David R. Henderson  

My Veterans Day Tribute

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Every Veterans Day, I try to do something special to remember or honor a veteran. I don't like the standard flag-waving event that this day has become for many people. In many Veterans Day speeches, the speakers talk about the hundreds of thousands of American veterans who gave their lives for our freedom. The problem with that is twofold: (1) Very few of those who were killed in war literally gave their lives but instead had their lives ripped away, and (2) very few of them fought for our freedom. So my tribute this time is to a veteran who did not give his life and knew that he wasn't fighting for our freedom. That veteran is Richard H. Timberlake, Jr.

Dick Timberlake, who has become a personal friend, is a fairly well-known monetary economist and a veteran of World War II. Timberlake's book They Never Saw Me Then is his account of his time in World War II, first training to be a pilot in the United States and then being a co-pilot of a B-17 on bombing raids over Germany. The book ends with his being wounded in one such raid and then recuperating in hospitals in England and the United States. The title of his book, he explains, comes from the thought that he and his buddies had about their wish for various friends, relatives, and "enemies": "Boy, if they could see me now." But because they couldn't see him then, he writes, his recourse is to tell the story himself. He tells it well.

One thing that is clear throughout the book is that Dick Timberlake had one main goal during the war: to preserve the life of Dick Timberlake. And, he points out, this was the norm. He quotes from Arthur Hoppe, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle: "I suppose there were a few in World War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in the Navy I never met one of them. ... [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that is the true horror of war."


This is from my Veterans Day article in November 2008.

And from my November 2007 Veterans Day article:

McCrae's challenge, in the last stanza [of the poem "In Flanders Fields], is that we "take up" the "quarrel with the foe" and that we not "break faith" with those who die. But what does it mean to break faith? Shouldn't we, if we are really to act in good faith, try our best to understand why the First World War occurred and why other wars occur? McCrae is surely not saying that he's glad that soldiers died. His "Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved" reminds us of the vital lives lived by these men, almost all of whom were young. There's such humanitarianism in that one short passage, such a recognition of the preciousness of each human life. Would McCrae really have objected if someone delved deeper into the issues to understand how to prevent war? That's hard to believe. Consider the Pearl Harbor quote. Surely mourning the dead shouldn't mean that we want more people to die, should it? And notice the sentence, "Understand the tragedy." Its author is saying that the deaths of over 2,000 people in Hawaii were tragic. He's also saying that we should understand it. Understanding it requires delving into why it happened.

So let's take up McCrae's challenge and the challenge from the Pearl Harbor quote. Let's not break faith with those who died. And let's understand.

The vast majority of wars in history have been senseless. By that I don't mean that various people who made decisions that led to war didn't have their reasons. Rather, I mean that a look at the record shows that wars rarely achieve what either side wants, kill hundreds of thousands (and, in the case of World Wars I and II, millions) of people, and destroy a large amount of people's wealth. I don't have room to make that case here in detail, but let me make it briefly. World War I was fought, at least from President Wilson's viewpoint, to "make the world safe for democracy." In an ironic sense, it did, but surely not in the way Wilson intended. It made Germany safe for a democratic election in which Hitler was elected. The Allies in Europe entered World War II to protect Poland. It didn't work. Although Poland was freed from Nazi oppression, it was not freed from totalitarian oppression by the Soviet Union and by domestic Polish totalitarians until over 40 years later. And interestingly, when Poland was freed, it was by peaceful means, not war. Franklin D. Roosevelt took coercive measures against Japan, including cutting off its foreign oil supply, to get the Japanese government out of China because he didn't want a brutal government running China. Although the Japanese government was kicked out, for the next 50 years, a brutal government ran China. Some would argue that it still does.


By the way, John McCrae Kilgour, who, I believe, was John McCrae's nephew, was briefly my doctor when I lived in Winnipeg.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Although the Japanese government was kicked out, for the next 50 years, a brutal government ran China. Some would argue that it still does.

Which is not quite accurate. When the Japanese were defeated in China in 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek turned his battle tested armies toward Mao's. He almost certainly would have been able to destroy the Communists, who'd sat out the fighting in the northwest of China, co-existing peacefully with the Japanese, if he'd been allowed to by his 'ally' the USA.

But, Geo. C. Marshall, newly named Ambassador to China, was convinced to stop Chiang from doing so by the State Dept.'China Hands' he inherited. As Jung Chang (who knew Mao personally) tells in her 2006 biography of Mao, that allowed breathing space for Stalin to transfer captured Japanese weapons to the then virtually unarmed Mao. Also to send Soviet generals to train his troops. By 1949 the Communists were able to drive Chiang to Formosa.

Had Marshall done nothing, tens of millions of Chinese might well have been spared the horrors Mao inflicted on them. I.e., a little more bloodshed in 1945-46 might have saved a lot of lives eventually.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
Potentially good point. Two things, though:
1. I should have said "two brutal governments ran China." R. J. Rummel, in his book, Death by Government, ranks Chiang Kai-Shek as the 4th most murderous person in the 20th century, with a score of 10 million killed (not including war deaths.)
2. Even if you disagree on #1 above, my larger point remains.

I don't know exactly where Rummel gets his numbers, but it's difficult to see him not counting the civil war deaths of the 1920s in Chiang's numbers. A war that goes back to Sun Yat Sen.

Chiang had nothing like Stalin's gulag, nor did he deliberately induce famines.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
I don't know either. My copy of his book burned in my 2007 fire. I'm going from memory here. But I remember that it was clearly low 8 digits. You're right that he had nothing like Stalin's gulag and I'm pretty sure you're right that he did not deliberately induce famines. That's why he's at #4 rather than at 1, 2, or 3.

Chris H writes:

Maybe he's counting the Yellow River Flood Chiang did that killed (directly or indirectly) maybe as many as 7 million Chinese civilians? Technically that was a war time act, but against the Japanese, the Chinese civilians being collatoral damage. A horrendous act to be sure, though I'm not sure that shouldn't be counted under war deaths.

But if Rummel isn't counting that then Chiang looks even worse. I think I know a new book I need to pick up...

Floccina writes:
"I suppose there were a few in World War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in the Navy I never met one of them. ... [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that is the true horror of war."

I would say that there are more than a few fighting for freedom and democracy but not close to most. I think a similar thing when I hear people say that they paid into SS and so deserve some fixed amount in retirement. The truth is very few voluntarily paid into SS so that could get some payout (some one man businesses do). FICA was taken from most of us against our will and so we should not complain if the payout is lowered. We are guaranteed nothing and will get what the majority voters and the politicians through the political process give us.

About war I think that a nation consists of people who are committed to respond when one of them is attacked but it should be a reasonable response more similar to how we respond to domestic attacks that is measured and calculated to not do more than damage that is needed.

Ken B writes:

I grew up in Guelph, McCrae's hometown, and lived just a couple miles from his birthplace, whcih is a small museum.

Ken B writes:
Franklin D. Roosevelt took coercive measures against Japan, including cutting off its foreign oil supply
I believe this is a false statement. FDR embargoed Amercian oil shipments to Japan. That is not the same thing as 'cutting off its foreign oil supply' which implies a blockade, and comprehends Dutch and other non-American oil. Technically I think that coercion (the embargo) was directed at Americans.
David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
I checked my source--Jonathan Marshall, To Have and Have Not: Southeast Asian Raw Materials and the Origins of the Pacific War--and it appears that your main claim is correct. As far as I can tell, the U.S. government did not coerce people in other countries to prevent them from selling oil to Japan. I think you would also be right if you had said that the main coercion was directed at Americans. However, it strikes me that if the U.S. government had caught Americans selling oil to Japanese people, it would have prevented the transaction forcibly, meaning that some of the coercion would have been directed against Japanese people.

Ken B writes:

@DRH: I'm not entirely convinced by your minor caveat, but yours is a reasonable reading, at least as far as deals-in-the-works.

A better example of coercion against Japan was the freezing of Japanese assets in the USA in the summer of 1941. I forget the details and I don't know how big it was or to what effect other than helping ensure the embrago, but it was a clear use of coercion against non-Americans. (It will not surprsie you that I approve of this action and the embargo.)

Ken B writes:
I don't like the standard flag-waving event that this day has become for many people.

That might be the Canuck showing through. As you know, but many readers might not, Remembrance Day (as we call it) is a very big thing in Canada, and it is a somber occassion. The climax of the ceremony is always a period of silence and the (rather formal) laying of wreaths.

Canada lost more men proportionally in both wars than did the USA, and this is especially true of the First World War (this is true of much of the Britisch Commonwealth). Looking at war memorials all over Ontario I almost always find more killed in the 14-18 war than in the 39-45 war, this despite a smaller population. Toronto is the only exception to this I can recall.

There is no doubt as to the actions of the USA against Japan in the summer of 1941. They were accompanied by an ultimatum to Japan to withdraw its troops from the mainland.

Which appears to have been the handiwork of Harry Dexter White. Soviet agent White, who, according to Breindel and Romerstein, was given the assignment of provoking the Japanese by a KGB agent after Hitler turned on Stalin in June 1941.

Btw, RJ Rummel has a website, but I didn't find any real information about how he compiled his numbers on Chiang there.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Thanks for reminding readers, largely American, of the sacrifices of Canadians in both wars. I still sometimes call it Remembrance Day. Here's what I wrote about that in 2003:
I still call it Remembrance Day, the term used in my native Canada. I like Canada's term better because it gets us to remember war and think about whether we want more or fewer of them. Fewer wars means fewer veterans.

Okay, now that I've had more time to browse Rummel's website, I see what he's doing. Pretty much pulling numbers out of thin air, and certainly mixing deaths that occurred as a by product of wars in with purges.

Almost all of the Kuomintang caused death is from war related events (including the Yellow River floods). And, how can things like this be taken seriously;

...the minimum democide, the absolutely lowest estimate that seems at all possible is 16,065,000 killed, itself more than the battle dead in World War II. The highest possible estimate is 140,741,000. This huge range of uncertainty about something so little documented, and so political, as democide, is what can be expected from a country for which even population estimates may vary by over 100,000,000. In any case, the mid, or most probable, estimate errs toward the low side....
Ken B writes:

My grandfather was a POW in WWI. He had a terrifying war I know, because he escaped and was recaptured several times. But I know few details apart from what's in letters he wrote home. I asked him once when I was a child and he answered me. But later my grandmother asked me to never ask again. 50 years later the memories still shook him so much he had had to lie down after our talk. So I never did ask him again. He did volunteer and serve as an army doctor in WWII but he hated being an officer, and ordering men to obey. WWI was a shattering experience for him.
This is the sort of thing that set the sombre tone for Remembrance Day in Canada. And why I always have a poppy for it, even when I lived in Georgia.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
A moving story. Thank you for sharing.
As you've probably figured out, I'm a curious person who loves asking people about their lives and I've always been that way. Even when I was in single digits, I loved talking to older people. But the one area in which I could not pull much out of people in my father's generation was WWII--not for the ones who had been "over there."

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