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The War Nerd November 18, 2005
 
Happy 100th to an Unloved War
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
 
 

I decided that this issue was a good time to pay my respects to the dead in a big, important but pretty much forgotten war that ended exactly a hundred years ago. Most of you can probably already Name That Tune: yup, I'm talking about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

For some reason, most war fans I talk to haven't studied this one much. Of course I'm talking about American war fans; you Japanese and Russians might study it all day. Do you? Most Russian war fans seem to stick to WW II, for good reason, and as for Japanese war buffs-are there any? As far as I can tell, "war" is a bad word in Japan, and only a few 90-year-old diehards even show up for their version of Memorial Day.

So this big, important conflict just sits there-let's give this poor neglected war some of the attention it deserves.

I'll start by introducing the two brawling nations. They're both interesting, slightly crazed countries coming out of long dormant periods.

Japan tried to ignore the rest of the world until Perry's cannon convinced it to open up to Western trade in 1853. The Japanese showed their impressive (and a leeetle bit scary) power to take their workrate into hyperdrive by managing to industrialize their country in a few decades. The military led the way, with polite Japanese attaches fanning out across the world to learn everything they could about Western military practice.

There's something almost funny-I can't help it, there is-about the way the Japanese did their job of acting like a Western power. It reminds me of the Coneheads being good American consumers, the way they went about it with this dead-serious determination. Since all the Western powers had colonies, even the pitiful Italians, the Japanese decided they needed colonies too.

Taking a look at their options, they decided to start grabbing chunks of Manchuria, using Korea (which was under Chinese rule) as a pretext. In 1894 Japan demanded that the Chinese start "reforms" in Korea; the Chinese told Japan to mind its own little raw-fish-eatin' business, and the war was on.

It ended in less than eight months with complete Japanese victory, on land and sea. Best of all, the Chinese agreed to pay big reparations, which meant a lot to Japan, which was strong but still very poor.

Japan, always thinking ahead, used that money to buy the best new British battleships. The Japanese Imperial Navy had big, big plans even back then.

China had managed to screw itself very badly the way it had been doing all through the 19th century by letting an aggressive power provoke it into a fight it couldn't win. My uncle used to say, "now don't let your mouth write a check your ass can't cash," and somebody should've been telling the Chinese to put that motto on their scrolls.

Japan knew now just how weak China was. The Japanese Imperial Staff drooled at the thought of putting troops in Manchuria. They wanted action, a battlefield with some strategic depth to it so they could show their stuff.

They started putting together contingency plans with lots of big Rising-Sun arrows zapping inland from the Manchurian coast.

The European powers weren't happy about this at all. If they'd been fair, they would've seen that Japan was just doing what Perry wanted, opening itself to Western ideas like landgrabs and colonies. But the Europeans weren't in a mood to be fair. They were pissed off, like the Mafia used to get when Asian gangs moved in on their drug trade. In fact, that's not just an analogy, because the British had actually fought two wars against China to guarantee their right to sell opium to Chinese addicts without interference from the Chinese authorities. Yup, these powers were the biggest drug gangs in history, and China was their big market.

So the French and Germans started getting Russia's idiot ruler, Tsar Nikolai II, all worked up: "You gonna let those Japs loud-talk you, Nick? Jeez, I thought you were tougher than that:" Classic let's-you-and-him-fight stuff.

And of course Nikolai, who might have been the stupidest man ever to rule a world power (present presidents excepted) naturally jumped at the chance to please his Western friends-just like he did ten years later, when he decided that honor demanded he attack the Germans just to please France.

So Nikolai sent Russian forces flooding into Manchuria, knowing the Japanese would be forced to react.

At this point, nobody even dreamed that the Japanese had a chance of beating Russia. For one thing, the Brits had been in the business of overrating the Russian military for decades. It was their version of that old Defense Department trick, exaggerating the threat to land bigger budgets. The British Navy told Parliament with a straight face that Russia's Baltic Fleet was a real threat to the British coast, and British colonies as far away as Australia actually fortified their harbors against a Russian landing. I'm telling you, they were worse than Bush'n'Blair peddling that joke story that Saddam could hit Manhattan in 30 minutes.

Besides, let's face it, they were total racists in those days-weren't even shy about it. White people ruled the world. In fact, white people WERE the world; whites made up 40% of the world population, believe it or not. We can't even imagine how cocksure white folks were back in 1904. As far as they were concerned, the Japanese were scrawny little comic relief.

You know, it's a funny thing how people still rate armies by the size and looks of their troops. We should know better, because with modern weapons, muscle means nothing. And if we didn't know it pre-Viet Nam, that war should've shown us. Our guys were a foot taller and 50 pounds bigger than the VC and NVA, but all that meant was that we made bigger targets. Muscle doesn't stop a bullet, or even slow it down. In fact, if you were going to design a soldier from scratch, you'd make him (or her, gotta be gender-conscious, I guess) as small as possible. It'd be better in every way: takes less space, weighs less when being transported, makes a smaller target, can hide more easily. Soldiers still do steroids and work out, but from a military standpoint, they're wasting their time. Stamina is still necessary for a soldier, but strength is just window dressing.

One of the myths about the war is that the Japanese attacked the same sneaky way they did at Pearl Harbor, without declaring war. Well, that's another quasi-myth. Everyone knew war was coming, and the Japanese had already given the Russians an ultimatum: get out of Manchuria or we attack. The Russians ignored it, and on Feb. 8, 1904, they started the war in style, with a torpedo attack on the Russian battleships at Port Arthur, crippling a couple of them.

One problem people have with this war is that you won't find "Port Arthur" on any maps of Manchuria, which means you'll have trouble seeing where the big battle was unless you know that it's called "Dalian" now, and you can find it on the Liaodong Peninsula, just west of Korea.

Got it? OK. Now, with the Japanese fleet keeping the Russian navy bottled up in Port Arthur, Japanese troops landed all along the Manchurian coast and Korea. You may recognize the place where the Japanese came ashore in Korea: a little coastal town called Inchon. Yup, that Inchon, the one MacArthur was going to make famous about a half-century later. And after hitting the beach at Inchon, the Japanese naturally head East to seize Seoul. They treated the Koreans pretty rough, and you can't do that to Koreans; they're not like Chinese, who try to go with the flow. Koreans are crazy, always ready to start bashing each other, always a grudge on the stove. For them, the arrogant Japanese soldiers were evil incarnate. They've never forgotten, and even now-when Korea's in fashion in Japan, and Japanese are trooping over to Seoul to learn Korean-you stand a good chance of getting bashed if you wander around Seoul with a Tokyo accent.

The Japanese kept doing what MacArthur did fifty years later: after taking Seoul, they headed north-fought a little battle at a town along the way with a name you might recognize: Pyongyang. It wasn't until they reached the Yalu River-which is still the Chinese-North Korean border-that the Russians were able to offer any serious resistance. The Japanese, moving fast, stormed across the river, smashing a Russian outpost in a big skirmish or small battle on May 1, 1904. (Stalin would've been unhappy that the Russians lost on May Day, the Workers' holiday, but he had other concerns at the time and was no doubt cheering for his country's defeat like a good Bolshevik).

In these first battles, the Japanese showed superior mobility and aggression, but lost huge numbers of men in attacks on Russian trenches. As usual, the Russian troops fought like wolverines but had no logistics, no decent officers, no strategic plan-no nuthin' but their guts, poor bastards. This war was just a small rehearsal for the nightmare Russian troops were heading for in 1914, when they marched to war without proper artillery, without enough ammo, sometimes without even rifles ("Take one from the man next to you when he dies," was the officers' helpful advice.) To show you how badly the Russian Army was officered, try this on: as bad as their supplies were in 1914, they were much better than they had been in 1904, because the disgrace of losing to lowly Asians finally provoked the slugs in Nikolai's War Department to clean up their act a little.

The Japanese were ready to besiege Port Arthur (Dalian), the huge Russian base. It was a long, bloody business, kind of like the last months of the faceoff between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.

The Japanese officer corps had that Banzai! spirit you get sometimes in armies fighting for national honor (the Turks at Gallipoli, for instance) and the "oh well!" attitude toward casualties that goes with it.

In fact, it always struck me that the Japanese Imperial forces in WW II had the same indifference to casualties almost to the point of craziness. They were better at dying than killing, if you see what I mean.

So all summer the Japanese ordered their men over the top in their wacky-looking white puttees. The Japanese troops never hesitated, and lots of times the charges ended with bayonet duels between tough Russian peasants and just-as-tough Japanese farmers-but the Russian lines held, for the moment.

Russia's Pacific Fleet was no use at all, bottled up in harbor. But the brass had ordered the Baltic Fleet to sail South from St. Petersburg, around Africa and up to Manchuria to help the Pacific fleet. They had an exciting trip, nearly starting a war with Britain when a nervous Russian spotter decided the fishing boats he saw as the fleet cruised past England were Japanese torpedo boats. The Russian Fleet fired on the fishermen, but luckily for them their aim was as bad as their silhouette recognition, so the Royal Navy didn't have to interrupt its afternoon tea to demolish the Russian Fleet (which it could've done with a tugboat-OK, two tugboats.) Long before they could get to the theater, Port Arthur fell (January 2, 1905). The Russian force retreated more or less intact-to another city which has gone and changed its name, just to be difficult, damn it: back then it was "Mukden" but now it's "Shenyang," a huge boom town.

The Japanese followed and started another encirclement. These guys meant business! The Japanese command was as coldblooded as U. S. Grant when spending its men's lives. All they cared about was keeping the pressure on the disorganized, tired Russian troops-I mean, you have to remember the Russians were fighting 5,000 miles from their homeland, counting on one railway line to supply their army. Even a decently-organized army would've had supply problems, and they weren't one.

For three months the Japanese swarmed toward the Russian lines and got slaughtered. Finally the Russian command decided to withdraw from Mukden / Shenyang, and the Japanese raised the Rising Sun there on March 10, 1905. They were too weary to follow-and they'd been literally decimated (10% casualties) in the two identical campaigns against Port Arthur and Mukden.

They basically camped there, waiting for the showdown between the Russian and Japanese fleets that was going to decide who won the war. And lord, they had plenty of time for R & R because the Russian Baltic Fleet didn't arrive until October.

The Japanese had been tracking the Baltic Fleet's ridiculous end run very carefully, and they jumped into its way at the perfect moment, as the Russians sailed through unfamiliar waters in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea. The Russians had more tonnage in the water, but the Japanese had better guns, with longer range and better propulsion. They steamed rings around the slow Russian battleships, bombarded them at long range, and sank an incredible eight battleships. It wasn't until we sank four carriers at Midway that anyone could top that score.

Russia hardly even had time to be shocked, because the home front was in full-scale chaos. Russia barely functioned at the best of times, I guess, but the stress of this war, the humiliating defeat, and just general impatience at being ruled by a stubborn, ignorant guy like Nikolai-a jerk who should've been assistant manager in a men's store, where he could comb his stupid beard and pose all day-boiled over. The Bolsheviks piled on and for a while it looked like Russia would overthrow Nikolai and Alexandra, the pinhead twins. Unfortunately for everybody, they hung on, compromised with the moderate democratic politicians, and survived to lead Russia into one of the greatest catastrophes in History. People whine about the hard deaths those two had, but I don't feel any pity for them. I'm glad they got a taste of what they'd thrown at everybody else.

Of course those incredibly cute daughters of theirs:that's another story. Damn shame to stand girls like that up against a wall when they're in their prime.

The Japanese were overjoyed for a while, but then Teddy Roosevelt volunteered to handle the peace talks, and ran them so well that the Japanese didn't get the huge cash payoff they'd expected from Russia. They had a mass bummed high so intense it led to big riots, an uncommon thing in a country as disciplined as Japan. It was like, "My Armed Forces kicked the Russians all over Manchuria and all I got was this lousy T-shirt"-only without the T-shirt.

And that was the birth of another Asian grudge. The Japanese had trusted America till Teddy stuck his nose in. Now they decided America was a two-faced whitey who always gave his fellow roundeyes a break. Japan ended the war with a real dangerous combination of cockiness and resentment, most of it focused on the U.S. You can kind of see where the next episode was headed, can't you?

The only really happy customers were the brown people who hadn't done a thing. Even though most of them had nothing in common with Japan, the Japanese were their team in the war, and the way the Asian army stomped the Europeans put all kinds of uppity, dangerous ideas in their heads. Which annoyed the Europeans even more-that damned Russia, always letting the side down.

And now it's all forgotten. The landscape has been through a lot more than name changes since then. Manchuria was at war for most of the 20th century, and then had to deal with Mao, who wasn't exactly a rest cure. Now I hear it's having a real boom, and the ex-battlefields of this war nobody loved are going to vanish in high-rise apartment blocks. That's Asia: they believe in moving the goods. Volume. They're like Americans that way: history is bunk; it's real estate that counts. Fresno people believe that too; I guess it's like some kind of fundamental Pacific Rim value-they can put it in the new cool Constitution, along with the right to eat sushi four times a week.

And the national motto-In Toyota We Trust.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at war_nerd@exile.ru, but, more importantly, buy his book.
 
 
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