Friday, September 30, 2011

Lost Daze

It was somewhere around this time in September four years ago that we were lost in Guangzhou in a muggy haze of exhaustion, confusion and grief.We had just lost the first little girl we had hoped to adopt. No, not lost. Abandoned.

Little Yun-yun had been afflicted with some sort of brain damage, and, already shell-shocked by the stillbirth of our daughter five years before we broke off the adoption rather than go forward into an uncertain future with a child whose ability to grow might have been unimpaired...or might just stop completely at five, or nine, or fourteen, to be with us as a toddler or an adolescent for the rest of our lives.So we were in pretty bad shape when the neatly dressed director of the Social Welfare Institute in Dongguan (东莞) showed up at our room at the White Swan Hotel with a tiny crewcut little girl in a white jersey and teeny plastic sandals.And that's how it went for the next week or so; she silent and distressed, we harassed and barely functional as we replayed all the miserable routines we had already gone through the first week of the journey with a different child.It is difficult now to look at the rude, chatty pixie who loves Beefaroni and "My Little Pony" and remember that silent misery.But she is still there, that sad little girl, locked four years in the past, and so are the we of then.We've come far since that day, though, Little Miss, you and I and your mother, and now I can't imagine being without you, or your artless chatter, or your wriggly back-scratching confidence. Or, as tonight, when you fuss and fret and cry yourself to sleep over a foolish lost trinket. In content and in contention you are ours and we are yours, now, until we go on before you to our long sleep.From a stony beginning we have begun to create a soil of love, and from there I hope you will grow straight and bloom brightly. For the road ahead is long and for all that there will be stony places again, and storms, and darkness I believe that we will have times to walk together in the light of love and the sun of happiness.Happy Family Day, daughter.

We love you very much, indeed.

Into the Fall

I am feeling tremendously pessimistic and depressed about my nation today.And it's not because of any particular, or recent, event.

Although the generalized lack of public unease regarding the extralegal assassination of a U.S. citizen seems to point up the combination of overall indifference and governmental chicanery that has characterized our decade-long movement - I can't figure out whether to characterize it as a "march" (with the military associations of the term appropriate to the "War on Terror" that is used to justify it) or a "creep" (given the underhanded and duplicitous way it has been managed, for the most part) - towards a nation set about with the machinery of surveillance, secrecy, and "Nacht und Nebel"-variety legalisms.

No one has explained to my satisfaction why what happened to al-Awaki could not happen to anyone, anywhere, who is accused of "...inspiring attacks against the U.S." The guy was an anti-American SOB and an enemy of my nation. But not an "enemy" in the sense of a soldier, not even an "enemy" in the sense of an intelligence officer. He was a propagandist, a talker, the Tom Paine of Islamism. If talking shit about this country is a capital crime, if promoting violence against our "leaders" is punishable by death by missile without the bother of trial or conviction, I'd better be damn careful about driving around outside of busy public streets.But that's not it, really.

Here we are, in Year Three of the Lesser Depression.

Millions of Americans are jobless. Millions more are clinging desperately to poor or part-time work. Corporations are sitting on fat piles of jack but neither hiring nor expanding capacity because - surprise - all those un- and under-employed Americans are purchasing two things; jack and shit.

They're mostly using this lucre to buy up OTHER outfits...which are then "streamlined" and "outsourced"...putting more poor dumb bastards out of work.

The wealthy, who have hoovered up the spare cash showered on them by tax breaks and Republican largesse like a commodities trader in Vegas going through blow and hookers, are wailing about "class warfare" (quite effectively!) while raining economic death on the lower 80% like Flying Pencils over Rotterdam. And at least half the public - those same poor dumb schmucks getting carpet-bombed with cramdowns, foreclosures, downsizing, and layoffs - seems anywhere from unconcerned to actually excited about this.

In fact, the only real opposition to this massive comforting-of-the-comfortable and affliction-of-the-afflicted seems to be coming in the form of a bunch of juggalos and slackers sitting down on Wall Street; maced by the coppers, mocked by the banksters, ignored by the press...a carnival of fools on a fool's errand.

How will this change anything?Here we are in Year Nine of the "War on Terror".

The seemingly limitless capacity of my nation for pointless diddling in ungovernable foreign nations (or should I parenthesize that - "nations", since it's hard to characterize Afghanistan with the same term I'd use for Switzerland or Belgium. Or perhaps not...) remains without a foreseeable end in sight. Perhaps the most ridiculous - the eight-year tenure of Six Flags Over Nothing, a.k.a. the Third Gulf War, a.k.a "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - is heading for the ash bin but the Afghan farrago looks set to run longer than "Cats" and given the lack of either interest in or condemnation of the Libyan capriole by press and public there seems to be no reason why this Adminstration or any other shouldn't repeat the same business in some OTHER Third World shithole tomorrow or next week.

And here we are.

We've got people running for office who spout patently comical nonsense and are taken as serious in the national press. We have a national identity that seems more than ever to be composed of trashy reality television, muscular acephalic "patriotism", fiscal and financial rapacity, and public indolence.

And the REALLY depressing part is that I have no idea what I, or "we" - those like me who dislike the idea of Back to the Gilded Age as the next three decades - can do about that.

The degree to which partisan politics has bent to wealth has made me feel like my widow's mite is less mighty than ever. Which forces me into either trying to bend one party or the other to my pitiful will or contemplating a Third Party, the iocaine powder of U.S. politics.

My hope for some sort of political backlash of the sort that blew in the New Deal after the LAST time the plutocracy shat the bed is all but gone. We had the opportunity for that in 2008 which only proved the degree to which our Galtian overlords had learned the lessons of 1932; choke the populists with cash, flood the public forum with bought stooges, and deflect the moron mob with trivialities and manufactured fears.

And - as delightful and cathartic as the notion of taking Wall Street and Capitol Hill by storm and decorating the Tree of Liberty with the plutocrats and their purchased legislators is - the idea of violent revolution isn't really acceptable. The historical examples are dire; always followed by either anarchy and counterrevolution, or tyranny.So I enter this autumn as morose about the next decade as I've been in a long, long time. I cannot see a way forward, and there is no way back.

What will come, I cannot guess.

But looking around me I feel very...fragile. A glass vessel in a wilderness of hammers.

I like to think that I can "control" my life, and have a strong effect on the lives of my family.

But it's when I look at the world and my country that I realize I'm deluding myself. We're are ALL riding the whirlwind. It's the times we think we have everything under control that are the illusion. The corrupt politician, the remorseless corporation, the random inattentive driver, the casual virus, the slippery stair...all of these are out there, waiting to change our lives in a moment.

And those of us without the wealth and power to hold back those changes...all we can do is live every day to the fullest, love our children recklessly, caress our lovers without thought of tomorrow.

Because tomorrow may bring horrors.

Or may never be.All we can have is each other, and today, and hope. And just for today, for me, hope is a guttering candle, flickering in the hard winds of a trouble world, looking despairingly close to snuffing out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm sitting in the cab of the truck getting paid for sitting in the cab of the truck.

Not precisely. The part I get paid for happens every ten minutes for three hours, when I get out and read the water level in the plastic pipe stuck into the hole my drillers ground into the cobbly soil of Southeast Portland last night. The water is leaking sullenly into the ground, apparently no happier than anyone else in the neighborhood that it is slowly sinking into the outer southeast.

So I have a lot of time to get paid for sitting, or reading, or just watching the passing show as the warm late September afternoon fades into a chill early autumn night.

Southeast 122nd Avenue east of the Interstate is a glum assortment of run-down houses, shabby apartments, sagging shops and, increasingly the past several years, vacant storefronts. Many of the signs - almost all of the newer signs - are in a Babel of non-English languages; Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish. None of them look very excited about being here.

This is no boulevard of broken dreams. This is where you live if your dream never was, or will never be.

The lot I'm parked in was a filling station once upon a time. The pumps are long gone, the tanks yanked, only the old service island canopy remains a tattered and peeling reminder of the time when the southeast was the newest part of Portland, our eastern frontier, creeping out into the woodlots and farm fields of eastern Multnomah County.

But it's also a reminder that Portland has always shoved its unloved and unwanted out east in front of it, the dirty foam edge of a slow-moving wave. The Russian kids working the tire store that occupies the old filling station are just the latest detritus. I saw them in the classroom at the community college where I taught bewildered by their incomprehension and sinking in debt, in the down-at-the-heels East Portland parks playing soccer in their tight shirts and leather, smoking in the drizzling rain.

I wonder if they think they're in the Land of Opportunity?

I wonder if they care?

A highballing Portland police car speeds down 122nd to the bar on the second corner down with a fire truck close behind. The casual anger in the cop's body as he goes inside says a lot about what he expects to meet down here, as do the bored looks on the fire crew as they follow him; another barstool crash down at the Peanut Farm.

Another night of hard drinking amid hard lives.

They barely give the pregnant girl in the parka jacket and miniskirt a look, even though the wheeled suitcase she's tugging along, the tiny dolly wheels skittering and hopping over the rough pavement, is almost as heavy as she is.

Three kids, out way too late on a Thursday night, dodge past all of them in a little flock as noisy and heedless as starlings.

I sit in the truck cab with my reading glasses perched idly on my nose and look out on this part of my country, my home city, like a lost tourist in a land as alien as an Asian desert and as bleak.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sex as Entomology

I have written a fair bit about men, women, and sex, but nothing quite like this:

"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."From this year's "Bad Sex Award" winner.

There's more, too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Central Asian Rocket Science

Of all the things that frustrate me about our current adventure in Afghanistan, perhaps the most frustrating is listening to the various D.C. talking heads bloviate about Pakistan.The latest was ADM Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who laid stick on the Pakistani ISI for supposedly assisting in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. But this has been a constant theme for years. Chris Hitchens gives us a taste of the 180-proof version of this rhetoric, the pure, undiluted, GOP-stillhuse hootch in his latest Slate column, and, yes, I know it's fucking Slate.


Why does this bug me?

Because I'm a relatively unlettered hairy-knuckled sergeant, a spearcarrying nobody from the Northwest. My entire first-hand geopolitical and global political experience consists of having watched Egyptian border cops and Israeli reservists make fist-pumping gestures at each other across the wire at Taba.

And I fucking know that the Pakistanis care more about their military position with India than any-fucking-thing else in Southwest Asia.Including "terrorism" and the damn Taliban.

The whole POINT behind their coziness with many of the people we're shooting in the hustings of central Asia is that the Taliban regime was anti-Indian, and their remnants are, too. The Karzaites we've installed in Kabul are not, and so the Pakis REAL problem, their single most crucial concern is ensuring that they have a lever to pressure Kabul into having their back if they get into another scrap with India.

So the rule of thumb is; don't bet on Pakistan Facebook-friending your Afghan proxy if that proxy shows signs of "friending" India.

For conventional wisdom that one ranks right up there with "never get involved in a land war in Asia."


Anyway, the frustrating thing is that the rhetoric coming out of D.C. hits the same note; why, why, WHY are you so naughty, Pakistan? What can we do/what must we do to make you stop hugging these nasty terrorists? Why don't you give us more geopolitical love?

Well, duh.The Durand Rule is If You Let Your Afghan Proxy Get Close To India Don't Expect Much Cooperation From Pakistan.

I can figure this out.

Why can't all these highly paid people in D.C.?

I don't know, but every time I run across it it's really frustrating.

Everything Old Is New Again

"As for the Republicans -- how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical 'American heritage'...) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience?

Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead."

-- H.P. Lovecraft to C.L. Moore, August 1936

(h/t to driftglass, as always)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Decisive Battles: Shiroyama (城山の戦, Shiroyama no tatakai) 1877

Shiroyama (城山の戦い "Shiroyama no tatakai" Date: 24 SEP 1877Forces engaged: Imperial Government: The actual assault force that went up the hill (the "yama" in "Shiroyama" is Japanese for a prominence, hill, or mountain) outside Kagoshima was composed of infantry with artillery support. While the Imperial Army of 1877 had two "regiments" (meaning anywhere from battalion- to brigade-sized units) of cavalry the terrain was completely unsuitable for mounted troops.

And the sources I was able to access generally state that the Imperial force confronting the remaining Satsuma rebels was approximately 30,000 all arms.This is an interesting number, since the official records state that at the outbreak of the war (in Japan the conflict is called the "Southwestern War" (西南戦争, Seinan Sensō) rather than the "Satsuma Rebellion" as it is better known to the West) states that the entire Imperial Army consisted of roughly 34,000 troops;
The Line:
- 14 infantry regiments in 3 battalions of between 600 and 950 troops,
- 2 regiments of cavalry, probably also three battalions of about 400-500, and
- 8 artillery battalions of 3 batteries each with a nominal strength of 150 gunners.
The Imperial Guard:
- 2 regiments of 2 battalions each,
- 1 cavalry troop (called a "regiment" but only 150 strong) and,
- 1 artillery battalion of 2 batteries.

If 30,000 troops were present at the engagement it suggests that the bulk of the entire original Imperial Army was present around the hill in Kagoshima.

But...the government had just spent the better part of a year suppressing a violent rebellion centered in the so-called "Satsuma Domain"(薩摩藩, Satsuma Han), roughly equivalent to the modern Kagoshima prefecture, located on the southern end of the southernmost island in the Japan chain, Kyushu (九州).

While the government army was significantly enlarged during the war (employing everything from conscript peasants to the Imperial Naval Landing Forces as well as civilian coppers; needs must when the rebellious samurai drive...) I find it hard to believe that the army actively deployed around Shiroyama itself would have needed, or could have used, anything like that many troops.First, the hill just isn't that big. You couldn't put 30,000 troops on it without them tripping over each other; it would have been one of those movies where everyone puts Wesson Oil on themselves and jumps in a big pile. That's a ridiculously huge number for such a small objective.

And second, the rest of the Domain had to be pacified, and garrisoned. The little force on Shiroyama was just the last of the rebel field army; there was an entire prefecture newly crushed that couldn't have been docile. Much of the Imperial force must have been doing occupation duty; perhaps nearby, but not actively employed in the assault. Mounsey (1879) reports that about 15,000 troops were used in the overall plan to invest the hill, which included both the assault force as well as the troops used to set up what in classic siege terms are termed the "lines of circumvallation" (the inward-facing siege lines) and the "lines of contravallation" (the outward-facing emplacements designed to keep a relief force out).Given that the defenders managed to hold a perimeter on the hill with about a battalion - 500 men - I would put the probable realistic number for the assault force on the morning of 24 SEP at no more than 4 infantry regiments; about 4,000 troopers. An 8-to-1 superiority would have been more than sufficient to overwhelm the defenders while preventing the sort of messy crowd that results from trying to force too many attackers into difficult terrain and a small objective.

Of the remaining 26,000 certainly several hundred gunners would have been involved in the artillery preparation (including naval gunfire from Imperial ships in Kagoshima harbor), as well as more infantrymen to provide rear and flank security for the assault force.

So probably about 5,000 to 7,000 infantrymen and artillerymen supported by 20,000 to 24,000 all arms under the overall command of under GEN Yamagata Aritomo(山縣 有朋)

Rebel Forces: The men entrenched on top of Shiro Hill were the last hard guys left of the rebellious samurai of the Satsuma Domain.We'll talk about who they were and why they were there in a bit. But the military reality is that the defenders of Shiroyama were the broken remnants of a failed rebellion. We think there were about 500 of them, although since the rebels probably kept no records, the engagement was a messy slaughter, and the Imperial government had good reasons to keep the military details under wraps the precise number of the Satsuma men who died that morning is likely to have a rounding error or three.

No artillery or cavalry.

So let's guess somewhere around 500; 400, 610...something like that, all light infantry in a loose, feudal-style clan-regiment organization under the overall leadership of Saigō Takamori (西郷 隆盛(隆永)

Note: in case you haven't figured this out, this is the battle that was used as the model for the big paint-the-screen-red battle scene at the end of "The Last Samurai". And that film is just a part of the common misperception of this war as the 15th Century fighting the 19th.)

The Imperial Army had been organized and trained on Western lines. The infantry troops were armed with British breech-loading Snider rifles and the field artillery included British 5-pound mountain guns, Krupp medium and heavy cannon, and mortars from Britain, France and Germany.

But the Satsuma Army, at least initially, was NOT the Sekigahara-style feudal samurai force that the Tom Cruise movie shows. Takamori had studied the Western technology as well, and had used it in the earlier "Boshin War", an intra-samurai spat that took place in the late 1860's.

The rebel army was often uniformed in European style (note the small white cloth patch on the left sleeve of the model figure; rebel troops in imperial uniform wore this 1877 blood-chit to distinguish themselves from genuine imperials) as well as sword-swingers in traditional dress, had a company-battalion-brigade/divisional organization, including service troops and artillery.

The bulk of the Satsuma fighters were armed with British Enfield and Russian Model 1857 Six Line muzzle loading rifles. When they still had it they DID have Western artillery, although undergunned and understrength; the Wiki entry for the Satsuma Rebellion says that the artillery that accompanied the force that moved out of Kagoshima in February 1877 "consisted of 28 mountain guns, two field guns, and 30 assorted mortars."So we really need to get over this noble-antique-defenders-of-the-heroic-samurai-tradition meme.

The Satsuma Rebels were in it to win it. If that meant using the technology of the Westerners they loathed, well, old Tokugawa Ieyesu, the first Tokugawa shogun, had said it best; the only justification for rebellion against one's lawful overlord was victory.

The Campaign: The real story of the Seinan Sensō, the Southwestern War, is not so much in the fighting but in the reasons. So let's look at the why - which is complex and interesting - rather than spend a lot of time on the how, which is just ugly and brief.

To get to the top of the hill at Shiroyama you have to start back in the Western year of 1868, the year of what we now call the Meiji Restoration.Let's just sum this up, shall we?

Bottom line; Japan had been a 99.9% closed society since the end of the civil wars and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate - the military governor - in 1603. While the contending forces of the 戦国時代 (Sengoku jidai, "Warring States") period that had gone on for 200 years had been perfectly willing to use the Western interlopers (largely Spanish and Portuguese) and their gunpowder, Tokugawa took the guns away and set the clock back to 1500AD.So the arrival of the American Perry and his "black ships" was a complete and utter misery for the Japanese. From a right, tight little island they were shown to be incapable of defending themselves from these porky-smelling, hairy barbarians whose idea of culture was Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sweet fucking souls of the kami!

The Eighteen Sixties were a tough period for the shogunate. The Perry thing looked bad; stinky white people swaggering around the Land of the Gods. And then there were the 志士; the "shishi", or "men of high purpose". Mostly young samurai, some of these characters were all wound up about an idea that was summed up as "sonnō jōi" (尊王攘夷) - "Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian[s]"

In 1863 they got the then-shogun to do just that - he issued a decree kicking out the gaijin. But the bakufu (幕府, the shogunate) had nothing like the military muscle capable of actually doing that. So instead individuals - often shishi samurai - attacked foreigner individuals and ships. The white-eyes hit back, harder, as of course they could, and the shogun's men responded by whipping up on them some shishi.

Things were still pretty turbulent in 1866 when Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川 慶喜) became the 15th and last shogun. He was a busy boy; calling in military advisor's from Napoleon III's France to modernize the bakufu forcesbuilding or buying Western weapons...his efforts made some of the shishi in Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa domains uncomfortable.

These bigwigs began to think that the dead hand of tradition weighed too heavily on the shogunate (not to mention the possibility that with the new Western military skills the shogunate might weigh a little to heavily in Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa). They decided that someone needed to cut this would-be Napoleon before he got the first licks in.And they decided that the best way to break out of the old ways was to start with the oldest institution in Japan; the imperial court.

The emperor had been a cipher since the 1600s. In the 1860's the head shishi in the three domains, the so-called "domain clique" (藩閥, hambatsu) decided to change that.

The Meiji "Restoration" and the ultimate destruction of the bakufu, the shogunate, is an interesting but long and twisted tale - too long to recount here. Suffice to say that at the end of the day the Emperor was revered but that the foreigner, far from being expelled, was invited to turn Japan into a modern industrial power.The samurai - the traditional warrior class of Japan - were not feudal lords or heraldic "knights" in the European sense. For all that we in the West have the image, largely culled from postwar movies, of the samurai as sort of ginsu-knife-wielding tough guys, by the 1860's most were some sort of bureaucrat, ranging from what were in effect the "mayor" or the "sheriff" of small villages up to fairly high-ranking civil servants in the shogun's government. At the top of the samurai food chain sat the daimyo(大名). These guys WERE feudal lords, hereditary rulers of domains like Satsuma.

While the daimyo got their income in the time-honored feudal way - by taxing the hell out of the poor schlubs they ruled (or not; some domains were better run than others) the samurai in the 19th Century largely lived off the dole.Seriously.

Samurai families were paid a stipend by the shogunate in relation to their social and political position. It's interesting to note that by 1860 many of these stipends - which had been established in the 1600s - had lost considerable value relative to the cost of living, especially in the larger cities like Edo, the new capital. So for a lot of samurai the Meiji reforms weren't a big deal. They went from being paid for being the samurai clerk of the court in Kyoto to being paid for being the clerk of the court. The loss of status was more emotional than real.

But the loss was still there, and it rankled some of the samurai class.Changes came fast in the 1870's. In 1871 the feudal system was simply abolished; the domains became prefectures run by an imperial bureaucrat and the daimyo were pensioned off. Carrying swords was outlawed - no Second Amendment there. The samurai were officially kicked off the dole, and were now paid only for their actual service to the state.

For those samurai who didn't or wouldn't get a government job, these changes hit hard.

And in one case in particular, they hit hard on a man who did.

If there was a single individual behind - or at least symbolic of - the entire Seinan Sensō it would be this man: Saigō Takamori.In his late forties by 1877, Saigō was best known for his past military successes. From a relatively minor bureaucrat in the bakufu he had been the eventual commander of Satsuma troops, and then the imperial commander in the Boshin War. He was an odd duck; he oversaw the transition from the feudal forces of the bakufu to a modern, conscript-based Imperial Army, insisting on training the new force in Western industrial warfare. But he didn't like the social and economic changes that went with it. He was a very narrowly-focused soldier; he fought against construction of railroads because he thought the money would be better spend on modern weaponry - the guy obviously missed the lessons of the American Civil War.By the early 1870's Saigō was falling out with the other leaders of the Meiji government. The disagreements, though obviously crucial at the time and to the people involved, aren't really important to this account. Suffice to summarize them as divergences of opinion regarding modernization, political gains, and foreign policy. Saigō lost the arguments and retired to Satsuma.

Here's how the Wiki entry for "Satsuma Rebellion" describes the next four years;
"Saigō resigned from all of his government positions in protest and returned to his hometown of Kagoshima, as did many other Satsuma ex-samurai in the military and police forces. To help support and employ these men, in 1874 Saigō established a private academy in Kagoshima. Soon 132 branches were established all over the prefecture. The “training” provided was not purely academic: although the Chinese classics were taught, all students were required to take part in weapons training and instruction in tactics. The traditions of bushido were emphasized. Saigō also started an artillery school. The schools resembled paramilitary political organizations more than anything else, and they enjoyed the support of the governor of Satsuma, who appointed disaffected samurai to political offices, where they came to dominate the Kagoshima government. Support for Saigō was so strong that Satsuma had effectively seceded from the central government by the end of 1876."
This was obviously a problem. Similar grievances, from similarly unhappy samurai, had sparked some minor rebellions; the Saga Rebellion on Kyūshū in 1874 and the Shinpūren, Akizuki, and Hagi Rebellions across the country in 1876. The Meiji government decided to send a secret mission to investigate just what the hell was going on in Satsuma.

Here, again from the Wiki entry, is a description of the colossal fuckup that set off the rebellion;
"In December 1876, the Meiji government sent a police officer named Nakahara Hisao and 57 other men to investigate reports of subversive activities and unrest. The men were captured, and under torture, confessed that they were spies who had been sent to assassinate Saigō. Although Nakahara later repudiated the confession, it was widely believed in Satsuma and was used as justification by the disaffected samurai that a rebellion was necessary in order to “protect Saigō”. Fearing a rebellion, the Meiji government sent a warship to Kagoshima to remove the weapons stockpiled at the Kagoshima arsenal on January 30, 1877. Outraged by the government's tactics, 50 students from Saigō’s academy attacked the Somuta Arsenal and carried off weapons. Over the next three days, more than 1000 students staged raids on the naval yards and other arsenals. Presented with this fait accompli, the greatly dismayed Saigō was reluctantly persuaded to come out of his semi-retirement to lead the rebellion against the central government."
The Southwestern War itself is a classic tale of military ineptitude, and our boy Saigō does most of the fucking up.Deciding to win by taking control of the seat of government, Saigō led his force, probably about 15,000 all arms, north from Satsuma into Kumamoto prefecture in the iron-hard winter of February, 1877. He left no real force to secure his rear, which was almost immediately seized by Imperial amphibious forces.

For that matter, although the intervention of naval force turned out to be crucial Saigō and the Satsuma rebels never seriously tried to acquire military force at sea. And he had no real plan other than marching towards the north end of Kyushu and from there northeast to Tokyo, an impossibly long tromp through Imperial territory. But no matter - Saigō and his merry band of conservatives never even got further than Kumamoto, the next big city north of Kagoshima.Here he was posed with a military dilemma; take Kumamoto Castle (熊本城 Kumamoto-jō) by storm, or be forced to leave the 4,000-man garrison in his rear as he continued north.

Saigō must have thought that the despised peasant conscripts would be easy meat; he threw his forces at the prepared defenses in a two-day attack between 22-23 FEB 1877. Although his artillery destroyed the castle keep and the defenders took a battering the position held, and the rebels were forced to dig in and try to starve the imperial garrison out.This failed, even though Kumamoto provided some more rebel troops (the accounts indicate that Saigō's force levels had risen to about 20,000 by April), and on 4 MAR an Imperial brigade and naval landing forces smashed in the rebel contravallation at Tabaruzaka.This area is a pass through low hills that led south to the main roads leading to Kumamoto City and Kumamoto Castle. The rebels are said to have hoped to draw the imperial forces into a kill-sack in the low ground along the road, but the organization and better weaponry made the rebel defense both costly and futile and the imperial tactics bloody but successful. Both sides lost heavily, but the rebels could afford the some 4,000 casualties they took much less than the imperials.I note that the imperial army's attack at Tabaruzaka seems to set the style for Japanese imperial forces in the offense for the next seventy-some years; dogged, brutal, rather tactically crude frontal attacks down the trench way near Tabaruzaka with the Satsuma forces counterattacking from all sides. It was effective, in a hacking sort of way, but hard on the troops.And everyone else. As war always does, this fight killed many of the local people in the area. As always, no one on either side bothered to count them.I think I mentioned that an imperial force landed in Kagoshima soon after the Satsuma army marched, on 8 MAR, seized the place and the rebel officials.

The same day the Imperials also landed two infantry brigades and 1,200 coppers in Yatsushiro Bay, south of the rebel siege lines. By 19 MAR this force had pushed north to near the city of Miyanohara. Reinforced to about 4,000 troops this force hit the rebel lines late in the month, as the fighting around Tabaruzaka was bleeding out the rebels.Kumamoto was relieved on 12 APR.Tabaruzaka was the last effective tactical act of the Satsuma army. Between April and August the campaign consisted of the Satsumas - who now had no strategic objective other than survival - retreating south; first to Hitoyoshi, then Miyazaki, then Miyakonojō, and finally to Mount Enodake near Nobeoka City in Miyazaki Prefecture.

There the remaining Satsuma forces were surrounded and largely destroyed - and I mean that literally; all that slipped away and survived were Saigō and about 200 odds and sods who trickled back to Kagoshima.On 1 SEP this little element stormed back into Kagoshima.Sources: The usual problem with defeated rebellions - that the history is written by the winning side - is a little different in this case because of the curious way the Japanese look at this whole Satsuma business and the man who led it.

The notion of "wrong decision-right attitude" is, well, very Japanese. What is as important as the cause or the actions of an individual or a group is, well, the "sincerity" they show.

The Satsuma rebels, now safely defeated, are now honored for their commitment and bravery. Their leader is a model, the "last samurai", a romantic hero.

As a typical American I can look at the entire Rebellion and consider it a pointless, bloody exercise in pigheaded contrarianism - the last tantrum of the last samurai, who chose to try and knock over his own country because he didn't like what the way it was going - but to many Japanese it was the very stubbornness and dedication that Saigō and his rebels showed in throwing their tantrum that makes them attractive.

For the English-speaking reader there are a number of decent sources.The earliest I can find is by one A.H. Mounsey "The Satsuma Rebellion: An Episode of Modern Japanese History", written in 1879. This gentleman was the British Secretary to the Meiji court in the 1870s; he seems to have had some local sources, but I do not have a sense of the quality of the work. It seems to have been reprinted lately and is probably available but only from more comprehensive libraries.Perhaps the most comprehensive are the works by J.H. Buck: starting with his original PhD thesis, "The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 : an inquiry into some of its military and political aspects" (held in microfiche at several university libraries), his 1973 "The Satsuma rebellion of 1877: From Kagoshima through the siege of Kumamoto castle.", and the 1979 "Satsuma Rebellion: An Episode of Modern Japanese History".

Mark Ravina has written a 2004 work entitled "The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori" that covers the career of this feckless gentleman with an emphasis on his fighting, including the Satsuma episode. He seems to have succumbed to Saigō-worship, though; the blurb on the jacket makes this sound like a promo for that awful Tom Cruise movie, all muscular heroics. I haven't read it, though, so your mileage may vary.I have had a hard time finding sources for the military organizations on both sides, and suspect that a purely military historian is likely to have to cull the general sources for this information.

The Wiki entry appears to be among the better written of this genre but seems to have some issues with its research; in particular it seems to ignore the earliest English account of the engagement, that of Mounsey (1879), in favor of what seem to me to be the later, more heroified, versions like Ravina.And the most overblown of these is, of course, the movie I mentioned above. It is supposed to be "based" on the Satsuma Rebellion, with the main Japanese character some sort of Saigō-stand-in.


It's ridiculous on any number of levels, but worth a peek if you're really bored and have a fairly high tolerance for pain just to see what the cartoon version of the Satsuma story had become.

The Engagement: Mounsey (1879) says that on 1 SEP "...nearly the whole of its (Kagoshima's)garrison had been sent northwards sometime previously...and the defence of the place had been left to 1,000 raw recruits and some armed policemen." when Saigō entered the city with about 200 men.The government forces were taken by surprise and fairly quickly driven down to the harborside, the civil authorities fled to the imperial warships in the harbor, and the rebel leader sent out to local villages to round up as many of his remaining partisans as he could.About 400-500 gathered over the next couple of days, and although they kept the remaining garrison on the defensive they couldn't secure the town. When the Imperial forces under Miyoshi arrived on 3 SEP, Saigō knew the game was up.

"Saigō then withdrew, with large supplies of rice, small arms, and ammunition, as well as some the summit of a small hill, called Shiroyama, in the rear of and commanding a large portion of the town..." (Mounsey, 1879). The rebel defenses are described as being largely defined by the summit crater; "a depression in the rocky summit of the hill" (Mounsey, 1879) where the samurai built Sekigahara-style wattle fences at the crest of the steep slopes.The Imperial besiegers constructed stronger, similar fortifications (including trenches and other earthworks) near the base of the hill. Mounsey (1879) reports that these works were sufficient to destroy several small units - either patrols, trench raids, or attempted breakouts - over the initial days of the siege.The Imperial earthworks were completed by 10 SEP, and construction of artillery emplacements began. The Imperial batteries included mortars (obviously the most effective way of hitting the summit crater) was well as heavy naval guns. Mounsey (1879) states that the artillery fire was heavy, and that under the cover of this fire saps (covered trenches) were constructed up the slopes of the hill. The bombardment seems to have been very severe, costing the defenders several hundred casualties. Several preliminary attacks appear to have been made over the next two weeks.

The Imperial objective was straightforward; unconditional surrender or assault. The surrender ultimatum was set to expire at 1700hrs on 23 SEP. This deadline having passed without capitulation, ADM Kawamura, the officer in direct command of the besieging force, ordered the assault for the early morning of 24 SEP.

This attack was "shot in" by an intense artillery preparation. This prep appears to have been extremely successful; Mounsey (1879) reports that "...the assaulting parties its slopes...(and) reached almost without loss and fired volley after volley into the rebel camp. Deceived by previous feints, the rebels had been taken unawares and were unprepared for a serious attack."Here's our boy Saigō again, this time tactically rather than strategically clueless. The Imperial forces had apparently reconned the location of the rebel artillery well; the remaining batteries are reported to have been overrun quickly and their weight of fire added to that of the assault units' small arms.He didn't have long to gloom over his incompetence. He is said to have been knocked down fairly early in the fight by a rifle round in the thigh. This must have smashed the bone and torn him up badly; Mounsey (1879) describes the immediate consequence:
"Hemmi Jiurōda, one of his lieutenants [Author's note: this is interesting, as it contradicts the Wiki entry, who identifies this man as "Beppu Shinsuke" (別府 晋介)] performed what Samurai consider a friendly office. With one blow of his keen heavy sword he severed his chief's head from his shoulders, in order to spare him the disgrace of falling into his enemy's hands. Around Saigō fell Kirino, Murata, Beppu [there's our boy Beppu, then], Ikegami Shiro, and one hundred of the principal Samurai of the Satsuma clan."
The remaining Satsuma force - specified by Mounsey (1879) as 210 - were taken alive, although he says that most were badly wounded.

Like the identification of Saigō's final barber, this is interesting, because here's how the Wiki entry describes the last moments on the top of Shiro Hill: "After Saigo's death, Beppu and the last of the 40 Samurai drew their swords and plunged downhill toward the Imperial positions until the last surviving were gunned down by American Gatling guns. With this, what was left of all the Samurai warriors, and the Satsuma rebellion came to an end."The Mounsey account seems more plausible to me for several reasons. The Satsuma troops appear to have been penned within their summit entrenchment by the attackers' successful opsec. I can find no other reports of Gatlings, either in the accounts of the engagement or in the suppression of the rebellion in general. Although I have no doubt that individuals or small groups of Satsuma rebels did kill themselves in tactically pointless banzai charges I don't see any reason to believe that the engagement ended with a final totenreit of samurai; although good stories don't have to be fiction, real life tends not to play out as neatly as to make the stories true.Mounsey (1879) sums up the engagement in his orotund Victorian style thus; "...this bloody tragedy, that in the misty dawn of a fair September morning, was terminated before the sun has sped and hour and a half of his course. The Imperialist losses were only thirty men and as a considerable quantity of ammunition and provisions for ten days were found in the camp, it is evident that the rebels did not think that their last hour had come."

The Outcome: Complete Imperialist tactical victory, and strategic completion of the suppression of the Satsuma uprising.The Impact: The suppression of the Satsuma Rebellion effectively ended the "samurai rebellions". The Meiji imperium was never threatened again by internal revolt, and after 1877 the samurai class subsided into the loyal servants of the Emperor they remained until 1945 in formal form and in residuum down to the present day.At this remove I'm not sure exactly why, other than the Seinan Sensō was the largest and most significant of these revolts; Ravina (2004) argues that the Western appellation mischaracterizes the event, which he believes to be more a civil war than a mere insurrection or revolt.

So it may well be that the blood shed in Kyushu in 1877 had the salutary effect of convincing the samurai that the imperium was not going to turn back from Westernization, and that any more blood would simply add to the pointless volume. It may be that the answer is more...Japanese. That the very gory pointlessness of the Rebellion, and the determined deaths of the Satsuma samurai, satisfactorily expressed the sincerity of the samurai objections to the changes.

Having expressed this and, with the deaths of their proxies the Satsuma rebels having testified to the sincerity of their objections, the samurai honor was satisfied and their role in the life of the nation could proceed.Which it did, and does.

The thing is, though, that the only thing that changed after Shiroyama was that there were a bunch more dead people.

The samurai didn't achieve their objectives. The modernization continued, the out-of-work samurai were still out of work, still out of swords, still out of luck. All the grounds for all the 1870's rebellions were still there. There just doesn't seem to be a reason for the revolts to stop after 1877, unless...

Unless it was because in 1877 everybody was so damn sincere. The Satsuma boys marched off and died sincerely, the Imperials stuck to their goals and killed them sincerely; everybody was so fucking sincere it hurt. Everyone was firm, polite, convincing, and (at least on one side) steadfastly dead. So, everyone having made the right social gestures, the samurai could bow their necks with honor intact and the government could accept them back without looking weak.

I'm really guessing here, but that does seem to me a very Japanese sort of solution, and explains why after 1877 the whole nonsense just stopped.

I find Saigō's rebellion as much comic as tragic, but little more farcical than his drama-queen swooning over the supposedly-diminshed role of the samurai in the Meiji Era. In fact the samurai provided the overwhelming bulk of the leadership for the modernization of Japan. Even now they are a critical part of the Japanese self-image, and many Japanese whose forebears came no closer to a sword than to be killed by one make the ideals and image of the warrior elite their own.The Southwestern War had several other impacts, some immediate, and another, long delayed but devastating to the Japanese people and the nation.

It was fiscally ruinous for the new Imperial government, which had to leave behind a gold standard and print money.The outcome vindicated both the Meiji demand for industrialization and the organization of the new Imperial Army. The old ways of preindustrial feudal isolation were shot down on the summit of Shiro Hill as surely as Saigō and his siderunners.

But perhaps the most far-reaching, and ultimately disastrous, was the career of the successful Imperial commander.The eventual-Field Marshal Prince Yamagata first established the character of the Imperial Army. He was instrumental in the production of the "Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors", the 1882 document that made the Japanese military the emperor's personal weapon; Japanese servicemen were expected to memorize the document, which stated that each soldier and sailor was expected to be personally loyal to the Emperor rather than the nation.This reflected Yamagata's personal convictions, which were deeply militaristic in a truly feudal sense, and fiercely antidemocratic.

He was one of the seven genrō(元老), who (ironically, given the help the Satsuma/Chōshū rebels gave to the consolidation of Imperial power, largely came from Satsuma and Chōshū) led Japan as the most influential but informal Imperial counselors. The genrō made most of the important decisions of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries - war, peace, policy...they were the de facto rulers of Japan. And it was Yamagata's intent - and his success - that the armed forces should be the instrument of the Emperor and the most powerful faction in Japanese politics.

He is as much as any of the Meiji leaders, the founder and father of Japanese Twentieth Century militarism.During his tenure as Prime Minister of Japan - two terms in the 1890s - and later as head of the Emperor's privy council Yamagata ensured that Japan's path lead almost directly from Shiroyama to the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

As Prime Minister he ruled that only a serving officer could be either War Minister or Navy Minister; this had the effect of making the services control over the cabinet. But perhaps his most pernicious act came in 1912.

In 1912 then the army minister, General Uehara, resigned when the cabinet refused his budget request (which, according to historians of the time, was, in fact, well above what was in line with Japan's financial situation). Then-Prime Minister Saionji wanted a pliable replacement, but Yamagata's influence over the military was so great that no serving flag officer would accept. Saionji couldn't form a cabinet and was forced by the Meiji constitution to resign. This so-called "Taisho Crisis" proved that the military could eighty-six the civilian governments at a whim.

By the Twenties and Thirties, as we know, this led to the openly military regimes that led the country into WW2.

By the time Yamagata finally popped his clogs in 1922 the nation was running on rails towards the unimaginable disasters to come.Touchline Tattles: There is perhaps no more silly, ironic, and, well, Japanese thing about the otherwise inane slaughter at the summit of Shiroyama than the posthumous glorification of the losing commander.

The novelist Yukio Mishima, in his suicide note, said "Influenced by Wang Yang-ming philosophy, I have believed that knowing without acting is not sufficiently knowing and the action itself does not require any effectiveness." Saigō was another adherent of the neo-Confucian philosophy, and so he himself might have been well satisfied with his failure and useless death.But his countrymen were not. Soon after the physical threat of the rebellion was ended efforts began to rehabilitate the man. He took on a sort of Robin Hood aspect; the strategic blunderer of 1877 became the folk hero of the Eighties. Stories about him claimed that he had survived the mess on Shiro Hill and fled to British India or Qing China. Supposedly his image appeared in a comet near the end of the 19th Century.

The Meiji Emperor pardoned him on 22 FEB 1889, and posthumously restored his rank and titles. A statue of Saigō was placed in Ueno Park, in Tokyo, in 1898, where he stands today, his sightless bronze eyes staring out over what may be the most cruelly sophisticated city in the world, at the technocratic nation his military ineptitude and archaic ideals helped to be born.