An Unproven China

Streetwise Professor has put up a post regarding Donald Trump’s possible policy towards China, which includes a paragraph on the Chinese military capability:

Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

I’ll not argue with this, it is hard to imagine China’s military isn’t improving with all the money and technology being thrown at it.  What I don’t agree with is a comment by “FTR” underneath:

China will be the dominant power. There’s really no stopping it, try as the Communist Party might. Even if long-term per capita development remains below the west thanks to the inefficiency and corruption of the party, it will still be the world’s largest economy from sheer population alone. Correspondingly, the military will eventually match or exceed American capabilities. Just as the United Kingdom couldn’t block the rise of the more populous Germany or America, China will take the pole position.

People often talk about the future of China in terms of inevitability, as if their enormous population is the one factor that will propel them to the top of the pile.  Me, I’m not so sure.

I remember writing ages ago – I forget where – that quality is inherent in a culture and not every culture has it to the same degree.  The Chinese have grown their economy from a very low base by engaging in low-level manufacturing of things Westerners want to buy, and made technological progress by copying what the West has been doing for years.  This will be enough to bring improvements, but I don’t think one can draw a line through the progress, extrapolate it 20 years into the future, and conclude China will be top dog.  A lot of the stuff the Chinese produce is utter junk.  Most of their own designs – meaning, those they have not bought or stolen – are rubbish which nobody with money or standards wants.  People talk about the incredible learning rate of the Chinese, but I think most of this comes from having the bleedin’ obvious pointed out to them.  I don’t think it means they will necessarily be able to do what any economic superpower needs to do – innovate, and produce quality goods.

It is not just a matter of time.  The British have had plenty of time to learn how to build a decent house, but seemingly can’t.  For whatever reason, we put up with shit that some other nationalities don’t.  Our cars were also crap (I used to be an amateur Land Rover mechanic: I found some of the bolts/screws were metric, some imperial, and the remainder some obscure thread nobody had heard of in two generations), whereas the Germans and Japanese made them properly.  I will believe the Chinese have mastered technology not when they have built a high-speed rail to much government fanfare based on a design they copied from Siemens without permission, but when an international airline orders a batch of Chinese aircraft instead of Boeing or Airbus.  Until then, the jury is out on whether they can produce quality goods or differentiate themselves when it comes to innovation.  Perhaps they will manage it – I’m not saying they won’t – I’m just saying that thus far they haven’t proven much and fears of them taking over the world might be a little premature.

Which brings me onto the Chinese military.

When I was a student I came back from a night out and found my apartment had been burgled and all my stuff stolen.  This was rather unsurprising given I lived in Manchester, but nevertheless I had been rather stupid and not gotten insured.  Eager not to get burned again I replaced the goods out of my own pocket and got some insurance.  The company I dealt with were very reasonable and I got covered in short order, and so I happily told my eldest brother that I had found a good insurance company.  His reply was that you normally find out if an insurance company is any good when the times comes for them to pay out.  Wise words, indeed.

Similarly, a military normally finds out if they are any good or not when they have to actually fight.  Manpower numbers, training levels, budgets, equipment specs, number of ships/tanks/planes etc. are all good indicators as is historical performance and the culture from whence the personnel comes, but none of this really counts until they are involved in some serious action.  History is littered with examples of supposedly superior forces being proven to be useless (the Russian navies in the Russo-Japanese War, for example) and of theoretically weak armies being surprisingly hard nuts to crack (e.g. the Finns in the Winter War).  I wrote here that Turkey’s intervention into Syria might end up putting a dent in what I think is probably a rather outdated reputation of their army, as they haven’t done any proper fighting in generations.

Other than a few skirmishes, the Chinese have not had a proper fight since the Korean War.  By contrast, the Americans – perhaps for this very reason – seem keen on fighting in one way or another practically non-stop, as do the Brits.  The US Navy hasn’t been properly tested in a long time, and nor has its air force.  But American ground troops have, as have their logistics capabilities.  True, they’ve not fought an all-out large scale war but they have come far closer than anyone else with Afghanistan and the Iraq War.  Their weapons and personnel have been tested in the field and, although sometimes have come up wanting, it is at least known that they work.  The Chinese?  Well, it’s all theoretical, isn’t it?

I think what would hamper the Chinese military more than anything is the same thing that could bring China to its knees anyway: an unaccountable Communist Party facing off against an increasingly wealthy and well-informed middle class.  During the Korean War, Mao was able to send hundreds of thousands of Chinese to be slaughtered without any domestic backlash: being slaughtered seemed to be a pretty routine way of life in 1950s China, especially if you complained about it.  But China has changed.

Let’s supposing China does decide to flex its military muscles in the South China sea.  They could probably lose quite a few men and a lot of material before they’d hear any grumbling at home, and – like Putin over Crimea – they could dress up the capture of a few hundred square miles of land as a major strategic victory which has saved the face of the nation and proven that it’s rightful place is zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about such a speech.  But should they decide on a bolder adventure, such as a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, they will almost certainly incur enormous casualties – something everyone assumes they would just absorb.

But would they?  China’s one-child policy has left most households with a single son.  Could the mothers of the quarter-of-a-million soldiers who are going to die capturing Taiwan please step forward and tell me how robust is your national pride?  Are they really going to be motivated by the same ultra-nationalistic propaganda used in the Korean War when the body bags start coming home (or the bodies washing up on the beaches) in 2030?  If their military is found wanting and catastrophic flaws are found in their doctrine, equipment, leadership, and men it could easily lead to an internal revolution – either from the military themselves or a middle class who are fed up of a CP who have badly overestimated the popularity of their own geopolitical ambitions.  As with their economy, I don’t think it is a given that the Chinese military will be any good simply because it is big and they have spent a lot of money on it.  As yet, they are completely unproven.

I’m sure the Chinese leadership knows that any bold military adventure would need to succeed very quickly or they could find the domestic situation slipping out of their control., and that for all the hype their military has yet to be put to even a simple test.  By contrast, the Americans know they can fight deeply unpopular wars and life goes on much as before, and that their military is up to the task.  With General Mattis now on board hopefully preventing anything idiotic from happening, Trump probably doesn’t have too much to worry about from China.

Cubans in Angola

A good piece on Fidel Castro from Bayou Renaissance Man, who is originally South African:

I was standing in the Angolan bush, along with a group of UNITA rebels.  They were cleaning up after a firefight – which meant leaving the enemy bodies where they had fallen, but stripping them of their weapons, uniforms and supplies.  Everything would be washed, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and reissued to new owners, who would use it to kill more of the enemy.

Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old.  They hadn’t even finished growing;  they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence.  Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day.  They never would, now.  Their AK-47’s were still half-slung.  They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask.  Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose.  He caught my expression, and nodded.  “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”

It makes you wonder how many of those who complain about American forces deployed around the world had no problem with Fidel Casto sending his army to Angola.  The fact that Cubans had no choice in the matter makes it that much worse.

Keeping Britain Safe

I find this story a bit pathetic:

A flotilla of Russian warships is passing through the English Channel en route to Syria.

Two British naval ships are shadowing the vessels. The Ministry of Defence said they would be “man-marked every step of the way” while near UK waters.

The ships are within international waters but Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK would “be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe”.

Oh please.  As if the Russian carrier is suddenly going to hang a right and splurge little green men all over Kent.  This is just an opportunity for the Defence Minister to sound tough and the Royal Navy to show that it’s still relevant.

The UK’s Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan, escorted by the Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond, steamed from Portsmouth on Tuesday to track the Kuznetsov group as it headed south from the Norwegian Sea.

Why?  To give them something to do which might be slightly less humiliating than being captured by Iranians and made to cry?

Sending a large Russian flotilla through the North Sea and the English Channel sends a clear message to the West: anything you can do, we can do just as well – or even better.

You don’t need to be a supporter of the Russian military or their actions in Syria to find this ridiculous: the English Channel is the most logical route to follow.  Did the Belgians send any ships out?  The French?  This isn’t the Channel Dash.  Next time just ignore them, eh?

And this amused:

A Russian tug, believed to be in convoy with the taskforce, entered the channel first off the coast near Ramsgate.

As Streetwise Professor is fond of pointing out, the Russian navy can’t go anywhere without its rescue tug.  The accompanying video of the Admiral Kuznetsov shows columns of black smoke belching from its twin funnels, a feature which probably wouldn’t have helped the Japanese at Midway.  Neither navy comes across particularly well in this report.

Changing My Mind

In the comments of this post reader Duffy asks the following wholly reasonable question:

Can I ask, what was the last Big Thing you changed your mind about after doing some research?

He went on:

I ask because in my experience most people decide first and rationalize afterwards. Whatever facts don’t fit the preconceived idea are discarded in favor of confirmation bias.

I had to think about this for a while, but I thought Duffy deserved a proper answer.  The best example I can think of is the role of the US military around the world, and specifically what changed after the Iraq War.

There were some very reasonable arguments opposing the US and its allies’ decision to launch the Iraq War, and there were some incredibly stupid ones as well.  One of those that fell somewhere in the middle is one I have changed my mind about.  Before the invasion took place there was a school of thought that went something like this:

These brown folk are primitive.  They don’t know how to get along with one another, they need a strongman like Saddam Hussein to keep them in line.  They’re not ready for democracy, it doesn’t work for the likes of them.

The reason why I didn’t subscribe to this view was I thought it would be a massive injustice to an oppressed and brutalised population to just assume that the person who was standing on their necks was doing so for their own good and they’d be worse off without him.  I couldn’t think of anything worse than living under such conditions myself and the people who could do something about it telling me that I was incapable of running my own affairs.

I supported the Iraq War for several reasons, one of which was I thought the Iraqis deserved the chance to be free of Saddam Hussein and run their country without him.  I genuinely thought they would seize the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Arabic people are not incompatible with democracy and, so thankful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they would make a pretty decent effort to make things work.

Instead they tore each other apart and did everything they could to demonstrate that those who dismissed them as savages that needed a strongman to keep them in line were right all along.  I think this was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole shambolic affair.  I still think the Iraq War should have gone ahead because I believe it solved two security issues which I think the US would have found much harder to manage in future: the security of the Saudi oilfields and finding out for sure whether Saddam Hussein had chemical or biological weapons that could be used in a future conflict.  I’m also certain that had the Iraq War not happened a bloodbath would have occurred at some point anyway: either the Arab Spring would have been tried in Iraq, or it would have been dragged into Syria or another conflict with Iran.  Whatever might have happened, I don’t think an Iraq under another decade or two of Saddam Hussein & Sons would have been a stable, happy place.

But the one issue I changed my mind on was that the US (or British) military should no longer be brought to bear for altruistic or humanitarian reasons.  It is rather depressing, but I am now a firm believer in the premise that a population generally deserves the government it gets.  No longer would I support a war that is not prosecuted for clear strategic reasons that are indisputably in the national interest.  So all those suffering under the jackboot of oppression?  Sorry, you’re on your own.  We tried our best and look where it got us.

Turkey enters Syria

The series of proxy wars going on in Syria got a bit more complicated last week when Turkish troops rolled over the border to tackle what Ankara is calling terrorists: both ISIS and Kurdish groups.  Turkey has suffered a wave of suicide bombings in the past few months, almost certainly carried out by ISIS or groups affiliate to their cause, and so have some justification in going after them in their strongholds.  But it’s also likely that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will use this as an excuse to deploy proper military units against their old foes the Kurds in their homelands, something which they could not have done previously without provoking an international outcry.

With the men and material at the Turks’ disposal, I expect they will prevail against the Kurds to begin with.  But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more.  The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup.  A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots.  The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat.  They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack.  The most viable Kurdish strategy would be to drag this out as long as possible, practice hit-and-run tactics on vulnerable Turkish supply lines and rear echelon units, and turn it into the sort of guerrilla war which has done so much damage to American units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years.  But crucial to the Kurds’ success is to secure the backing of a larger power to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and funds.  I suspect a major reason for Ergodan’s decision to kiss and make up with Putin over the downing of the Russian plane in November 2015 is to prevent Russia from fulfilling this role.  It will now be interesting to see who does back the Kurds (if anyone) and how Turkey’s newly purged military performs.

Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.

More Civil Unrest in Thailand

After sustained protests in Bangkok, the Thai Prime Minister has dissolved parliament and is promising fresh elections next year.  The squabbling appears to be much the same as that which occurred in spring 2010, or at least the two groups involved are the same.  Only this time the yellow shirts are protesting against the supposed influence of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra over the current government, whereas last time it was Thaksin’s supporters (the red shirts) protesting about the yellow shirts, who were in power.

I’ve recently re-read the post I wrote back in April 2010 on the likelihood of a civil war in Thailand, and don’t see anything which would change my mind on its conclusion: a civil war is highly unlikely.

A Civil War in Thailand?

My wife has just returned from a trip into the Thai countryside which involved a two-night stop-over in Bangkok.  She reported that there are soldiers everywhere, almost as if martial law has been imposed, and areas of the city are blocked off at night and the whole place is generally very tense and the normal hustle and bustle of this lively city is significantly subdued.  There has been some violence, although this being Thailand it is far more contained and things are much calmer than you could expect in almost any other country.

However, the tourists numbers have dropped significantly, no doubt due to various foreign offices firstly covering their arses by telling people to avoid the place regardless, and secondly by lazily assuming trouble in Bangkok means trouble everywhere else.  It doesn’t.  The closest I have seen to a Red Shirt rally in Phuket is a Manchester United game on TV.  Unless you go looking for trouble or are very, very unlucky, the worst that will happen to a visitor to Thailand is the airport might be disrupted, and a volcano in Iceland can just as easily cause that at the other end.  For sure, I would not recommend a visit to Bangkok itself right now if that’s what you’re planning, but lying about on a beach on Phuket or Koh Samui is as safe as anywhere and your holiday is not going to be interrupted by anything going on in Bangkok.

But all that said, the political situation is uncertain and unless an accommodation or compromise is found soon, things could turn uglier and hit tourism and the industries which rely on it pretty hard.  A few expats I have spoken to said they are refraining from buying property in Thailand until this issue is resolved fearing a change in the law a few years down the line, but I don’t think that worry will ever completely go away.  I have no idea what will happen and can offer no insight here, except perhaps an opinion as to whether Thailand will fall into full-scale civil war.  I don’t  think it will, and here’s why.

Firstly, it needs to be understood that fighting a civil war is a tough business.  The entire population, and not just the fighting men and boys, will have to endure extreme and sometimes unimaginable hardship.  For those actually fighting, this will involve living in the jungle on meagre rations, away from home and family, without access to anything but the very basic medical care, for an indefinite period which might be for decades.  For the rest of the population, which includes the fighters’ family and friends, a civil war will entail death, disease, hunger, a destruction of all infrastructure and civil society, and a return to the peasant farming of fifty odd years ago.  In short, anyone who wants to pick up a rifle in a civil war must be prepared to give up anything he has gained thus far and values in life, e.g. children, a house, car, etc. and endure serious hardship in the knowledge that his loved ones will suffer too.

This appears to be easy for the menfolk in places like Somalia or Afghanistan where they have very little by way of possessions or material wealth and comforts, so the difference between fighting and not fighting is minimal, almost to the point that it is down to whether you let off some rounds from your rifle or not.  This is not the case in Thailand.  Despite Thailand’s reputation as being a cheap place to holiday with lots of little poor brown people to serve you, the laws of the Kingdom regarding business and property ownership have resulted in a large middle-class which has been ever growing for the past three decades.  The wealthy Thai elites in Bangkok have done very well out of the tourist industry, but so has a huge number of hitherto poor folk.  The elites have made sure they’re all right, but they have not prevented everyone else with a brain or a work ethic from prospering too.  When I went to Cambodia a few years back, I found a bunch of new hotels being built by Korean contractors using Thai and Malaysian money and a whole load of Thai and Malaysian tourists.  The Thai middle class has grown to a point where going on holiday abroad is now affordable, investing abroad is possible, and a good many Thais go abroad for their education.  These wealthier Thais are in the minority, and those in the countryside (from whence all the dancing girls come) are still poor by almost any standard, but the numbers are moving in the right direction: things are getting better, not worse.  And the farmers and other rural dwellers, despite being poor, are not destitute.  I’m sure there are some areas of  Thailand where poverty rivals that of Africa, but in general even in the remote countryside most people share – if not own – a reasonable house with an electricity connection and a refrigerator, a scooter or old pickup truck, and a telephone situated somewhere nearby.  There is enough food and water to go around, and epidemics of disease exist but are not widespread.  Education services are basic, very basic, but nonetheless available.  Small comforts these may be, but they are not nothing, and the Thais will appreciate their lot now compared with 20 years ago regardless of any displeasure with the current government.  So should any Thai decide to pick up a rifle and join in a civil war, he will certainly lose out on something: in some cases not a lot, but each and every Thai will lose something which they have worked pretty hard for.

However, populations with lots to lose can and do plunge themselves into civil war regardless of the hardship that entails, but it requires the fighters and their supporters to have serious motivation to do so.  This motivation is normally driven by religious or ethnic differences, a desire for national liberation, or extreme ideological divides with the last one usually requiring the outside backing of one or more of the belligerents.  Pretty much every civil war I can think of rose from a situation where one or more of the above criteria applied, where enough of the population had sufficient motivation to take up arms in support of their cause.

Thankfully, none of the above applies in Thailand.  Thais share the same religion and much the same ethnicity (I’m simplifying here, but there is no divide in Thailand along ethnic lines).  Nobody is advocating separatism.  And the ideological divide seems to be relatively minor compared to the Soviet-backed Communists vs Western-backed Everybody Else conflicts which caused such mayhem during the Cold War, or the Royalist vs Maoist conflicts in Nepal.  Indeed, the problem in Thailand seems to be a disagreemment over government policy between the rural poor and … well it’s hard to say, but somewhere between the Bangkok elite and everybody else.  Judging by what’s being shouted about, the demands of the Red Shirts are not unreasonable in the general scheme of things.  It’s along the lines of “More money and power for us!” which sounds pretty much like political movements of all stripes anywhere.  Nobody is calling for the dissolution of the monarchy to become a socialist republic with the southern half of the country joining Malaysia.  Far from it.  And probably most importantly, there is no outside party – either a troublemaking neighbour or distant superpower – with any interest whatsoever in seeing Thailand descend into violence.  In the event of a major armed conflict arms sanctions would almost certainly apply, and without any outside support it is unlikely such a conflict could sustain itself for long.

The Red Shirt protestors are motivated enough – by money or otherwise – to hold lengthy protests in the capital and engage in sporadic and relatively low-level violence, largely aimed at the police or army.  But this is a long, long, way short of finding the motivation, and the numbers, to wage a protracted civil war.  A swift coup is always a possibility in Thailand, with the population wishing for – almost demanding – a rapid return to normality immediately thereafter, as has been the case in the past.  The worst case scenario would be a low-level terrorist campaign waged against government targets in the provinces with the occasional bombing of a city or two, but even that would probably struggle to garner the popular support such a campaign requires to sustain itself, let alone succeed.

There just isn’t the anger on the streets to warrant fears of a civil war.  The Thais simply have too much to lose and not enough reason to lose it.

A Fascinating Tale of Revenge

For no other reason than sheer coincidence, during my last week in Sakhalin I happened to watch three films all sharing a common theme:  Defiance, Inglorious Basterds, and The Reader. The common theme is, of course, the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe with each film dealing, albeit in vastly different ways, with the issue of retribution for the crimes committed.  This subject reminded me of a fascinating tale of revenge which is told in Bernard Fall’s excellent book, Street Without Joy, an account of the French debacle in Indochina.  I am surprised that nobody thus far has deemed this story worthy of making into a film.  I have reproduced the relevant section of Fall’s book below (pages 286-290).

Excerpt:

A last chapter of the of the Foreign Legion’s colorful history in Asia was written, in, of all places, the drab surroundings of an Israeli Navy court-martial in May 1958.

The defendent was a 25-year old man, in the neat white uniform of the Israeli enlisted seaman.  Eliahu Itzkovitz was charged with desertion from the Israeli Navy, but this case was not an ordinary one, for he had deserted from a peacetime hitch in Haifa to a twenty-seven months ordeal with the Foreign Legion in Indochina.

Eliahu had grown up in a small town in eastern Rumania when the country threw in its lot with the Nazis at the beginning of World War II.  Soon, the Rumanian Conductorul (the “Leader”) Antonescu began to emulate all the tactics of the Nazis, his own version of the Brownshirts calling itself the “Iron Guard”  and practising mass murder on a large scale.  In fact, according to the British writer Edward Crankshaw in his book Gestapo, they “offended the Germans on the spot by not troubling to bury their victims; and they offended the R.H.S.A. [the administrative section of the Nazi police in charge of mass exterminations] by their failure to keep proper records and by their uncontrolled looting.”

The Itzkovitz family did not escape the collective fate of the Rumanian Jews.  Eliahu and his parents and three brothers were sent to a concentration camp, no better and no worse than most Eastern European camps; one lived a few days to a few weeks and died from a wide variety of causes, mostly beating and shooting.  Rumanian camps were not as well equipped as their German models, the “death factories” of Auschwitz and Treblinka with their sophisticated gas chambers.  Again, according to Crankshaw, “the Rumanians showed a great aptitude  for mass murder and conducted their own massacres in Odessa and elsewhere,” and the Itzkovitz family paid its price – within a short time, only Eliahu, the youngest boy, survived.

But he had seen his family die, and he had remembered who killed it.  It had been one particular brute, not the coldly efficient SS-type but a Rumanian from a town not too far away from his own home town and who enjoyed his new job.  And Eliahu swore that he would kill the man, if it took all his life to do it.  More than anything else, it was probably that hatred that kept him alive; he was a skeleton but a living one when the Russians liberated him in 1944.  Eliahu then began his patient search from town to town.  Of course, Stanescu (or whatever name the brute had assumed in the meantime) had not returned to his hometown for good reasons, but Eliahu found his son there and took his first revenge; he stabbed the son with a butcher knife and in 1947, a Rumanian People’s Court sentenced him to five years in a reformatory for juveniles.

Eliahu served his time but did not forget.  His family’s murderer was still at large and he had sworn to kill him.  In 1952, he was finally released and given permission by Communist authorities to emigrate to Israel, where he was drafted into the Israeli army in 1953 and assigned to the paratroops.  Training was rigorous in the sun-drenched barracks and stubby fields south of Rehovoth, and thoughts of revenge had become all but a dim memory.  There was a new life to be lived here, among the people from all corners of the world who still streamed in and who, from Germans, Poles, Indians, Yemenites, or Rumanians, became Israelis.  To be sure, Eliahu still met some of his Rumanian friends and talk often rotated back to the “old country”, to the war and the horrors of the persecution.  Camps and torturers were listed matter-of-factly, like particularly tough schools or demanding teachers, and Stanescu came up quite naturally.

“That s.o.b. made it.  He got out in time before the Russians could get him,” said a recent arrival, “then he fled to West Germany and tried to register as a D.P. but they got wise to him and before we could report him, he was gone again.”

Eliahu’s heart beat had stopped for an instant, and when it resumed its normal rhythm, he had shaken off the torpor of peacetime army life.  The hunt was on again.

“Do you know where Stanescu went then? Do you have any idea at all?”

“Well – somebody said that he had gone to Offenburg in the French Zone, where they recruit people for the French Foreign Legion, and that he enlisted for service in Indochina.  The French are fighting there, you know.”

On the next day, Eliahu’s mind was made up.  He reported to his commanding officer and applied for a transfer to the Israeli Navy; he liked the sea, had learned something about it while in Rumania, which borders the Black Sea, and would be happier aboard ship than as a paratrooper.  A few days later, the request was granted and Eliahu was on his way to the small force of Israeli corvettes and destroyers based in Haifa.  A few months later, the opportunity he had been waiting for came true; his ship was assigned to go to Italy to pick up equipment.

In Genoa, Seaman Itzkovitz applied for shore leave and simply walked off the ship; took a train to Bordighera and crossed over to Menton, France, without the slightest difficulty.  Three days later, Eliahu had signed his enlistment papers in Marseilles and was en route to Sidi-bel-Abbès, Algeria, the headquarters and boot camp of the Foreign Legion, and again three months later, he was aboard the s/s Pasteur on his way to Indochina.

Once in the Foreign Legion, Stanescu’s trail was not hard to pick up.  While no unit was made up of any single nationality, each unit would have its little groups and informal clans acording to language or nation of origin.  It took patience, but in early 1954, he had located his quarry in the 3d Foreign Legion Infantry.  The last step was the easiest; the Foreign Legion generally did not object if a man requested a transfer in order to be with his friends, and Eliahu’s request to be transferred to Stanescu’s battalion came through in a perfectly routine fashion.  When Eliahu saw Stanescu again after ten years, he felt no particular wave of hatred, as he had somehow expected.  After having spent ten years imagining the moment of meeting the killer of his family eye to eye, the materialization of that moment could only be an anti-climax.  Stanescu had barely changed; he had perhaps thinned down a bit in the Legion; as for Eliahu, he had been a frightened boy of thirteen and was now a trapping young man, bronzed from his two years of training with the Israeli paratroopes, the Navy and the French Foreign Legion.

There was nothing left to do for Eliahu but to arrange a suitable occasion for the “execution;” for in his eyes the murder of Stanescu would be an execution.  Stanescu (his name was, of course, no longer that) had become a corporal, and led his squad competently.  The new arrival also turned out to be a competent soldier, a bit taciturn perhaps, but good.  In fact, he was perhaps better trained than the run of the mill that came out of “Bel-Abbès” these days.  He was a good man to have along on a patrol.

And it was on a patrol that Stanescu met his fate, in one of the last desperate battles along Road 18, between Bac-Ninh and Seven Pagodas.  He and Eliahu had gone on a reconnaissance into the bushes on the side of the road, when the Viet-Minh opened fire from one hundred yards away.  Both men slumped down into the mud.  There was no cause for fear; the rest of the squad was close by on the road and would cover their retreat.  Eliahu was a few paces to the side and behind Stanescu.

“Stanescu!” he called out.

Stanescu turned around and stared at Eliahu, and Eliahu continued in Rumanian:

“You are Stanescu, aren’t you?”

The man, the chest of his uniform black from the mud in which he had been lying, looked at Eliahu more in surprise than in fear.  For all he knew, Eliahu might have been a friend of his son, a kid from the neighbourhood back home in Chisnau.

“Yes, but…”

“Stanescu,” said Eliahu in a perfectly even voice, “I’m one of the Jews from Chisnau,” and emptied the clip of his MAT-49 tommy gun into the man’s chest.  He dragged the body back to the road: a Legionnaire never left a comrade behind.

“Tough luck,” said one of the men of the platoon sympathetically.  “He was a Rumanian just like you, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Eliahu, “just like me.”

The search had ended and the deed was done.  Eliahu was now at peace with himself and the world.  He served out his time with the Legion, received his papers certifying that “he had served with Honor and Fidelity” and mustered out in France.  There was nothing left for him to do but to go home to Israel.  The Israeli Armed Forces attachè in France at first refused to believe the incredible story, but the facts were soon verified with the French authorities and a few weeks later Eliahu was on his way to Israel.  At Haifa, two Israeli M.P.’s, perfect copies of their British models with their glistening white canvas belts and pistol holsters, took charge of him and soon the gates of Haifa military prison closed behind him.

The three Israeli Navy judges rose.  Seaman Itzkovitz stood stiffly at attention as the presiding judge read out the judgement.

“… and in view of the circumstances of the case, a Court of the State of Israel cannot bring itself to impose a heavy sentence. … One year’s imprisonment … ”