Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

This is a guest post by Dave HackersonA previous post in this series is can be found here.

The International Dateline is truly a fascinating thing. It’s like a magic wand of time that can both give and take, depending which way you head. Each time my family and I fly back to the Midwest, the space time continuum is seemingly suspended. Leave Tokyo at 4:00 pm, touch down in the Midwest at 2:00 pm, and then reach our final destination by 5:00 pm of the same day. Over 15 hours of travel that appears to have been compressed within the span of one single hour. I still can’t wrap my head around it at times.

This dateline has a way of slightly altering our perspective of historical events. Most Americans are familiar with the following quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “December 7th, a date that will live in infamy.” The date to which he refers is the day on which the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamato attacked the elements of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. However, this is the narrative from the American side of the International Dateline. The December 24th edition of Shashin Shuhou (Photographic Weekly), a morale boosting propaganda magazine published in Japan from the 1938 until mid-1945, carried the following headline for its graphic two-page artist’s depiction of the attack: “Shattering the dawn: Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8th”. The Japanese government christened the 8th day of each month as Taisho Hotaibi (literally means “Day to Reverently Accept the Imperial Edict”) to commemorate the great victory over the United States at Pearl Harbor and the Imperial declaration of war on the US and its allies (the day also served to regularly renew nation’s fervor and commitment to the war effort). Was Pearl Harbor a great victory for the Japanese? The answer to this question depends on the context in which the attack is viewed. From a purely military engagement view, it is safe to say that it was a resounding success, but did this single engagement succeed in shaping the course of the upcoming conflict? This is the question that the Mainichi Shinbun explored in the third installment of its series “Numbers tell a tale—Looking at the Pacific War through data” (the original, in Japanese, is here). True to the narrative on this side of the Pacific, this article was released on December 8th last year. Just as with the other installments in the series, it presents a slew of data that helps to put historical events into context.

“Did the attack on Pearl Harbor truly break the US? Japan’s massive gamble with only a quarter of the US’s national strength.” The title of the article does a nice job of setting up the exhaustive economic analysis it conducts in an attempt to answer this question. The very first thing the article does is to compare the respective GDPs of the US and Japan in 1939. At this time, Japan’s GDP stood at 201.766 billion dollars. However, this amounted to less than a fourth of the US’s GDP of 930.828 billion dollars (note that figures are not adjusted for inflation). Even the UK had a larger GDP than Japan at 315.691 billion dollars. When you combine the GDPs of the US and UK, Japan already suffered a disadvantage of greater than 6 to 1.

The next set of figures the article introduces is related to industrial capacity. The first thing it examines is iron production, and here the article makes reference to the quote by Prussian leader Otto Van Bismarck, who claimed that it was iron which made a nation. Taking Bismarck at his word, Japan’s iron production did not bode well for its position as a nation. In 1940, Japan’s national production of crude steel was 6,856,000 tons per year. In contrast, the US was producing nearly nine times that amount at 60,766,000 tons per year. Likewise, Japan lagged far behind the US in terms of electric power output and automobile ownership. Japan’s electric power output in 1940 stood at 3.47 billion kWh, but this figured was dwarfed by the US’s output of 17.99 billion kWh. The gap in automobile ownership is also especially telling. The 1920s are often considered to be the decade in which America “hit the roads” and became enamored with the automobile, and this fact is backed up the figures for automobiles owned by Americans in 1940. By that year, there were already 32,453,000 automobiles on roads in the US. Japan didn’t even come close, with only 152,000 automobiles scattered across the country.

In addition to lacking the physical resources and infrastructure to sustain a prolonged war of attrition, the makeup of Japan’s economy also posed a number of difficulties. Here the article emphasizes a major difference between Japan and other first world nations at that time: Japan was not a “heavily industrialized nation”. This fact was clearly reflected in the country’s exports. In 1940 finished metal products accounted for only 2.8% of the nation’s exports, while raw silk, textiles, and clothing products made up for more than a quarter. Likewise, only 30% of the nation’s income was generated by industry, which was less than the combined income of agriculture, retail, and transport sectors. In the 1930s, Japan made every effort to expand its heavy industries. The Truman administration dispatched an investigative committee to Japan after the war to study the effects of America’s strategic bombing on Japan and its economy. The study found that in 1930 the industrial makeup of Japan was 38.2% heavy industry and 61.8% light industry. By 1937 Japan had succeeded in reversing these percentages to 57.8% and 42.2%, but the difficulty the nation had in securing the resources it needed for industry restricted its industrial capacity. The study did not mince words in its assessment of the Japanese economy. “The nation of Japan is truly a small country in every manner of speaking, and ultimately a weak nation with an industrial infrastructure dependent on imported materials and resources, utterly defenseless against every type of modern-day attack. The nation’s economy at its core was rooted in a cycle of daily subsistence, in which people only produced what they needed for that day. This left it with no extra capacity whatsoever, leaving it incapable of dealing with potential emergencies that may arise.”

To compensate for its lack of resources, Japan cast its gaze across the waters to Manchuria. Japan had steadily expanded its interests in Manchuria since its victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and placed the South Manchuria Railway Company as the primary driver of this massive undertaking. This company was founded in 1906 upon the railway Japan received from Russia after the war, and was a national policy concern that was half-owned by the state. Japan aimed to make Manchuria the focal point of an own economic bloc that also included Korea, Taiwan, and China. While Manchuria was rich in natural resources, it was highly underdeveloped, and Japan ultimately exported far more machinery and infrastructure building equipment than the resources it imported. While Japan was able to construct some of this machinery and equipment on its own, it was dependent on material and machine-related imports from the US, UK, the Netherlands, and Australia, the very nations against which it would ultimately go to war. In 1930, Japan exported nearly 96% of its raw silk thread to the US, which would send raw cotton back the other way. Japan would then process this cotton into finished cotton products for export to British India and the UK. Using the profits from these exports, Japan would then import strategic resources from the US, UK, and the Netherlands, such as oil, bauxite to create the aluminum used in air craft, and the bronze needed for the metal casings of bullets. The problematic nature of these trade relationships was pointed out by the Japanese economist Toichi Nawa of Osaka University of Commerce (present-day Osaka City University). In his book Research on the Japanese Spinning Industry and Raw Cotton Problem, Nawa stated that “any confrontation with the UK and US would be tragic, and must be avoided.” He further elaborated on Japan’s trade issues, saying that “the more Japan rushes along its efforts to expand heavy industry and its military industrial manufacturing capacity so it can bolster its policies on the continent (Manchuria and China), the more dependent it becomes on the international market, creating cycle that leads to increased imports of raw materials. Herein lies the gravest of concerns for the Japanese economy.”

Nawa’s words proved to be all too prophetic. Japan’s aggressive agenda in China following the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 brought heavy criticism from the global community. As the conflict in China escalated, Western nations retaliated with economic sanctions and restrictions on imports. The most devastating of these was the US’s decision to ban all oil exports to Japan in August of 1941. The US was the world’s largest producer of oil in 1940, accounting for over 60% of the world’s supply. The upper brass of the Imperial Japanese Navy had predicted that they had enough oil stockpiled to wage war for at least 2 and half years, but if the UK and US shut off all oil exports, they would have no other choice but to move into Dutch territory and seize the oil fields of within 4 to 5 months in order to augment their supply. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred exactly four months later.

Did Japan truly have the capacity as a nation to wage a modern war against a nation such as the United States? As tensions rose in US-Japan relations, Japanese government and military officials took a hard look at the data available in an attempt to answer this question.

A joint military and civilian economic study group organized around army paymaster Lt. Colonel Jiro Akimaru was set up in February 1941 to undertake this task. Known as the “Akimaru Agency”, this group was split into four sections to study the total war capacity of Japan, the UK-US, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The report they compiled by the end of September 1941 made the following conclusions:

1)      The conflicting state between Japan’s military mobilization and its labor force has become fully evident. Japan has also reached its peak production capacity, and is unable to expand it any further.

2)      Germany’s war capacity is now at a critical point.

3)      Not a single flaw exists within the US’s war economy.

Even if Japan sacrificed the living standards of its populace to boost its war capacity, it still would not have the financial resources to compete with the US. Hiromi Arisawa, a member of the UK-US section who was also president of Hosei University during his lifetime, made the following remarks when reflecting back on the report the Akimaru Agency prepared:

“Japan cut national consumption by 50%. In contrast, America only reduced its national consumption by 15 to 20%. Excluding the amount of supplies they shipped to other Allied nations at that time, the savings from this reduced consumption provided them with 35 billion dollars* for real war expenditures. That was 7.5 times greater than what Japan was capable of achieving with its cuts.”

Lt. Colonel Akimaru alluded to this fact when he presented the report at an internal staff conference meeting for the Army. Gen Sugiyama, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command, acknowledged that the report was “nearly flawless” in its analysis. After praising Akimaru for the quality of the report, he then issued the following order. “The conclusion of your report goes against national policy. I want you to burn every copy of it immediately.”

Lt. Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, founder of the Nakano School and a military intelligence expert, was dispatched to the Japanese embassy in the US and took part in the planning of unofficial negotiations between the two countries. He returned to Japan in August of 1941 and met with influential figures in the political and business world, trying to persuade them of the futility in war with the US. At the Imperial General Headquarters Government Liaison Conference, Iwakuro presented the following data based on his own personal research to demonstrate the gap between the US and Japan in terms of national strength.

Iwakuro’s conclusion was straight and to the point. “The US has a 10-1 advantage in terms of total war capacity. All the Yamato-damashii (Japanese fighting spirit) we throw at them will not change anything. Japan has no prospects of victory.” Incidentally, the next day War Minister Hideki Tojo (who later became Prime Minister) immediately ordered the transfer of Iwakuro to a unit stationed in Cambodia. Iwakuro made the following remarks to the people who came to see him off at Tokyo Station. “If I should survive this ordeal and ever make it back to Tokyo, the Tokyo Station we see here will most assuredly lie in ruins.” Those words came to fruition in the spring of 1945.


Admiral Yamamoto salutes Japanese pilots.
Admiral Yamamoto salutes Japanese pilots.


So did the attack on Pearl Harbor truly break the US? The quote made by Admiral Yamamoto at the end of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! puts it quite succinctly: “All we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Though there is debate about whether he actually uttered those words, Yamamoto was no stranger to the US having studied at Harvard and spending time as a naval attache, and he knew full well the awesome industrial might and material resources the nation possessed. Japan played a great hand with its attack on Pearl Harbor, but as Yamamoto knew, the deck was already stacked against it. The only thing that remained to be seen was how long Japan could make its kitty last.

Why am I ignoring Nigeria?

By Seth Studer

I take a little exception to the smarminess of certain media’s response to the Charlie Hebdo murders. Last week, they inform us, we witnessed two horrific massacres: the murder of 12 satirists in Paris and the murder of roughly 2,000 civilians in Baga (that’s in Borno, Nigeria). But, they continue, judging from CNN, Fox, and your Facebook feed, only one of these terrible crimes got any coverage. To ask the question “which one: the 12 Europeans or the 2,000 Africans?” is to answer it. While the loss of 12 innocent lives and an implied assault on Free Speech (which doesn’t really exist per se in France) rallies millions across the Great White West, virtually no one is speaking for what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies” (an eloquent phrase, although the critical theorist’s habit of saying body when you mean person upsets his essay’s thesis). Cole’s essay in the New Yorker (linked above) is intelligent and passionately argued, and he handles his argument’s underlying ethos – the aforementioned smarminess – with more grace than others (the latter article incorrectly states that Nigeria is south of the equator, a reminder that the many truths revealed by postcolonial theory – e.g., global North vs. global South – do not always square with geographical reality). But in general, I felt scolded for paying more attention to France than Nigeria.

And I probably deserve a scolding. Did mainstream news outlets focus on France over Nigeria as the consequence of a bias toward white Europeans? Absolutely! Was the attack on Charlie Hebdo more frightening and noteworthy to Western audiences than the massacre in Baga because the former represents an attack on the imagined “center” of Western civilization rather than its “periphery”? You bet!

So should 2,000 murder victims be more “newsworthy” than 12 murder victims? I think it depends on the circumstances. 

Anyone who hasn’t been following Boko Haram over the past many months is an irresponsible consumer of world news. The mass violence last week represents the terrifying apex of an ongoing story. We spent much of 2014 preoccupied with the horrors inflicted upon the Nigerian people by this radical group (even Michelle Obama got involved, which got American conservative media involved, etc., etc.). The Charlie Hedbo massacre, meanwhile, fell out of a clear blue sky. Both discrimination against Muslims and Muslim unrest in France are ongoing, but nothing concrete or obvious precipitated this attack. These murders arrived on our screens demanding a context. Hence, the intense coverage.

And for me, intense coverage of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is essential not merely because it reinforces Western commitments to free speech (commitments that tend to get waylaid when they’re needed most). Coverage is essential because France is an important European nation in the grips of a major rightward political and cultural shift, one that could potentially turn more strident, more xenophobic, and more violent. After a half century on the fringes (and apparent defeat in the face of European unification), Europe’s right-wing parties (as opposed to its right-of-center parties) are, ahem, on the march. In the United States, extreme right-wing rhetoric has benefited from decades in the mainstream: a speaker’s racism or xenophobia can be carefully coded and embedded in speeches about tax policy. In Europe, the far right has been far wilder and wilier. They’ve retained their ugliness and wear it explicitly on the surface. (Whenever one of my liberal friends unfavorably compares America’s conservative politics with Europe’s socialist policies, I remind them, “Yes, you like their left wing, but you don’t want their right wing.”) Meanwhile, since the 2007/08 global banking crisis, nationalism in Europe – both right-wing and left-wing – has resurged to levels not seen in decades. Because of their knotted political and economic ties to Germany (or Russia), the peoples of Europe are seeking social and cultural distinction. Secession movements have gained renewed traction in the geographical and political expanse between Scotland and Crimea. Consequently, Germans and Russians are also asserting their national character in ways that, twenty years ago, would have seemed taboo.

This, for me, is the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack, far removed from the bloodshed in Nigeria (admittedly, all things connect in our post-post-colonial world, as African expats like Cole convincingly demonstrate). Note that the above paragraph doesn’t include the word “Islam.” I don’t think you need to dwell much on radical Islam to understand the socio-cultural dynamic that drives millions of French residents into the streets. From a French perspective, however, immigration from the Muslim world underscores every aspect of the current national identity crisis. Thus, when an event like the attack on Charlie Hebdo occurs, you get 3.7 million people in the streets and attacks on Muslims.

This, to me, is a very big story indeed.

Two thousand people died in Nigeria last week, it’s true, but 3.7 million people marched throughout France yesterday – roughly one million in Paris alone. What do those one million want? What do they represent? Many of them are doubtless sympathetic with France’s Muslim minorities. Few among them are likely to be extreme French nationalists (though more of them are sympathetic with French nationalism than Western liberals would like to imagine). Whatever their motives, this represents a good moment to take France’s cultural temperature. The context demands it. Your first response to Charlie Hebdo should be an unequivocal condemnation of the murders and support for free speech. But your second response, given the atmosphere in Europe, should be concern for liberalism in France. Because, contrary to what the news coverage is telling you, continental Europe is not historically an easy or natural home to liberal values. And because a march can be a mob by another name.

Kamikaze Attacks by the Numbers: A Statistical Analysis of Japan’s Wartime Strategy



Note: This is a guest post by Dave Hackerson.

One of the defining symbols of the vicious struggle between the US and Japan in the Pacific War, this word always conjures up a conflicting mix of emotions inside me. The very word “kamikaze” has become a synonym for “suicide attack” in the English language. The way WW2 was taught in school (in America) pretty much left us with the impression that kamikaze attacks were part of the standard strategy of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy throughout the entire war. However, it was only recently that I was surprised to learn that the first time the Japanese introduced this strategy was on October 25, 1944 during the second Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Mainichi Shinbun here in Japan put together a wonderful collection to commemorate the 70th anniversary of this strategy. It features data that has not only been debated and analyzed from a number of angles, but it also provides statistical evidence that underscores the utter failure of this strategy. The title of the article is “Did the divine wind really blow? ‘Special strikes’ claim lives of 4000,” and it is the second part of a three part series called “Numbers tell a tale—Looking at the Pacific War through data”. The first part was posted in mid-August, and the third and final part is due to be put online in December. The original Japanese version for this special can be accessed here. The slides I refer to numbers “1” to “5” listed at the very bottom of each page. The current slide is the one highlighted in blue.

In this post, I will provide an overview of the information on this site while occasionally inserting my own analysis and translations of select quotes. I hope it helps to paint a clearer picture of a truly flawed strategy that is still not properly understood by both sides.

Slide 1

True to the series name, this article wastes no time in hitting you with some pure, raw data. The first pie graph (11%, 89%) indicates the actual success rate of kamikaze attacks. As you can see from the graph, only 11% were successful, while the remaining 89% ended in failure. This means that merely 1 in 9 planes actually hit their targets. After introducing these figures, the article focuses on the initial execution of the kamikaze strategy during the Second Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944. Five planes hit and sunk the escort carrier USS St. Lo, while other planes succeeded in damaging five other ships. The estimated success rate in this battle was 27%.

The article then puts this percentage into context by comparing it to the success rate of dive bomb attacks (non-kamikaze) in other battles. Here are the figures:

Pearl Harbor (1941): 58.5%

Battle of Ceylon (1942): 89% (percentage of hits on the British carrier HMS Hermes)

Coral Sea (1942): 53% (percentage of hits on the USS Lexington, which was severely damaged)

Looking at these figures, it’s clear that the kamikaze attacks were not that effective. The Japanese navy was overly optimistic and believed they would be fairly successful, but the US quickly adapted, and by the end of the war the success rate fell to 7.9% (Battle of Okinawa). Even the Dai Honei (main headquarters of the Japanese forces) admitted that the attacks had little to no effect.

The next part of the article is titled “War of attrition: ‘Certain death’ strategy that claims both aircraft and pilots”. It discusses the reasons why the hit rate for Japanese air force dropped so dramatically as the war wore on. Here are the three reasons cited.

  • Decline in the flying abilities of the fighter pilots
  • Deteriorating performance of aircraft and materials
  • Improvements in American countermeasures

After introducing these reasons, the article makes a very important statement. “Kamikaze attacks meant that you lost both the aircraft and pilots. This not only wore down Japan’s fighting strength, but essentially destroyed the nation’s capacity to actually wage war in the future.”

The article then turns its attention back to the first kamikaze attack and the pilot chosen to lead it. Lieutenant Yukio Seki was a graduate of the naval academy and proven veteran. He died crashing his plane into the USS St. Lo and was later enshrined as a “軍神 (gun-shin, or military god)” in Yasukuni Shrine. The article seems to imply that this “honor” is actually an injustice to the Seki’s memory in light of what he said before heading into battle. “I’m fully confident that I can drop a bomb on any aircraft during a normal attack. Japan’s screwed if it’s ordering a pilot like me to smash his craft into an enemy vessel.” These words are in stark contrast to the quote and images on the cover photo of Shashin Shuuhou (Photographic Weekly, a morale boosting propaganda magazine published from the mid-1930s until mid-1945) that accompanies this post. The main quote shown to the left of the Lieutenant Seki states: “A single vessel strikes true in defense of the land of gods. Oh, our Kamikaze (Divine Wind) Special Strike Force. Your fidelity will shine radiantly for the next 10,000 generations.” The quote in the bottom right further contradicts the statement Sergeant Seki made before he took off. “Lieutenant Seki, commander of the Shikijima Battalion that served as the First Kamikaze Special Strike Force Battalion to be sent out on an all-out bomb strike. Immediately before heading into battle, Lieutenant Seki is said to have rallied his troops with the following cry: ‘Men, we are not members of a bomber squad. We are the bombs. Now up and away with me!’”

Slide 2

The focus then shifts its attention to the heavy losses among the ranks of Japanese pilots. The Japanese navy started with 7000 well-trained pilots at the beginning of the war. By 1944 over 3900 had died in battle. In the early days of the war the Allies estimated that Japanese pilots had a 6-1 superiority advantage over Allied pilots, but by April of 1943 it was even at 1-1. Japan simply could not replace the pilots it lost at a sufficient pace, so it decided to compensate by “short-tracking” their training. The pie graph here is really telling.

Rank A pilots (over 6 months of flight training): 16.3%

Rank B pilots (4 to 6 months of flight training): 14.4%

Rank C pilots (approx. 3 months of flight training): 25%

Rank D pilots (less than 3 months, or in some cases only flight theory): 44.3%

These figures are breakdown of the pilots sent to fight in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The article then cites three reasons believed to have initiated a vicious cycle for the Japanese navy:

  1. Compensate loss in air force manpower by short-tracking training and sending raw pilots straight into the fight
  2. Raw pilots have a low chance of returning from battle, and most likely fail to influence the course of battle
  3. Losses only increase, while the ranks of pilots continue to thin.

The authors of the article squarely place the blame on the shoulders of the upper brass in the navy. Personally, I think the Japanese navy would not have sunk to such desperate measures if Admiral Yamamoto hadn’t been shot down and killed in 1943. He would have found a way to prolong the fight and preserve Japan’s precious little resources. One could argue that the U.S.’s decision to shoot down Yamamoto and take him out of the picture eliminated the voice of reason within the Japanese ranks, and actually paved the way for this strategy to be adopted.

The article implies that Japan was insane for throwing away what little resources it had. When the enemy has 10 times the amount of resources, you do everything you can to hold onto what you have. The Japanese brass seemingly defied this logic by not only wasting aircraft, but needlessly wasting human lives. But why would they do that? Japanese writer Kazutoshi Hando, a man who has written extensively about the Showa Period and WW2, provides some valuable insight into how these men thought. “The very concept of logistics was either given little thought or entirely ignored by the Japanese military… After all, in the eyes of the Army’s General Staff Office and the commissioned officers in the navy, troops were ultimately viewed no more as resources that could be gathered for a mere 1 sen 5 ri (price for a postcard at that time). When they formulated a strategy, they flung the troops out to the front with 6 go (about 900 grams) of rice and a 25 kilogram pack. If you ran out of food, you were told to forage for your own supplies wherever you were. Surrender wasn’t option (because it was actually prohibited under the Japanese military code), so if you found yourself in a losing battle, the only option was gyokusai (a figurative term coined by the Japanese military which loosely translates as “beautiful death”). They didn’t give any thought whatsoever to potential survivors.”

Not only were the majority of the pilots deployed in the latter the days of the war vastly inferior, but the aircraft deployed were also no match for the Allied forces. In addition to fighters and bombers, reconnaissance and even practice planes were deployed! As the war wore on, Japan faced these problems:

  • Lack of skilled engineers, resulting in the low performance of new aircraft because of the deterioration in manufacture and production quality.
  • Use of low octane, poor quality fuel.

In spite of all these problems, the Japanese armed forces went ahead with this strategy. The navy asked for the construction of aircraft that would save on materials, be easy to fly in training, and able to conserve fuel. Unfortunately, the end product was of inferior quality compared to the aircraft produced in the early days of the war. Combined with poorly trained pilots, it was simply a disaster waiting to happen.

Slide 3

This slide focuses on the performance capacity of the aircraft. Lots of info on plane specs, but as you can see, by the end of the war Allied aircraft were simply far superior to Japanese planes in every respect. The kanji 零 in the name of the plane 零式艦上戦闘機 21型 indicates “rei” or “zero” (Type Zero Carrier Fighter 21). Click and hold the mouse cursor on the plane to rotate the view. The specs of the Zero changed very little during the war. The first generation of Zero fighters (1939) carried a Sakae 21 Engine, which boasted 950 hp. The type produced after 1943 was fitted with the Sakae 52 Engine that delivered 1100 hp, an improvement of only 150 hp, and a top speed of 624 km/h. A seasoned pilot would have had his hands full going up against the likes of the USAF Hellcats and P51s, but with the green pilots the Japanese forces sent up it was clear they no longer carried about fighting for air superiority.

Slide 4

I won’t get into the details here, but this slide reveals how quickly the US adapted to the kamikaze attacks. Surprising as this may sound, these attacks failed to sink any major ships or carriers. This is because the US used radar effectively to scramble fighters to meet the Japanese attacks. In addition, the US had damage control units on board each ship, so even if a kamikaze pilot broke through, the damage could be contained right away, enabling the craft to stay in the fight. While many ships were damaged, less than 50 were actually sunk. The chart here is quite telling. The red bars indicate ships sunk, and the yellow bars indicate ships damaged, but not sunk.

Slide 5

This slide takes an indirect jab at people who attempt to beautify the sacrifices made by kamikaze pilots. The vast majority did not want to participate in the attacks. Saburo Sakai, one of Japan’s ace pilots, commented on how the strategy lowered morale. “The morale sunk”, he said. “Even if the reasons for fighting mean that you have only a 10 percent chance of coming back, you’ll fight hard for that. The guys upstairs (upper brass) claim morale went up. That’s a flat-out lie.”

There were even instances of NCOs ordering their men not to do kamikaze attacks, and instead instructed them to conduct “normal attacks”. In an interview linked to this article, the non-fiction writer Masayasu Hosaka speaks about reading the memoirs of someone who witnessed the pilots flying off to do their kamikaze attack. This witness states that the radios of all the aircraft were kept on, so they could actually hear everything the pilots said, including the statements they uttered right before they met their end. Here are some of the things kamikaze pilots said: “F*ing navy aholes!” , “Oh Mother!”, or the name of their wives or sweethearts. It seems that very few shouted “Banzai Japanese Empire” (“Banzai” means “10,000 years”).

Returning to the question originally posed in the title of the article, it is almost assuredly clear that the divine wind never blew. There wasn’t even much of a breeze. In adding my own two cents, the kamikaze attacks were a great propaganda tool for the US, for it allowed us to portray the enemy as fanatical and beyond reason. This made it easy for us to justify the atomic bombings, especially after the war, because the kamikaze attacks seemingly “proved” that only excessive measures would bring them to the negotiation table. The propaganda twist on kamikaze tactics was carried over into post-war education in the US, and led many of us (or at least myself when I was a kid) to believe that Japanese soldiers were possessed with an unswerving conviction to fight to the death.

In closing, I once again borrow the words of Kazutoshi Hando. He cuts straight to the chase:

The complete irresponsibility and stupidity of the nation’s military leaders drove the troops to their deaths. The same can be said for the kamikaze special strike force strategy. They took advantage of the unadulterated feelings of the pilots. People claim it’s a form of ‘Japanese aesthetics’, but that’s pure nonsense. The General Staff Office built it up as some grand strategy when in actuality they sat at their desks merely playing with their pencils wondering ‘how many planes can we send out today?’ This lot can never be forgiven.


Nixon/Vietnam/1968: What We Know and When We Know It

By Seth Studer

The story broke in August. I was working on an academic article about Richard Nixon in post-Watergate American culture (forthcoming). When not working not working on the article, I actively avoided Nixon-related stories in the news media and on the Internet: not an easy feat in August 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Then again, it was a little easier than I would have liked. The stories, like coverage of the JFK assassination’s fiftieth anniversary the year before, were pretty scarce and uneven. Inevitable, I suppose. In two years, Hillary Clinton (nominee presumptive) will cast a ballot for herself as president of the United States. What a dim memory her husband’s impeachment seems already. Ex-senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently visited South Dakota State University, where I teach, to wax poetic about the post-ideological, post-historical nineties: a time when, to hear them tell it, the two great American parties apparently worked together in constant harmony, tossing aside profligate “political differences” for the good of God and country. One recalls the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan that read as if Tip O’Neill and the Gipper played “government” each day before retiring together to a pub in the evening to share pints and sing Irish drinking songs. Our national history is like an elementary school recess period; we will not allow anything vaguely resembling a row on the playground.

And so intelligent Americans consistently misremember, or are compelled to misremember, events the nineties and eighties: events that they witnessed firsthand. How much dimmer Watergate must seem to those who lived through it. My mother watched the hearings as a junior high student while earning babysitting money; tough times, stagflation. I recently quizzed her on the names “John Dean” and “Sam Ervin,” which elicited vague recognition but no concrete memory of the basic contours of the only scandal to prompt an American president to resign. The players themselves did little better. During the first week of August 2014, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein appeared on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC, describing the events of 1973-1974 – and their role in those events – less convincingly and with less interesting conclusions than they had at the time. PBS News Hour managed to assemble a nice roundtable featuring Timothy Naftali (Nixon aficionado and NYU professor), Beverley Gage (the best historian of post-1945 America working today, currently at Yale), Pat Buchanan (Pat Buchanan), and Luke Nichter, a Nixon scholar and professor at Texas A&M – Central Texas whose July 29 2014 book The Nixon Tapes provides one of the most thorough single-volume accounts of the 37th president’s self-recordings. The main topic: who remembers Watergate? What was the big deal? Nixon wasn’t such a bad guy after all, right?

Journalist Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate was published the same day as Nichter’s volume. A few weeks later, after journalists and Nixon buffs ruminated and digested Hughes and Nichter’s work, stories began to pop up across the Internet highlighting new revelations from the transcripts. In particular, a revelation from Hughes provoked strong reactions. Salon featured a dramatic excerpt from Chasing Shadows, featuring a scene that prompted George Will to accuse Nixon of treason. These stories did not receive much fanfare, but the headlines were sensational. New Watergate bombshell! The scandal behind the scandal! Nixon guilty of treason! Even George Will admits it! For most intelligent Americans, the story had all the impact of a new Bee Gees single. But for those who, like me, think and talk and read and write about Richard Milhous Nixon with an almost neurological compulsion, something exciting had happened.

Here’s the short version. One of Hughes’s transcripts (July 15 1971) features Nixon explicitly ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute. This is notable for one major reason and a couple minor ones. Major: it’s the only time on the tapes we hear Nixon directly order a break-in. Minor: breaking into Brookings is a pretty big deal, and explicitly ordering such a break-in directly is a pretty big deal, especially for Nixon, a master of suggestion and the subtle cue. But there were few obvious reasons for Nixon to give such an order in 1971; the Watergate break-in seems rational by comparison (Democratic National Committee, election year, etc.). One is forced to assume that Brookings had something that Nixon wanted very badly, although Nixon does not quite say.

Hughes argues that this transcript represents the genesis of the plumbers/Watergate/resignation. We are unlikely to find another such explicit order to break into an august enemy think tank; this seems to represent the moment when things went a little crazy for Nixon. Most coverage of Hughes’s book focused on this sensational thesis, that the Brookings affair wrought Watergate.

The evidence against the thesis is very strong: the origins of the Nixon administration’s culture of surveillance are far too numerous and diffuse to reduce to a single event. But even for Hughes (who at times seems to use the word “Watergate” simply to attract a general audience – and why not?), the fact of Nixon ordering a break-in is less compelling than the fact of Nixon ordering this break-in. The ostensible purpose was to blackmail former president Lyndon B. Johnson with documents, located at the Brookings Institute, that revealed Johnson’s plan to broker a surprise Vietnam peace settlement by October 1968. Peace in Vietnam would have significantly boosted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s chances of succeeding Johnson. Proof of such chicanery would have given Nixon political leverage over Johnson. But, as Hughes writes, Nixon’s staff (including Henry Kissinger, who participated in the fun) doubted that Nixon’s burglars would find anything useful at Brookings. And why would Nixon want leverage over an unpopular ex-president?

From Chasing Shadows:

 At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony. … [And the] potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.

There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself.

The reason, Hughes argues, is that Nixon hoped to obtain documents implicating himself in the failure of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Allegations that Nixon had sabotaged the peace process would emerge and grow in the decades after Watergate.

George Will’s review of Chasing Shadows shifted the focus from Hughes’s thesis to his data, new data which, Will argued, implicated Nixon in “treason” (Will’s word choice received more attention than his argument). While other journalists focused on Hughes’s link between the new data to Watergate – his attempt to carve a “Rosebud” out of a few seconds of tape – Wills argued that the real story had been missed. Hughes provides very strong, if very indirect, evidence of what we already almost knew about Paris 1968: that, to bolster his chances of becoming president, Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would have almost certainly ended the Vietnam War by early 1969. All the other “White House horrors” – Watergate, ratfucking, domestic espionage, “the Canuck letter,” even Allende – pale in comparison to this.

Johnson and Nixon
Johnson and Nixon

According to both Hughes and Will, Nixon gave an irrational order: break into Brookings and steal documents. Why? To blackmail Johnson? The risk was too great, and they might not even find the documents they wanted. There must be another, more rational reason. According to Hughes, Nixon must have been looking for files implicating himself in sabotage, files that he could obtain by no other means, files that his enemies at Brookings might have possessed: “Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival.” This reasoning (in short, that Nixon would not have behaved irrationally) was strong enough to convince Will to charge a Republican president with treason.

I disagree not with Will’s conclusions, nor even with his reasoning (though depending on Nixon to make rational decisions is frequently a losing game), but with his confidence in this new evidence to make the case for treason.

All responsible historians and Nixon buffs know that Nixon betrayed Johnson and sabotaged the Peace Talks; we also know that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute. The question has always been how well we know. How much data to we possess? How much must we rely on reasonable inference? Who said what, when, where, and why? We already knew that Lyndon B. Johnson probably had direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement – but Johnson’s evidence has never been recovered, and Nixon denied any involvement in the Peace Talks to Johnson’s face. So when a Nixon scholar claims to have evidence of the 1968 sabotage, it’s a big deal. Thanks to Hughes, we have some new data. Nixon ordered the Brookings job. We know no that with 100% certainty. We always suspected, but now we know. But we can still only infer, with great confidence (approaching knowledge), that he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Such great confidence that I’m willing to say “I know.”

But Hughes hasn’t found the smoking gun that Will and others are made it out to be. Will’s article and Hughes book are both padded with backstory and dot-connecting that aren’t derived directly from the tapes or from the public record.

Hughes would argue that the 1968 sabotage was Nixon’s greatest secret, that he built a citadel of surveillance and paranoia around himself in order to protect that secret, and that Watergate must necessarily be understood as an outcome of this secrecy. I agree that Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks were probably his greatest secret – but we have not heard Nixon himself admit that. That’s the nature of secrets and the nature of Nixon. And Nixon is nothing if not resistance to simple casual analyses. One simply cannot imagine a Nixon White House sans paranoia and plumbers, with or without the Peace Talks scandal, just as one cannot imagine Nixon as a consistent ideologue or as a good friend or as a convincingly honest man.

We will probably never get that piece of hard evidence – the fact in a pumpkin patch, the smoking datum – that proves Nixon intentionally sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks and deliberately extended the Vietnam War until October 1972 for political purposes. We don’t need such concrete evidence, really – the historical evidence against Nixon is about as strong as historical evidence gets. In lieu of a taped confession, we must content ourselves with reasonable inference based on hard data. And Hughes’s transcript is one more very hard datum to add to the pile, shedding a little more light on Nixon’s most heinous crime; undue focus on Watergate and the plumbers distracts from the fact that Nixon committed his most evil act before he was even president. We should be interested in the 1968 Paris Talks not because they led to Watergate and resignation. We should be interested because they represent a devastating lost opportunity to end the wickedest war in American history.

Track and Field with Judith Butler

By Amanda Grigg

Earlier this month Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India, was barred from international competition following an evaluation of her testosterone levels.  Chand has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which is characterized by excessive levels of testosterone. The condition puts Chand’s (naturally occurring) testosterone levels in the male range according to the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field. Both the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now use testosterone levels to determine whether female athletes can compete as females. Though they have moved away from the language of “sex determination” testing, and now suggest that their efforts are designed to ensure fairness because (though this is highly contested) having testosterone levels in the typical male range give some women an “unfair” advantage.

Dutee Chand
Dutee Chand via the New York Times

It’s unclear what prompted the request that Chand be tested, which was reportedly made by someone at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in June. In a prominent past case, South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification testing after she somewhat suddenly improved her times and began winning races. Though Chand has exhibited no such sudden changes, she acknowledges that she has a masculine build, which might have motivated someone to request that she be tested.

This might seem odd (and sexist, and draconian) but it’s actually a return to normal for international athletics. Sex-determination testing used to be required for female olympians, a result of regular allegations that men were posing as female athletes. Testing was, thankfully, phased out in 1999 but in the past several years has come back to international track and field with a bang.

In 2009 then 18 year old South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification tests after questions were raised “about her muscular physique and drastic improvement.” A description of the testing required for sex verification featured in the NYT suggests that it is invasive and extensive.

The testing done on Semenya takes weeks to complete. It requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender. The effort, coordinated by Dr. Harold Adams, a South African on the I.A.A.F. medical panel, was conducted at hospitals in Berlin and South Africa.

Eventually Semenya was reinstated. By this time her initial test results had been made public without her consent, she had been sidelined from the sport for a year, missing out on an estimated $250,000 in prize money, had been forced to undergo a bevy of tests, and was embroiled in an international controversy. The shift from sex-verification testing to a testosterone standard was in large part a result of the mishandling of Semenya’s case.

Non-binary sex traits are actually surprisingly common. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that in one in 100 births children exhibit sex traits that differ from the standard male or female and that in one or two in 1,000 births children receive surgery to “normalize” their genital appearance. There are also several chromosomal conditions that result in non-binary sex traits which do not become evident until puberty. Anne Fausto-Sterling famously argued that roughly 1.7% of the population is intersex. The figure is disputed based on her broad definition of intersex, but works for our purposes of non-binary sex/sex presentation that would raise the suspicions of the IOC and IAAF.

According to a case study released in an academic endocrinology journal, at least four female athletes at the 2012 London Olympics tested beyond the female limits for testosterone. All four reported an absences of menstruation and were found to have enlarged clitorises and undescended testes. Genetic testing revealed that the athletes had various genetic mutations resulting in XY (male) chromosomes presenting with an outwardly female body.  According to the authors all four athletes expressed the desire to maintain their female identity:

We thus proposed a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy, to which the 4 athletes agreed after informed consent on surgical and medical procedures.

These women opted to undergo procedures to feminize/normalize their bodies, though purportedly, thanks to the end of “sex-verification” and the instatement of the testosterone standard, in order to compete they were only required to lower their testosterone levels. Similarly women like Chand who exhibit hyperandrogenism are offered the choice of having surgery or taking pills to artificially lower their testosterone levels.

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya

Problematically, science on the benefits of testosterone does not make it clear that heightened levels confer an inherent advantage. Testosterone is just one part of the body’s complex physiology and the importance of skill, training, and psychology further complicate the potential potency of testosterone. Chand’s case suggests as much. In fact, if you compare Chand’s personal best times to the top times at the 2012 Olympics, she places outside of the top 24 in all three of the events in which she competes (100m, 200m and 400m).

In the case of the IOC testosterone testing is mandatory for all female athletes. In the case of the IAAF, monitoring occurs by request and is thus based largely on physical appearance and comportment, meaning that one’s gender presentation is fundamentally mixed up in observers’ attempts to ferret out the not-sufficiently female athletes. And competitors appear to be more than happy to evaluate one another’s sex based solely on appearance. Speaking to journalists after the initial announcement that Semenya would undergo testing, fellow competitor Elisa Cusma of Italy, said “These kind of people should not run with us…For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” Russian runner Mariya Savinova told reporters that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test, saying “Just look at her.”

These procedures seem drastic but in fact they mimic and formalize the kind of informal gender policing that plagues women’s sports in the US and often targets women of color. Female athletes tend to challenge cultural ideals of femininity and what female bodies should look like. And the blurring of gender and sex boundaries tends to make people anxious (cue Judith Butler). If these anxiety-inducing athletes fail to counter their nonconformity with adequate kowtowing to femininity and heterosexuality they’re publicly ridiculed. For ridicule in particularly racialized terms and despite regular expression of traditionally feminine traits see Serena Williams. Notably and problematically this often takes the form of accusing women of being trans, as these charming men employing trans-slurs to criticize Serena Williams on twitter demonstrate (I excluded the worst of the tweets, which included more slurs and threats of violence against trans women).


Let’s recap: In order to compete at the international female athletes – and for the IAAF particularly those who appear masculine – must meet an arbitrary standard of female-ness. If they do not, they are required to normalize themselves until they do. If you teach Judith Butler this is like mana sent from the how-to-explain-social-construction-to-freshman heavens.

These procedures have historically been referred to as “sex-verification” but they are irrevocably tied up with gender. They are a great illustration of how closely linked sex and gender are and offer powerful evidence in support of Butler’s argument that sex is both socially constructed and that the binary construction of sex is forcibly enforced (in part because it is vital that it appear to be a clear, pre-existing, natural division from which gender (masculine/feminine) and sexuality (attraction to women/men) stem).[1]

“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms…”Sex” is thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the “one” becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility.

 Butler, Bodies That Matter p. 4

For those who aren’t fans of academese, here’s Alice Drager, professor medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern on the IAAF’s sex determination processes:

at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision…And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’

These cases raise all kinds of interesting and important and infuriating issues. First, the emphasis on testosterone in determining sex eligibility is not only scientifically unsound but reinforces the notion that testosterone belongs to men (in fact it occurs naturally in both women and men though at varying levels) and that this inherently male trait is associated with and even the primary determinant of athletic prowess (can you say scientific sexism)?

Second, it is beyond suspicious that the majority of the women embroiled in sex determination scandals have been women of color. In the US, black women in particular have historically been deemed inherently less feminine than white women and in many meaningful ways have not considered to be “women” at all. As noted, in the IAAF, requests for sex-determination testing can be made based solely on an observer’s (coach or athlete)’s perception that the female athlete in question might not be adequately female. Insofar as race shapes perceptions of femininity and masculinity, it would likely play a role in decisions to request sex-determination testing [2].

In addition to IOC and IAAF policies exposing women to invasive testing and forced hormone therapy and even surgery, the IAAF’s request-based testing would seem to incentivize female athletes to make efforts to present themselves in as female and feminine a way as possible. There is no such incentive or requirement for male athletes, nor is there an equivalent test to ensure that they have adequate levels of testosterone, the right chromosomes, the right genitals. The argument that applying these invasive tests and requiring these life-changing procedures of women and not men isn’t discriminatory is based on the notion that these policies are only required to level the playing field among women, not men. Accordingly, both organizations are shifting away from declaring that their tests determine sex and instead suggesting that the tests ensure that no one has an “unfair” advantage. But if these athletes identify as women, and if the tests no longer claim to prove that they are not women, then the playing field is no less level than it would be if another female athlete had a natural difference that might make her more competitive, let’s say particularly long legs or large lungs. This would seem to be particularly true if, as is the case, women with high testosterone levels are not swamping the medal stands.

There are also compelling arguments that equal access to sports, particularly at the elite levels, is vital for ensuring social, economic and political equality. Thus excluding intersex and non-binary women from elite athletic competitions is a troubling act of discrimination on multiple fronts. And requiring that women alone conform to a certain standard of sex (to pass testing) and gender presentation (to avoid undergoing testing) in order to access this opportunity is equally disturbing.

Finally, we should ask where these policies leave transgender athletes. Trans women who take hormone pills might be allowed to compete, though in light of competitor’s responses to Semenya this would almost certainly lead to controversy over the insufficiency of the testosterone standard. And those who choose not to or who cannot undergo hormone therapy would seemingly find no place in international track and field.

Happily, Chand’s case offers a glimmer of hope. In the past female athletes subject to sex-verification have given in to the IOC and IAAF, “quietly” consenting to surgery to lower testosterone or leaving the sport. Some, like the four identified at the 2012 Olympics, have undergone plastic surgery recommended to further feminize their bodies. This history makes Chand’s decision to fight the ban particularly momentous. According to Juliet Macur who profiled Chand for the New York Times, “Dutee Chand loves her body just the way it is…She believes that the body she was born with — every chromosome, cell and organ — makes her the woman she is.”


[1] This is always the hardest thing to convince undergraduates of when you’re teaching Butler. Or maybe second hardest after convincing them to muddle through her…unique writing style.

[2] In the cases of Chand and Semenya, these requests have come during international competitions and not from competitions within their own country, where they would have both been part of the majority race.


Remind Me: How is Putin Winning?

By Seth Studer


Last week, the Washington Post ran a headline that captures everything wrong about how Russian president Vladimir Putin’s political and military maneuvers in eastern Europe have been covered in the West: “Ukraine ratifies associations with E.U., grants concessions to rebels.” The newly strengthened relationship between Kiev and the E.U. is rightly emphasized, but the small concessions to Russophone rebels in eastern Ukraine is added as an apparently obligatory counterbalance – common throughout what we in America cloyingly call “the mainstream media” – to reinforce the narrative that Russia is somehow on the move. I say “cloyingly” because the sentiment reflects an American Cold War nostalgia that never quite collapsed under the Berlin Wall or the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a nostalgia for three networks, two newspapers, and one Bad Guy. “See! Concessions! This is why Obama is weak and Putin is strong! The West is in retreat and the rebels are getting concessions! Right?! Right?!”

Mr. President, build up that wall!
Mr. President, build up that wall!

Here’s a different perspective:

At this time last year – September 24, 2013 – Ukraine’s president was little more than Putin’s stooge, Moscow’s man in Kiev, a corrupt thug who lived in a Eurotrash mansion (“Opulence: I has it”) and kept two bells on his nightstand: one for vodka, the other for prostitutes. Viktor Yanukovych had spent his political life advocating and advancing close ties to Russia. He became president after his predecessor, a reformer who was poisoned and disfigured in what amounts to hilarious retro-Cold War shenanigans gone terribly wrong, failed to win reelection. Ukraine was leaning toward Russia, and through Yanukovych, Putin effectively determined Ukrainian foreign policy. You might say that Putin was co-president of Ukraine.

Flash forward one year: Yanukovych is gone, ousted by his own people. Instead of enjoying considerable power over Ukrainian policy, Putin now owns Crimea (which has only been Ukrainian since 1954), exerts direct influence over some parts of eastern Ukraine (instead of the whole thing), and finances (though denies any ties to) a ragtag bunch of crypto-fascist Russophones who can’t distinguish between a Ukrainian fighter jet and a passenger plane full of innocent Europeans (they can’t even control their Twitter accounts; at least ISIS has decent PR guys).

Meanwhile, Kiev has never been closer to Europe, and its fate has never seem more intertwined with the EU’s. As a bonus, the Baltic states just got reassurance that NATO benefits will be honored, and Russia is facing several not-insiginificant economic sanctions from many of its ostensible allies.

Am I the only one who sees Putin as the net-loser here? And Obama? He barely had to do a thing to achieve this outcome.

But...but...Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn't wear a shirt!
But…but…Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn’t wear a shirt!

Twenty-five years ago, Berlin was the primary political border of Europe, where East and West faced off. Today, the border has shifted eastward…all the way to Kiev. Putin (shirtless) is in a helluva fix, and all Obama (mom jeans) had to do was make a couple phone calls. The West is kind of kicking ass, and we’re not even trying that hard. Because while Russian hardliners project a lot of strength, they tend to exert it by beating dogs, shooting tigers, and undermining themselves.

8 Hours in a Struggling School

By Amanda Grigg

Disclaimer: While I have an interest in education policy I am by no means an expert. My experience in this school probably won’t be shocking to anyone working in public education or studying education policy, and probably shouldn’t have come as as much of a shock to me as it did. I’ve read about failing schools, I’ve heard war stories from friends who teach in underfunded schools, but experiencing it firsthand was another matter entirely.

In search of a way to earn a bit of extra money while finishing my dissertation (without suffering the soul-crushing world of retail) I decided to try substitute teaching. In Michigan, the majority of K-12 institutions have outsourced their substitute hiring to staffing companies, so I signed on with one of the two in the area.

In order to substitute teach I had to send in official copies of my transcript, authorize a background check, go to the police department to have my fingerprints done (who knew they charged for that?), fill out a mountain of forms, go through several hours of online tutorials followed by quizzes that weren’t scored, and attend a torturously long in-person meeting. We spent approximately half of the meeting filling out forms together and another half hour being warned not to touch the children or use school computers.  The one interesting thing I learned in the meeting was that by the time students graduate, they have spent an entire year with a substitute teacher.

Classroom_desks_chairs_and_chalkboardI took this to heart, and was ready to lay down some serious knowledge at my first substitute teaching gig, filling in for a high school english teacher. It was the Friday of the first week of school. As recommended, I prepared a backup lesson plan, forced myself into dress pants for the first time since my last academic conference, and arrived at the school a full hour early to make sure I had time to find my classroom and prepare for the students’ arrival. It was still dark when I got to the school. The secretary at the front desk looked at me curiously then laughed when I told her I was a sub. She said I wouldn’t be able to get into my room for another 30 minutes at least.

When the secretary eventually handed me my assignment and asked me to sign in I noticed that I had been assigned to substitute for a Spanish class. I don’t speak a word of Spanish. I told the secretary as much, but she waved me off and picked up a walkie talkie, requesting a security guard to unlock my room for me. We had been warned at the sub meeting that we might be asked to fill in for another position occasionally, and that the staffing company recommended that in these cases we just “pitch in” and help out (and implicitly that we do so regardless of whether we’re equipped to teach in the subject area).

Following the directions of the secretary I made my way through the building, past the cafeteria and several banks of lockers. I paused at a bulletin board listing colleges students might want to apply to. Several were historically black colleges, the rest I had never heard of. Few if any had average ACT scores above 20. None of the major public universities in Michigan were listed.

I found my way to my classroom where I was welcomed by the other Spanish teacher, and then promptly joined by another substitute. Neither she nor the administrator who had ushered her into the room explained why they were placing a second substitute in the class. It turned out that she had subbed in the class earlier in the week, and wasn’t needed in the job she had signed up for for the day. She began filling me in on what they had worked on, and on what was going with this class.

BudgetCutCartoonMiamiHerald1According to my fellow sub, I was about to be the third substitute the students had had in their first week of school because the school had yet to hire a new Spanish teacher. She said that the school had had such low test scores in previous years that they were being looked at closely by the state (this turned out to be mostly true). As a result, they had fired about half of their teachers at the end of last year and had yet to replace them all. In their first week of class, the Spanish I students had learned to count to 10 in Spanish. They had no textbooks or workbooks, because only full-time teachers can request textbooks from the school. There wasn’t a notebook, piece of scrap paper or pencil to be found. When students asked to borrow a pencil we had to ask other students to lend them one. Most of the technology in the room didn’t work. The Spanish II teacher offered us a binder full of worksheets for the students but the school’s copy machine was broken. Earlier in the week they had used the projector to project worksheets about the numbers 1-10 onto a screen, but now the projector was broken and regardless, the remaining worksheets required the students to speak basic spanish. And they couldn’t cancel the class and move the students into classes with full-time teachers because they were required by the state to offer two years of Spanish.

As soon as students began filtering in I realized that the vast majority of the students were black. This might not be surprising in a school district that’s predominantly black (or if you, unlike me, hadn’t forgotten how segregated Michigan is) but the population of the school district this school is in is only 20% black. According to schooldigger.com the student body is 77% black.

We spent the first two periods of the day doing as much as we could with uno-diez. By the third period an administrator brought what they thought was a dvd for us to play for the students. But that turned out to be a software disc. Eventually they brought in a set of beginner’s spanish dvds.

At the start of every period the students, without fail, asked if I was their teacher. At first I said yes until I realized what they meant, “No, are you our real teacher?” When I said no I could see the (completely justified) frustration on their faces. Early in each period the students humored us. They knew their work was meaningless because there wasn’t even a “real” teacher for it to be turned into, though the second sub assured them several times that it would be carefully guarded and passed on once they had a real teacher. Their patience didn’t last long. They asked us whether we spoke Spanish, how they were supposed to learn anything if we weren’t actually Spanish teachers (fair points), complained that the first week of school had passed without them getting a real teacher, and joked that they were going to call the “Problem Solvers” (our local news station’s investigative team).

Throughout the day students regularly left the room without saying a word and returned halfway through the period or not at all. Students from other classes wandered in to visit with friends (greatschools.org reviews of the school suggest that this is the norm). When I followed a couple of students into the hallway to ask them to come back they ignored me and continued walking. The school has their own security but neither they nor administration ever ushered a student back into my class. A young woman interrupted class to ask where she could charge her cell phone. Several students got into a mostly playful yelling match, standing up in the middle of class to shout at one another.

There were also students who dutifully filled out the meaningless worksheets, asked questions, had us check their work. Students who volunteered to write on the board or share their answers with the class. And there were students who ignored the work who were clever and funny enough that I had a hard time not laughing at their jokes, students who walked out of class but returned to offer to help us fix the broken projector, students who I was sure would have been engaged if they trusted that their work was meaningful and their teacher was qualified. The students who spoke fluent spanish corrected the videos where they were dated – explaining that no, they don’t refer to e-mail as the spanish equivalent of “electronic mail.”

During lunch the second sub and I went to the teachers’ lounge, where she told me a bit more about the school. She predicted that at least half of the new teachers wouldn’t stay on past their first year, “the kids will break them.” Thinking back to the staffing meeting I worried aloud that we hadn’t taught anyone much thus far and she said “Don’t worry, they don’t expect you to teach them anything here. As long as they don’t hurt each other they’re happy. When I go to [a predominantly white school] I’m expected to teach but here, no.”

In 2012 just 1.3% of the school's students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.
In 2012 just 1.3% of the school’s students met standards for math proficiency. As of 2014 this number had reached 3%.

I met a handful of other teachers, including two of the new teachers. When I mentioned the difficulties we were having they conspiratorially admitted that they didn’t have anywhere near the support or materials they needed. A new math teacher told us that she had been hired late in the summer and told to take the first week of school off as a professional development week, to get to know the school, prepare her materials, etc. She stopped into her classroom halfway through the first week and asked the substitute what her students had been working on. The sub said “Oh, I’m a health teacher, we haven’t been doing any math.” She came to work the next day. Several teachers came in to use the copy machine only to find that it was (still) broken. One mentioned that things might be easier once the students received the Nook tablets the school would be handing out soon. I assumed that they were part of some company promotion or technology grant, otherwise why in the world would the school invest their limited funds on tablets when they can’t keep teachers in the classrooms or maintain their existing technology?

By the end of the day the students were restless. A young man on one of the athletic teams (easily identified by his dress shirt and school-color striped tie) spoke Spanish and was clearly fed up with the week of sub-par Spanish. He rushed his fellow classmates through the work, chastising them when they couldn’t copy down the vocabulary words quickly enough. A student came in late with a sucker, then asked to leave class to go back to the cantine for more candy. His classmates made fun of him for eating so much, and he managed to look both hurt and humored by them. He later began yelling that a fellow student’s purse had been stolen. The young woman in question seemed unworried, and when I asked her what was going on she smiled and pointed to the boy who had hidden it, who quickly returned it to her.

I turned to look at my own purse perched on the teacher’s desk and realized that my cell phone wasn’t where I had left it (in a pocket of the purse). I had taken it out earlier to check the time because, of course, the clock in the room wasn’t working. I looked for it behind the desk, in the depths of the bag, in my lunch bag, to no avail. The other substitute walked over and I said, “I can’t find my phone,” and (not wanting it to be true) said, “no one would have taken it would they?” This time it was her looking at me in disbelief. “Of course they would.” The next 30 minutes sped by. The second substitute announced that my phone was missing and asked if anyone had seen it. The students let out a collective “oooooh someone’s in trouble” noise. An administrator and a security guard were quickly summoned to the room. They demanded that the phone be returned. The security guard asked me to call my phone, it went straight to voicemail. He announced to the students that he was leaving to review the video of the hallway outside of our room to see who might have left with the phone during the hour (you might not be surprised to learn that the cameras weren’t actually on at the time). Two of the students who were dressed for game day stood at the door, telling the administrator (their coach) that they were making sure no one left the room. The student with the candy stood up and began yelling that he had to leave the room to make it to his community service on time, “Lady, you better let me out of here!” The administrator came back and a security guard escorted the student to the main office. The security guard asked me to show him where my purse had been, what kind of phone I had, when I had last seen it. He explained that cell phones “unfortunately” go missing pretty regularly in the school. A few students stood in the hallway talking to their coach. Later the student athlete who had been frustrated with his classmates (and guarding the door) came into the room, took me aside, and explained what was going on. At this point it felt a bit like the students were taking care of me, shaking their heads and explaining that this happens all the time, offering to let me use their phones to call my cellphone company, asking whether I had Find My Phone turned on. The student athlete told me that a friend had seen the person who took my phone, and that they were in the process of searching him. He didn’t have the phone on him, so they let him go, and I left a number with the security guard and headed home.

School-to-Prison-IllustrationI didn’t hear from the school again until Monday afternoon. During the final period of the day they got a written statement from the student witness, which they said allowed them to call the parents of the student they now referred to as “a credible suspect.” Though I was still working exclusively with school officials, the language was entirely that of the criminal justice system.

Sidenote: they told me that the student had probably sold the phone for $30, which is apparently the going rate for stolen iPhones.

On Tuesday the student’s mother told the Dean of Students that she hadn’t seen him in two weeks, and that she had just reported him as a runaway. The Dean had already suspended the student for stealing the phone – a punishment thatI have never understood and which seemed particularly counterintuitive in the case of a runaway. He hadn’t turned up in school on Monday anyway, probably waiting “until the heat died down” about the phone. According to the Dean of Students, the student’s mother said that she was fed up with him and hoped that I would press charges. I told him that I wasn’t planning on doing so, that I was only interested in getting my phone back and saw no point in tying this kid up in the criminal justice system when he clearly needed help that it couldn’t and wouldn’t provide. He said he understood but urged me to press charges, saying that this wasn’t the first time the student had been in trouble, he’s done things like this before etc. He told me that if the student returned to the school they would hold him there because he’s been reported as a runaway, and that they would contact me if and when he does. I haven’t heard from them in two weeks.

I’ve done some research on the school since I left. I learned that enrollment has been declining over the past seven years and that white students are leaving the school in droves. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of students declined from 1357 to 651 and the percentage of white students went from 23% to just 5.8%. Meanwhile the number of students eligible for free lunch has skyrocketed – up from 29% of students in 1999 and 56% in 2002, it’s held steady above 80% since 2006. On the upside, graduation rates increased from 54.9% in 2012 to 67.6% in 2014.

Test scores are certainly poor enough to warrant attention from the state. In 2014 the school’s test scores ranked worse than 82% of schools in Michigan. In the 2009 Michigan Merit Examination (MME)  only 14.5% of students met the state standard for english language arts proficiency, compared to 28.4% in the district and 52.1% in the state. In 2014, 29% of students were MME proficient in reading (compared to 39% in the district and 59% in the state). In the same year, just 3% of students met the state standard for proficiency in math and science (compared to 14% in the district and 28% in the state).

In 2010 the school was one of 28 Michigan schools awarded a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) as part of a recovery act program targeting low-performing schools. Only the bottom 5% of schools in each state were eligible. Michigan received $115 million in funds in the first round of SIG funding, $5.3 million of which went to this school. The school district opted to implement the SIG “transformation plan” which is likely what my fellow substitute referred to when explaining the recent changes in staff.  According to the technology associate at the school, they spent roughly $1.5 million – a fifth of their grant – purchasing a nook tablet and ebooks/subscriptions for every student in the school. The Nooks arrived at the school last year and will, as another teacher mentioned, be handed out to students later this month.

Reviews on greatschools.org offer more examples of the day to day life at the school. A parent explains that “everyone is frustrated and burned out.” Another sub says they were “shocked by the behaviors of students. Each class had only 4-8 dedicated students while the rest of the class kicked chairs down, called me names, ripped up assignments and threw the remnants on the ground. I called security, and no one came.” Another parent says “in my opinion this is a terrible school for your students to go to.”

Three of the six student reviews call for greater parental involvement. One review is particularly heartbreaking  “For the adults who claim that there is no hope for our school, this shows how much support we have. I am a student who has earned my 4.0 gpa and I don’t believe that because there are bad apples in the bunch we should all be classified as hopeless children.”

I finished writing this from the Starbucks I frequent. It’s coincidentally next to a high school that’s less than 3 miles from the school where I subbed. This high school ranks in the 98th percentile of schools in Michigan, fewer than 10% of students qualify for free lunch, and the student body is 90% white. In 2014, 68% of students met standards for MME math scores and 60% met the standard for science (compared to 3% each in my sub school). Students regularly stop in Starbucks after school or during their free hours toting Macbooks, the girls outfitted in Ugg boots and NorthFace jackets. I’ve seen their mothers replicate a J Crew catalog outfit down to the bracelet. The girls next to me at the moment are reviewing for a quiz – “Who was John Winthrop? He was the city on a hill guy, the Puritan leader. Who was Montezuma? Umm. Who were the Aztecs? Why are we learning about this?” I ask them if they know anything about the school where I subbed, “I have no clue, I’ve never been anywhere near it…but I’ve heard it’s really different.” That’s one way to put it.


If you need to laugh after this (I know I did) here’s Key & Peele’s “substitute teacher” sketch