THE POLITICS OF WAR: Absurdity and Economy

THE POLITICS OF WAR: Absurdity and Economy

       Two novels about the displacement of war with political or economic motivation are THE SAND PEBBLES by Richard McKenna and CATCH 22, by Joseph Heller. One is a political portrait of early 20th Century gunship diplomacy in Indo China. The other is a farce about the absurdity of the Military Industrial Complex. Both are negative political commentaries about US interests abroad.

   Each of these novels was made into equally fine movies that were well received. But apart from their entertainment value, there are some interesting and serious points made about the socio-economic situation of the early and middle 20th Century. I will review The Sand Pebbles first and later in the month return to review Catch 22.

THE SAND PEBBLES by Richard McKenna

       Set in China on the eve of revolution in the 1920s, this novel tells the story of a U.S. Navy gunboat and her dedicated crew of the "Sand Pebbles." “ The San Pablo” is the actual name of the vessel, which was given over to the nickname “Sand Pebbles” by the crew. There are two interesting metaphors to be derived from these two names. The first is the idea of a boat with a Spanish name cruising the waters of the Yanktze River in China under the US flag. This symbolizes both a sense of world wide diplomacy as well as Nation Building . The nickname reflects an attitude of insignificance on the part of the Captain, who is brooding for naval action with a left over Spanish American War vessel.

    There is civil unrest in China, a result of several dominant foreign countries trying to bully the fragile nation into an alliance. War Lords are fighting each other, while a Nationalist Army has been created to stave off foreign interests and designs on China. This has the American Captain on edge and ready for a fight.

     The novel describes a life of boredom and then sudden battle action based on a desire to engage an inocuous threat, but the chief conflict is between the traditional western ideas which saw China in racist and imperialist terms and emerging nationalism.

    The protagonist, engine mechanic Jake Holman, is new to the boat and begins to teach his Chinese workers – he refuses to call them “coolies”– to master the ship’s machinery by understanding it, not just “monkey see, monkey do.” But this infuriates the Chief Cooley who feels his honor has been exsponged by the attitude of the Machinist Mate taking over.

     Holman is not well received by most of the crew as well, because of his compassion for the coolies who are treated like slaves by the rest. But they serve the ship well, being allowed to sleep aboard the vessel and given left over food scraps.

       An incident involving British gunboats leads to the Captain ordering the crew not to fire on, or return fire from the Chinese, to avoid diplomatic incidents. He is not happy with those orders and wants to engage the Chinese. But, The San Pablo is stuck in port at Changsha for the winter due to low water levels. It must deal with increasingly hostile crowds surrounding it in numerous smaller boats. The Captain fears a possible mutiny. Frenchy (the only friend of Holman) has saved a Chinese woman, Maily from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and sneaks off the ship regularly, after shore leave has been revoked.But he dies of  hypothermia one night. Holman searches for him and finds Maily sitting stunned by Frenchy's corpse.  The Chinese nationalists burst in, beat up Holman, and drag Maily away.

      Holman returns to the ship. The next day, several Chinese float out to the San Pablo in small boats and demand the "murderer" Holman be turned over to them. Apparently, the nationalists killed Maily and blamed Holman, trying to provoke an incident. Holman informs the Captain what really happened. When the Chinese demand for Holman is refused, they blockade the San Pablo. The American crew fears for their safety and demand that Holman surrender to the Chinese against the Captain's orders. Order is not restored until the Captain fires across the bow of one of the Chinese junks.

       When spring arrives, the ship is ordered back to the coast but the captain defies those orders and steams up the Yanktze to rescue a Christian Mission which has been blockaded by the Nationalists. It is directed under false pretense by the ambitious captain. A boom of junks tied together with heavy rope await the vessel .On board are several Nationalist soldiers. A fire fight breaks out and a battle ensues. The blockade is broken and the ship steams on toward the mission at China Light. The captain knows that the missionary will refuse his help but he insists.

       The climax is a depiction of false pride in a captain who is single minded in his quest for glory and patriotic inertia. The crew pays for it with the loss of several soldiers and the missionary, himself, who is fired upon by the Nationalists, even though he waves a document renouncing his British Citizenship and all citizenships. Even Holman is killed not understanding the deeper ramifications of the action at China Light.

   “What happened?” he asks plaintively, nursing his fatal wound.”What the hell happened?” he states again as he lays next to his mortally wounded captain. The collateral damage in this final metaphorical scene is a toll taken out of unneccessary political pride. It depicts the wrecklessness of Imperial Nations over others.

Resident Philosopher Doug Taylor