We shouldn’t need a special day to remember that. But sometimes we do. And if thinking of Taffy 3 at Samar Island helps you to remember that, well, maybe that’s all the victory they need.

 

Further Reading

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944, by Thomas J. Culter

Afternoon of the Rising Sun: The Battle of Leyte Gulf, by Kenneth I. Friedman

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour, by James D. Hornfischer