On these days in history

It is 78 years, this weekend, since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor turned what had been a European war into a world conflict. Over the next few days we roll through the anniversary of the loss to air attack of the Prince of Wales and Repulse – two capital ships the British deployed to the Far East as the Japanese crisis grew during 1941, which arrived in Singapore just days before war actually broke out.

Nobody seems to remember the latter story these days. I still remember, back in September 2012, when Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Alan Bollard was about to head away to take up a post as executive director of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariat, in Singapore, I was invited to a farewell afternoon tea. The General Financial Crisis had barely ended. ‘Well Alan,’ I said, ‘hope you don’t see the Prince of Wales and Repulse hoving into view to save everybody.’ Half the people at the table looked at me strangely. Alan knew what I was talking about.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).

For the story of those ships, check out some articles I wrote for the Navy General Board – the prelude: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/the-loss-of-prince-of-wales-and-repulse/
The air attack: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/loss-prince-wales-repulse-part-2/
And the mystery of how the Prince of Wales sank: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/the-loss-of-prince-of-wales-and-repulse-part-3-the-70-year-mystery/

This aside, the flurry of Second World War anniversaries over the next few days – isn’t just limited to the first successes of the ‘Samurai blitzkrieg’. At the same time as Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and (on the other side of the date line, where it was 8 December), Malaya, the German army was knocking at the gates of Moscow. Operation Taifun (Typhoon) was intended to give Hitler possession of the Soviet capital, and very nearly did.

Meanwhile, in North Africa, the Axis forces were retreating in the face of a major British assault, Operation Crusader; but they did not retreat as far as the British wanted – and had done a number on the British Eighth Army in the process. The Second New Zealand Division, which had been instrumental in relieving Tobruk as part of that campaign, was badly battered and had been withdrawn from combat a few days earlier.

Christmas 1941, in short, was a fairly bleak one for the Allies; and this despite the entry of the US into the war – bringing with it around 48 percent of the world’s total industrial capacity. This was already being swung into war production on the back of a succession of legislative changes in mid-1940 which authorised the largest military build-up in the history of the world. But that took time – and things were far from ready in late 1941. So for a while the risks seemed clear.

We can call all of this ‘history’ and enjoy knowing about it; but to me, there is an essential lesson here about the folly of humanity in general. As a species we keep falling into wars – and this despite declaring, every time, that we don’t want them, despite wrapping diplomacy in technique and structure designed to resolve issues. It keeps happening – through history, through living memory, and today in various ways. Why? Again, I keep going back to the likelihood of it being a survival mechanism in hunter-gatherer days, when humanity roved the world in bands of around 150 kin-related individuals. We were, in effect, programmed to look after and nurture those in ‘our’ kin-related group – and unleash all the psychotic hate and destruction we could muster on any who were in ‘other’ groups.

All this was, perhaps (and I say ‘perhaps’) all very well back in the old stone age. But it doesn’t scale very well to nation-states, ideologies and the other issues that began to define – and divide – large societies after the invention of agriculture. It worked even less well in the age of industrial weaponry that brought us the two World Wars of the twentieth century – swiftly followed by the Cold War. And today there is even less excuse to behave that way.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

19 thoughts on “On these days in history

    1. Indeed we should. There were a few similarly dramatic months in the twentieth century, globally, alongside December 1941 – I’d put July 1914 and August 1939 up there, along with October 1962 and, of course, November 1991. But in general, the weeks around Japan’s attack on the US and the British Empire – all matched with unprecedented developments in the European war – is well up there for needing to be known. It’s curious: in hindsight, we know Hitler didn’t take Moscow that month. But at the time nobody knew; the dice had yet to be rolled, in effect. It was a worry. The only bright light was the qualified British success in the CRUSADER campaign that relieved Tobruk, which was largely down to the New Zealand efforts on Sidi Rezegh and Belhammed. Yet even that didn’t defeat Rommel entirely, as it was intended to.

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        1. Thanks! It’s a terrible tragedy, still unfolding here, but, sadly, it looks as if there is no hope for those missing on the island. Actually, I am still puzzled as to why the place was ever a tourist destination – it’s a live volcano known to be pretty active. Our Department of Geological and Nuclear Sciences monitors it.

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  1. Thanks for the historical background. On war, my impression is that every war has at least one Aggressor: A party that is willing to initiate violent confrontation. Because of this, if the common goal is to end war, we must always be asking ourselves 2 questions:
    1. Am I being the aggressor?
    2. Am I, through my own actions creating aggressors?

    If everyone wants to make this a priority, we can end war. There are signs that people are pretty serious on raising the bar for what is a justifiable reason for war.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s always intrigued me how wars begin; we build systems to avert them – and yet, every time, they happen. We then look back and wonder what went wrong – I’ve read multiple books on how the Second World War started, for instance. Even then, the underlying issues are often buried in the ‘white noise’ of immediate events; it was only in the late twentieth century that historians really twigged to the fact, for instance, that the Second World War was – in many fundamental ways – simply the second act of the First.

      A lot of the ‘war-averting’ systems, certainly from the western perspective, emerged from the early modern period – the eighteenth century in particular – and are built into state diplomatic convention and expectation, but there are historical antecedents. As you say, somebody always ends up the aggressor – in effect, they don’t blink first during a confrontation. And, indeed, nations can behave in ways that provoke others to attack or hate them; there’s plenty of history to show that. The question is how to alter the behaviours that lead to it – something, I suspect, that will be very difficult because we’re dealing with societies and the way they both ‘average out’ and ‘bury’ any individual views. But it is definitely something that needs to be tried.

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      1. Totally. Actually you don’t have to look far on WWII. I think it’s fair to say I’m not speaking in hindsight in saying that WWII was preventable. Some contemporaries of the WWI armistice knew this. President Wilson wanted a league of nations to prevent another great war, but France and Britain wanted to press Germany for punitive compensation. At the end of WWII, you see the exact opposite. Instead of punishing Germany, huge amounts of money were poured into Europe to rebuild and prevent creating a new aggressor regime. And it worked. That might be a simplification, let me know, but seems to me we created the aggressor in Germany by creating a state of economic misery that was fertile ground for violent nationalism.

        I think as long as people believe there is something worth fighting for, there will be a possible scenario for war. Everyone has a point at which the conventions seem ineffectual and will choose to break away. But these scenarios are preventable with the right amount of foresight and communication – as the Marshall Plan showed us.

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        1. Yes, the Marshall Plan was in large part a reaction to the way things had gone so wrong after 1919; it was also tied up with the Cold War – the US needed to bolster Germany fairly quickly in the face of Stalin’s aggression. But the intent to also not repeat the mistakes of 1919 was certainly a conscious and major factor. The Allies had a pretty good handle on what had happened by this time – all in hindsight, of course; and Lord Vansittart summed it up in 1944 when he pointed out that the issue was what he called a ‘Reich mentality’ – the mind-set that had emerged in the 1870s with Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which had driven their empire building and a sense of destiny, and had not been eliminated by Versailles. Historians since, Max Hastings particularly, have noted the similarities between the mind-set of WW1 Germany and the mind-set that Hitler then cultivated; it was still there in the 1920s when the Kaiser’s former soldiers (Hitler among them) felt cheated of victory and looked around for someone to blame. Of course the Nazis took it to extremes, but the theme was there all along, arguably. Certainly in 1945 the Allies worried about how they might ‘de-Nazify’ Germany, as it were. A book I read a few years ago (whose title and author elude me as I write this) suggested that the actual shift didn’t come until the 1960s with the rise of the baby boomers who, of course, had a very different mind-set. And there is some plausibility to that.

          This is a specific instance, of course, in a humanity riven with wars and troubles; but I think the lesson of the Marshall Plan is that to be kind afterwards is actually an effective strategy, irrespective of what’s driving that policy. And there seems a lot of sense in that; kindness and forgiveness are virtues that humanity so often forgets.

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  2. I’m no archaeologist, but I seem to recall that homo sapiens co-existed with a number of earlier hominid species, until we succeeded in wiping them out. Was it really such a dog-eat-dog world back then, or is there something in the H.Sapiens genes that makes us super aggressive?

    I don’t have any answers, but I do have a suspicion, and it centres on sociopaths. If some studies are true, many of the most powerful and influential people in the world exhibit signs of sociopathy. That’s not to say that they’re all one step away from being serial killers. It simply implies that they lack empathy to some degree.

    Imho, empathy is the glue that makes society work. Without it, we wouldn’t have the ability to sacrifice some of our individual needs and wants for the common good. In less altruistic terms, we wouldn’t have the ability to recognize that giving up a little will benefit /us/ in the long term.

    Getting back to sociopathy, if aggression is rewarded with money, power and influence, then it’s not that hard to see why our leaders would be tempted by conflicts that might increase that power. Given that no world leader ever has to stand on the frontline and risk getting shot, there are no logical, personal consequences to starting a war.

    This is all very broad strokes, pie-in-the-sky stuff, but for me, it answers the question of why the genes for sociopathy continue to co-exist with the genes for empathy. Natural selection quietly erases genes that are counter survival, but so far, individuals who lack empathy [to some extent] are still thriving. 😦

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    1. I think you’re right! There seems to be a very deep streak of sociopathy in humanity – and in the systems we create. I’ve seen studies suggesting that, if you were to consider a ‘corporation’ as a person (which, legally, they are), they’d be psychopaths – there’s a good article here: https://www.accaglobal.com/my/en/member/member/accounting-business/2018/06/insights/corporations-psychopaths.html

      One of the things they lack is empathy. As, indeed, seems to be true for significant leaders through history – the ones who start wars, particularly. I suspect that, at times, the empathy is actually directed. One hesitates to instantly dive into the Nazi comparison, but they make such a marvellous case study that highlights the point: the German administration from 1933 intentionally had no empathy for selected target groups – and tried to train a nation to also withdraw any sense of it. And we know where that went. Ouch.

      It’s odd – I am busy writing a biography at the moment (smack on publisher deadline, hence the delays in my responses on my blog) about a historical New Zealand figure whose empathy was unparalleled. I won’t say more just yet – the book will be published next September & more can be revealed! 🙂 The point being that this characteristic, to me, was a clear driver behind the way this person became a national figure. But this was almost unique: is also very rare that anybody with true empathy (hence kindness, tolerance, etc) can achieve much before being swamped by those who lack it. Bad trumping good? It seems that this is the way human nature goes. Damn. As you say – those who lack empathy always seem to thrive.

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      1. That’s a very interesting article, but I think it misses a couple of things. For starters, corporations can’t really be punished when they misbehave. Fines, even multi-million dollar fines are no deterrent to corporations that deal in the billions. And the fact that officers of the corporation are protected from punishment…unless they break common law…means that the justice system has no real way of enforcing the laws of society – e.g. tax, pollution, charging people for services they have not received, blah blah.
        Imho, this is not about ethics. It’s about society finding a way to enforce existing laws on both the corporate entity and the human decision makers within that entity.

        Not a fan of corporations. lol

        Grats on the new book, but now you’ve got me wondering who that person could be!!!

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        1. Yes, it’s holding the corporations to account that’s difficult! We went through a very awkward period here in the 1990s-2000s following the government decision to basically give away key national infrastructure such as the railways, the phone system and the power system, to international foreign corporates as monopolies. Ouch. It couldn’t be unwound very easily, either, and it’s only in the last 7-10 years that things have settled. (I found the Japanese occupation plan for New Zealand in the Prime Minister’s files in our National Archives, which was virtually identical to what the ‘reform’ governments of 1984-99 did to us, but let’s not go there…)

          All will be revealed soon on the biography! It’s my second on the subject, but this time I’ve dug out material about him that hasn’t been put together before.


  3. Acflory, above, made interesting points about sociopathy and empathy. Perhaps one might consider whether some degree of “sociopathy” (not rising to the point of clinical diagnosis, but there) exists in all of us, at least to the point where we can identify with a sociopathic leader. Or, perhaps, systems of government that promote sociopathy, with whatever degree of intention. As to identification with a sociopathic leader, one need only look at history to see Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and to the news feed to see Donald Trump, and their followers. As to a government that promotes sociopathic tendencies, that might be virtually any government in wartime, but a prime example might be Imperial Japan before and during World War II, and, at least in some sense, Soviet Russia.

    I think, though, that an examination of the “Cold War” here in the States might prove illuminating. Speaking of the Soviets, we here in the US seemed to be so sure of the nearly-supernatural evil of the “Godless Communists” that we were willing to inflict nuclear holocaust on them, and were in denial about the effects of that on the rest of the world. If one characteristic of sociopathy is lack of empathy, one might consider the Cold War from that perspective.

    The 150-person “in group” may be part of the picture, but one might also consider the role of “natural disasters” in the history of humanity. There is some scholarship supporting the scenario of homo sapiens, our direct ancestors, reduced to a few hundred individuals huddling together in a cave somewhere; this contention is supported by studies of mitochondrial DNA shows a sizeable proportion of the present population descends from a single female. To what extent might the disasters implicit in such scenarios have created PTSD? For which, I might add, there is some evidence for follow-on genetic effects? (Although one wonders if this is learned behavior with perceived advantages.) Natural disasters aren’t combat…but, if the gods inflict these things upon us, such behavior must be sacred, and those who lead us into battle must also be sacred, as in “Dieu et mon Droit.”

    One has only to read some of the literature arising from the trench war in WW1, or the tragic eloquence of Rabbi Gittelson’s eulogy for the dead Marines of Iwo Jima, to realize humanity, at some level, sees the idiotic futility of war. Which doesn’t seem to stop us from engaging in ever-greater levels of genocidal folly, and the question really should be asked, Why? And the effort to find an answer to that question should be one of those all-encompassing efforts combining history, psychology (despite the “woo factor”), and even genetics.

    We had a Manhattan Project to build a war-stopping weapon. Why couldn’t we have a similar level of effort to actually stop war? We’ll never breed aggression out of humanity and I don’t think that would be desirable. But maybe we could curb our appetite for genocidal behavior.

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    1. There’s certainly compelling evidence about a population bottleneck for humans – we are all so close genetically that if we were dogs, we’d be the same breed. And we do have to wonder what that did for us as a species. Possibly intensified the behaviours that had worked to allow us to survive to that time, otherwise?

      In general I have a notion that humans always build institutions and social systems (governments, corporations, bureaucracies etc) that embody the human condition and reify aspects of it – both the good and the bad. In a sense, a coping mechanism for handling large societies that followed agriculture, if the ‘Dunbar number’ theory is correct.

      It certainly seems clear to me that those systems can then be used by humans within them to express their own personal nature – and what concerns me is the way that this, so often, drives towards the bad and not the good. The fact that corporations, if considered people, present as lacking moral compass, remorse or care for those they exploit, is one aspect. More insidious, I think, is the way that even beneficial systems – such as schools – can so often become vehicles for individuals given power by the system to hurt those that the same system has defined as powerless. Here in New Zealand there is an investigation at the moment into abuse of children put into state care during the mid-twentieth century. My own memories of school, a little later, weren’t much different: education was secondary to a sub-culture in which the teachers took great pleasure from being able to hurt the children, physically and mentally. I think it was a reflection of the phenomenon that various psychological investigations of the post-WW2 period looked into, trying to understand where death camp guards came from. Again, these were systems in which one group were given power over another – and what followed was another expression of the same phenomenon; the behaviour of those who feel personally powerless, when a system gives them power over others. Does this imply that humans are sociopaths and sadists at heart? So it would seem.

      Where does this link to war? National systems are, I think, similar expressions of the base human condition – projected, systematised and so forth. But still human. It would be a marvellous thing if we could fix the issues that drive war – which, I suspect, would also cure a lot of the problems we have with violence and so forth in modern society. As you say, it wouldn’t necessarily curb all aggression; but I think a lot of this could be reined in. It may have worked as a survival mechanism in the Ice Age, but it’s not a benefit in the age of mass populations, mass societies – and nuclear weapons.

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      1. I’d like to think that our American Civil War holds a valuable lesson. Plainly, the one major cause of the war was the issue of slavery. Slavery became an issue because, at the foundation of the Republic, it was, if not explicitly included the way it was in the later Constitution of the Confederacy, then recognized implicitly. Over the years the “peculiar institution” of slavery became an inflammatory issue that eventually led to war. But the question I have to ask is this: Why was it so important, perhaps in the sense of psychological identification, that my own people were willing to kill on a massive scale to preserve it? Why was that willingness so widespread? Disregarding the woo-factor in psychology, I think there’s something to the idea of threats to what earlier psychologists called “character” — in the sense of a constellation of traits and beliefs or whatnot that compose what the individual perceives as their identity, a threat to any one of which, apparently, can trigger rage reactions. One of which, evidently, is a sense of individualism requiring they be better than someone, ANYONE, or their self-esteem is shattered. Consider your teachers of long ago. Inside any bully beats the heart of perhaps not a coward, but a very fear-driven person. For such a person one might reasonably inquire whether their sense of self-worth requires (the way, say, an addict requires the drug) demonstrating their mastery over others. An unearned mastery, one might add; to be truly satisfying to their wretched self-esteem, that mastery has to be conferred upon them by God, so to speak, and not by any accomplishment(s) of their own. The current unpleasantness over immigrants in this country speaks to that. I know people whose ancestors have lived in this country for centuries, who attainments barely match those of their ancestors; yet their personal superiority is one of birthright, nothing they’ve earned for themselves. But I could go on and on….

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