Category: history

Kid Red in the Far East

Back in the early 2000s I maintained a vanity website called Urban Redneck. One of the sections on that site detailed the career of my grandfather in the US Navy’s Asiatic Fleet in the 1920s, based on a collection of old photographs I had and some on-line research. That old website of static pages disappeared from the Internet some ten or more years ago, though of course I still have the HTML files stored locally.

Recently I was contacted by a cousin in Australia. I didn’t know I had any cousins in Australia, but I do indeed and one of them has been collecting genealogical information on our family for 25 years. He wanted to know if I had any detailed information about my father’s family. I don’t, really. The best I could really offer him was my old account from 2001 of my grandfather’s activities in China and the Philippines in the 1920s. So I uploaded the files to this server and sent him a link. You can read about my grandfather here:

Kid Red in the Far East.

The images are small because that’s how we rolled on-line back in the double-aughts. When I get a chance, I’d like to re-scan the photos and re-post the story of Kid Red in the WordPress database. Until them, you can enjoy my little blast from the past (that is, the 1920s Asiatic Fleet and the early 2000s internet).

Early trade

The Carthaginians tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Herakles. On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it presents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Elon Musk might be a charismatic genius, but he’s a terrible speaker

But you should watch this speech anyway.

I like this guy. It’s easy because I’m not a TSLA shareholder. I love how he’s trolling everyone with his flamethrowers and orbiting roadsters, but I also like his suggestion that humanity needs big goals. He’s too young to have experienced the excitement I got out of the Apollo Program, but he recognizes how important that is for any civilization that aspires to be considered, well, civilized.

Right now I think America’s aspirations, at least, have been most threatened by the small-minded people behind NASA and in the Congress. The history, goals and performance of, for example, the SLS program, are scandalous compared to what Space X has achieved.

We are lucky to have visionary billionaires like Musk and Jeff Bezos who are willing to think the big thoughts that are impossible for the the bean counters and drones of government.

There is nothing really new in war

ISIS weapons arsenal included some purchased by U.S. government

Not surprising at all.

One of the seminal books about the folly of the Vietnam War is Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. It describes the career of a former US Army Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann who by the late 1960s was working with USAID in the Mekong Delta. The Saigon government was so corrupt that most of the arms the US sent there ended up almost immediately in the hands of the Viet Cong. Vann would plead with his superiors at the State Department to stop sending weapons to the Saigon government, but he was ignored.

Of course, as with all the other crazy parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, the same thing happened in the latter country as well (probably still going on). ISIS could have been supplied by friends in Afghanistan, or simply by corrupt officials in the Iraqi government.

The wonder expressed by the media of the discovery of a “rifle manufactured by the Nazis,” a 1941 Mauser k.98, is amusing. This was the standard German infantry rifle during both World Wars, and zillions of them were produced and later sold on world markets, to governments, insurgents and American collectors (like me; I have one, with a plywood — oh, excuse me — laminated stock). Early in the American war with Afghanistan I recall seeing photos of stacks of recovered WWII bolt action rifles such as Mausers, Mosin-Nagants and British SMLEs. I am surprised they found only a single Mauser. It was probably the beloved trophy of some Iraqi townsman or villager who was executed by ISIS.

A quiz

Quick, without googling, what year was this photo taken (somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains):

You can click on the photo to learn more.

The first book about the Vietnam War

I started reading Street Without Joy this week, about what the author called the First Indochina War, that is, the war between the French and the Viet Minh that preceded the US involvement in Vietnam (what we American snowflakes call the “Vietnam War,” more history-minded folks could plausibly refer to as the “Second Indochina War.” Just as how it’s weird that Americans refer to the 1991 war as the “Gulf War,” when during the previous decade there was a real Gulf War that cost the lives of perhaps a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers. But I digress . . .).

Anyway, it seems to be the unknown war these days, I’ve really never read much else about it. And holy crap was it harrowing. French forces lost 90,000 men before it was over. Some of the battle descriptions will make your hair stand up.

I was introduced to the book when I read in a memoir by Hal Moore (the American commanding officer at the first battle of Ia Drang) that he read Street Without Joy as preparation for his work in Vietnam (or maybe it was Clark Welch, who commanded a company at the battle of Ong Thanh, I forget which). Book blurbs insist the book was widely read by US planners, but I don’t know about that. How the hell anyone cold read that book and still believe America had any business in Vietnam, or could possibly prevail where the French failed, is beyond my understanding. The “Best and the Brightest” were truly a gang of arrogant idiots.

The author, a Frenchman, was extremely critical of French strategy and tactics, but unlike Neil Sheehan or David Halberstam, he actually wanted to see French victory, not a pullout. So he’s very conflicted (the Viet Minh are referred to throughout the book as “the enemy,” “commies” or “Reds”). Well, I guess he was a French nationalist. From my point of view, there was no way hanging on to Vietnam was worth 90,000 French soldiers, or 50,000 American ones, or the maybe two million Vietnamese lives the two wars cost.

Really an amazing book.

Lessons from Atatürk

I am more skeptical of democracy than most people, but I just finished a biography of Kemal Atatürk and it taught me a lot about the value of democracy (more on the book in general later).

Atatürk led a political revolution in Turkey following WWI. He was also a social revolutionary, and though he always intended to be a dictator, he set up the institutions for a democratic government from the very beginning, because he wanted his reforms to endure. Unlike all the other dictators at the time, Atatürk understood that dictatorships last only as long as the man. And while democracies in emerging nations are often unstable, if you set them up right they will in fact offer more political stability than a government based on a personality cult. I think this was one of Atatürk’s essential perceptions.

So I have given up my plans to become prince of a post-apocalyptic Northern Nevada. Instead, I’m going to set up a parliamentary assembly I can control, as Atatürk did.

Progress marches on!


Looking north on the old stage road to San Francisco (later Pacific Coast Highway) passing under Arch Rock (a natural stone formation) on Santa Monica Beach, ca.1895. A horse-drawn carriage, headed south (toward the camera), is about to drive under the arch toward the foreground.

The Ringe family destroyed the arch in 1906 so they could move heavy equipment through the area:

The road through the rock was in such bad shape that when the Ringe people were building their railroad about early 1900 the contractor who had to bring supplies over the road dynamited it and built the road higher up above the tide. At the time I photographed the road in 1895, high tides rushed through the arch. M.D. Darlington was contractor for building the railroad and was given permission to reconstruct the road by the County Supervisors who were much criticized by people who did not want the Arch destroyed.

Photographer C.C. Pierce

Why we read

Recently, a friend asked me:

What’s the draw for the history/biography? I’ve noticed that guys older than me (who seem to be the only ones who actually read books) tend to be really into that kind of stuff, but I don’t get it. Not to say that I have no interest in history in a general sense, but I just can’t into books like that. Is it my age? Science background (as opposed to humanities/not-science)? Something else?

I replied that he seemed to read a lot of novels. What are they? They are stories. What is history? More stories, except these stories really happened.

It’s all the same to me. A story is a story.

Except that quite a bit of legit history is actually “made up”. There are certain facts, but much of history is interpretation and extrapolation from those facts. There are often different (and contradictory) perspectives, so you have to keep in mind the historians’ biases and goals when reading history. That’s what I learned from the good history teachers in high school and college.

That’s not hard to do and often makes the reading more interesting. At the moment I am reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of WWI. Last Year I read Max Hastings’ version of events, Catastrophe 1914, and the year before I conquered AN Wilson’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, which ends with WWI. All three books express different opinions about the causes of the war (Clark’s is more radical, and indeed far more compelling, as he, unlike almost all other commentators, focuses on the essentially Balkan origins of the conflict). But they are talking about the same events, often relaying the same facts.

In any case, you have to keep the same things in mind, about the biases and points of view of the authors, when reading novels.

Biographies are certainly very interesting to me – if they are written well, though they rarely are up to my personal standard. Biographies, after all, are about people, and it’s the people (or characters) that make stories interesting (good history is also about people; I don’t buy the Marxist idea that individuals are irrelevant to a history of compelling and inevitable social forces). Sadly, I haven’t read many really good biographies.

I think it’s challenging for a biographer to walk the line between reporting and hagiography. Last year I read a pretty good biography of Robert La Follette by Nancy Unger, but it was tarnished by my developing distaste for the subject himself. Not that you have to like the subject of a biography to enjoy it, but Unger’s book was meant to be sympathetic, and because she reported so faithfully, I discovered I couldn’t get into it. I was glad to have finished it. But if someone wants to read a good biography of Robert La Follette, I can unreservedly recommend the Unger.

White people in the mountains

Most California mountains were left unclimbed by the Native Americans and Californios (Spanish/Mexican early settlers). The Indians basically avoided the mountains unless strictly necessary for food or to get to the other side. The history books never explain this, but I believe it was because grizzly bears infested California’s mountain ranges until the early 20th century. People armed with bows and spears probably thought it was best to stay away from the bears, if possible.

The Spanish/Mexican indifference to the mountains is bewildering. Most of the time, they never even bothered giving them names. They were these big eternal masses on the horizon, like part of the climate. They went up some of the canyons in search of timber, but that was mostly it. When gold was discovered in the San Gabriel Mountains (at low elevation, six years before the discovery at Sutter’s Mill), that drew the attention of armies of Anglos.

It was the Anglos who swarmed all over the mountains, searching for gold and timber. Californio gold-hunters were content to set up placer mining operations in lower elevation riverbeds, but the Anglos would climb up into the mountains. There was a mine on the side of Mt Baldy, not far from the site of the current Sierra Club Ski Hut at 8,300 feet.

But some of the Anglos were interested in climbing to the tops of the mountains just to see if it could be done. This was a first. The earlier inhabitants and settlers had little known interest in doing any such thing. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, or climb mountains for no reason.

I don’t think there is a square inch of the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos, and precious little of the Sierra Nevada, that hasn’t already been marauded over by timbermen, prospectors, sheep herders, ranchers and other assorted alpinists.

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