Interrogating the Project of Military History

November 30 - I show a lot of film clips in my History of War course.  Most large classrooms at Ohio State now have an excellent multimedia capability, and I've acquired a large collection of VHS tapes and DVDs, so it's easy to do.  I choose some film clips to illustrate a concept that might otherwise be hard to get across; e.g., the many forms that war can take and the difficulty of defining it.  Others make it possible to visualize things--a Roman manipular legion, for instance.  But most frequently I use the clips to convey what historian Bruce Catton called an "emotional understanding" of the subject under discussion.

"We are not yet wholly rational beings," Catton suggested.  "We approach true understanding through our emotions rather than our intellects. . . .  Except for the dedicated student, nobody in particular cares to know more than is already known of (to take a case at random) the great battle of Gettysburg; but the man who can make us feel and see that stupendous fight will get our attention because he helps us to comprehend the enormous intangibles which were involved there.  Those intangibles . . . reveal themselves most clearly to those whose feelings and imaginations have been touched.  They come in moments of insight born of emotional understanding."

Today I was trying to get across to students two ideas.  First, the way in which American novels and films during the 1950s and 60s consistently used the trope--though I didn't use that word--of Americans venturing into Asia, confident of their understanding and their ability to control events, only to have that confidence mocked and eventually overwhelmed by the real complexities of that vast region.  Second, the concept of "blowback," a term coined by the CIA to describe the unintended adverse consequences of a covert operation and used by political scientist Chalmers Johnson to describe the unintended adverse consequences of American foreign policy in general.

In the weeks after 9/11 I tried to illustrate the concept of blowback to the students in my upper-division U.S. military history survey.  I pointed out such things as the way in which the War with Mexico unleashed the chain of events that led directly to the American Civil War, but the centerpiece of my effort was a 13-minute excerpt from the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen.  I've written about this elsewhere, and it captures what took place in class today:

The creation of an informal empire [ca. 1898] led to powerful new instances of "blowback." China makes a good example. Initially the United States sought only to have free access to the potentially lucrative China market, but chronic political instability in China induced the U.S. to join with European powers to impose order.

Imagine a situation in which foreign soldiers occupied key ports on the American coast, foreign warships cruised American waters, and foreign governments regarded American sovereignty as a joke. Further, imagine that if a foreign soldier or sailor robbed, raped or killed an American citizen, he would be tried by his government, not in an American court. Such a situation obtained in early 20th century China.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese bitterly resented it.

At this point I showed the class a film clip from The Sand Pebbles. Set in 1926 China, the film depicts the crew of the Navy gunboat U.S.S. San Pablo caught up in the turmoil of the Chinese revolution. Like her captain, Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna), the crew takes it for granted that China is essentially a land of "coolies," incapable of self-government.

Steve McQueen plays Jake Holman, the gunboat’s machinist. In the clip, he and a shore party have arrived at the China Light mission to remove several American missionaries. Here they discover that the head of China Light, Mr. Jameson, is under sentence of death because opium was found growing on mission property. "Mr. Jameson didn’t know about it," an idealistic young school teacher, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) tells Holman, "but technically he’s responsible." Holman wonders why Mr. Jameson couldn’t duck the charge—after all, a Chinese court imposed the sentence—but Mr. Jameson is determined not to be like his fellow Americans. He will respect Chinese law and appeal his case in accordance with its provisions.

At first Mr. Jameson resists the idea of boarding San Pablo. But he learns that the gunboat’s next destination is Chang Sha, where the appeals court is located. Since he’s headed there anyway, and the gunboat is a faster way to travel than overland, he agrees to go with the shore party—still in the custody of a young Nationalist officer.
The shore party returns to San Pablo, but have barely arrived when a Communist mob shows up, chasing Holman’s coolie assistant, Po-han, who had gone ashore. In an attempt to create an incident, they capture Po-han and slash his chest repeatedly with a knife. Lt. Collins resists the provocation and tries unsuccessfully to bargain for Po-han’s freedom. (At one point Holman, almost beside himself, personally ups the bid.) Finally the gunboat’s chief coolie tells the captain that Po-han is screaming for someone to shoot him. Collins refuses: the solution could too easily be twisted into the "murder" of Po-han. But Holman cannot bear his friend’s agony. He grabs a Springfield rifle from a crewmate, adjusts the sight, and kills his friend.

I liked the clip because it put a human face on "blowback." Holman, like most Americans, is completely apolitical. He just likes making the ship’s engine run, and one of his joys was to teach Po-han the skills of a machinist. But although he wasn’t interested in the politics of empire, those politics were interested in him—and forced him to make a terrible choice.


The portion of the screenplay depicting Po-han's death is available here.  The complete script is available at The Sand Pebbles, an astonishingly extensive web site devoted to the film.

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