Notes from “The Guns of August”


Here’s my first book for this year’s Read Harder Challenge!

I first started reading The Guns of August two years ago. “Started,” because work quickly caught up with me, leading to a slow abandonment of the book around the halfway point.

That was a shame, since this is–despite the heft and subject matter–an eminently readable book. Barbara Tuchman retells the ominous mix of personalities, beliefs, and events that led to World War I with clear and graceful prose. Really, it feels like getting a bedtime story from your grandmother with the twinkle in her eye.

I’ve been reading slowly to digest all the brewing chaos properly, so I’ve just passed the third chapter. Still, there have already been some lines that bear saving. Here are a couple that I feel should be read together, considering events in many parts of the world right now.

On Clausewitz’s third object of war, the winning of popular support through crushing victory:

He knew how material success could gain public opinion; he forgot how moral failure could lose it, which too can be a hazard of war.

As much preference as many electorates last year showed for quick, concrete “wins” and supposedly quantifiable results at the expense of many vulnerable sectors of society, I’d like to think that the public won’t permit the total erosion of moral and ethical principles.

Although Tuchman also has this to say:

One constant among the elements of 1914–of any era–was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

Does this “constant” persist more than 102 years later, and all over the world at that? Stay tuned.


Defining Dictatorship

Last Friday, November 18, the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos secreted his body into the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) for a long-contested burial. The Philippine National Police and the country’s armed forces secured the area, and a chopper from the national air force flew the strongman’s body down from Ilocos to be interred among the nation’s most revered citizens.

Look, I’m not highlighting the government’s role in this to be petty.

No, I’m pointing it out to underscore how the converse can also be true: just as the participation of government assets helped the event take place, a hero’s burial for Marcos enables certain possibilities for the government, too.

Martial Law is the picture of authoritarianism for the Philippines, and certainly the country’s most recent and most visceral experience of authoritarian rule. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board, created specifically to address the abuses wrought during that era, will be processing over 75,000 cases well into 2017. The country itself has been paying off Marcos-incurred foreign debt since the dictator’s ousting, and will continue to do so until 2025. The Martial Law period is a weight we struggle under to this day, and its memory is the strongest cornerstone in any conceptual defenses the country has against the idea – and appeal – of dictatorship.

In that sense, enshrining Martial Law’s chief architect in our Heroes’ Cemetery is exactly the kind of blow that accelerates what seems to be the steady rhetorical erosion of those defenses. For a long while now, various members of the current administration have, in one way or another, presented an increasingly chilling picture of the kind of leadership that they deem necessary to, as they say, “save the country”: disregard for due process and basic rights, especially if “required” to secure the “greater good” (i.e., national stability and progress); awesome executive powers concentrated in one office; ruthless policies, often carried out by emboldened law enforcement and armed forces; unquestioned and unaccountable authority. In that light, the rehabilitation of Marcos’ legacy seems not only understandable but essential.

This sudden hero’s burial is the gravest instance thus far, but this is not the first time that President Duterte and his surrogates have attempted to reframe our understanding of leadership.

And so we arrive, again, at the Marcos burial. Intended or not, it can – perhaps it already does; who knows? – serve dual purposes: erase one of our key reasons for resisting authoritarian rule, yes, but retroactively create a precedent that affirms our current administration’s predilection for strongman rule, too.

Many of the President’s supporters spin the above statements as misquoted or misunderstood; as off-the-cuff pronouncements that shouldn’t be seen as indicators of policy or intent; or perhaps worst, as jokes. But the President himself hasn’t made a secret of his beliefs and methods, and he has a long and public record to belie the assertion that his recent pronouncements don’t hold any kernel of sincerity or truth.

As the Communications Secretary has said: “He already warned the electorate that if you vote for me, there will be bloodshed. …[He] was voted.” In other words, we knew what we were in for.

Besides, campaign promises aside, we have had enough time to see for ourselves. Even prior to assuming the presidency, before he had any 2016 election voters to supposedly woo with promises of swift and total “justice,” Mr. Duterte already defended the kind of governance that deemed shoot-to-kill orders as legal, proper, and moral. As far back as 2001, assassination and targeted killings have been Mr. Duterte’s answer to crime, an approach driven by the idea of “[serving] the greater good no matter what it takes”; unsurprisingly, the Human Rights Watch notes that his political rise “coincided…[with] city mayors [gaining]…greater operational control over their police forces.”

And so on, and so on.

So, pause. Go back. Take a look at those dates. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a far-ranging one. The fact is, for all of his apparent inconsistencies, his volatility and his habit of veering off-script, certain key aspects of the President’s statements and behavior have remained unchanged. Indeed, they have been taken up and amplified by many members of his administration, from Cabinet members like Andanar and Aguirre to his many allies in the Congressional supermajority. If these statements are all jokes, un-meant, of no consequence, then we should worry about how much time and vehemence our government has poured into repeating them. And if these aren’t jokes, then we should worry even more.

Either way, intended or not, all of these instances add up. Taken together, these pronouncements can redraw – have perhaps already started redrawing – the lines that delineate what actions and decisions we deem acceptable, even necessary, for the good of the country.

We can quibble about questions of intent and interpretation; it’s tempting to refrain from even mentioning any of these instances in the same sentence as “dictatorship.” Sure. Okay. Nobody wants to be the hysteric. But refusing to even consider these instances in aggregate and to think about what they might mean for the future of our country contributes, in its own way, to the same erosions of memory and resistance that these events are helping along.

By opting for the supposed objectivity of “wait and see,” or by dismissing these statements as jokes or hyperbole, we are not being charitable. Instead, we’re giving a pass to these words and actions – as well as to the particular brands of history, values, and outlook that come with them. Too “trivial” to be engaged with, too frivolous (or alternatively, too important to national welfare) for critique, let alone alarm. In short, we’re letting potential seeds of dictatorship live.

The motto of dictatorship, as authoritarianism scholar Sarah Kendzior notes, is: “It can’t happen here.” But it has happened. Dismissing the possibility of it happening again only makes us blind to recent rhetorical trends that could easily be transformed into the conceptual foundations of a new regime. When we file our own dark history as unthinkable – or worse yet, as desirable – then we unmoor our present from the hard-won anchors that can keep us from being swept away. By forgetting, by agreeing again and again to let things go, we diminish our capacity and willingness to resist.

Cross-posted from Tumblr: Unit 731

(In response to this post.)

Unit 731 has been a point of interest for me since it came up in a bioethics class back in college. Recently, I was reading a journal article on the subject written by Tsuneishi Keiichi, one of Japan’s top biowarfare specialists, and several details stood out:

  • “It is said that Ishii [Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, the head of Unit 731 and Japan’s wartime biochemical weapons research network] first became convinced of the need to develop biological weapons with the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925.”

For context: the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawed use of biological and chemical weapons in war. Which means Ishii decided to embark on his research precisely because a good number of nations (38 original signatories), including many then-formidable powers – France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US* – had agreed not to use biological and chemical weapons.

* Though lobbies in Congress blocked US ratification of the 1925 Geneva Protocol until the 70s

(My first reaction: What an asshole. This impression remains unchanged, and is much more vehement than that pithy statement implies.) Taking off from this point, it seems reasonable to imagine that Ishii Shiro plunged into Japanese biological and chemical weapon development with the intent of taking advantage of the prohibitions placed on protocol signatories. But did Japan – or at least Ishii and his research network – really intend, or at least expect, conflict with these powers?