Gareth Jones

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Militarism In Asia

Gareth Jones,
Bangkok, Siam.
June, 1935 

For many months I have been a wanderer in the Far East hastening from the cliff girt pine-bejewelled coasts of Japan to the luxuriant Philippines to the coconut groves of the South Sea Islands to the volcanoes and rubber forests of Java, to the glittering golden temples of Siam, to French Indo China with its ruins of the past glory hidden in tiger infested jungles and to the bandit harassed interior of old China. 

What has left the deepest impression upon me during this journey of thousands of miles through many countries?

 More than by the beauties of the present and by the glories of the past, I have been moved by fear of the future through out the Far East, which once was the home of peace and philosophy of resignation and of contemplation, a new religion is tearing into shreds the tranquility of yesterday, and is crashing with the roar of drums into the calm of the priests of yore.

This new religion is the WORSHIP of the SOLDIER.  In each new land I have seen rising the sceptre of militarism.  In Japan I tramped though gorges where the trees clung like grim death to the rocks, where water falls spattered down into the depths, and where the paths were littered with the bizarre stone gods of old.  Then with a breath taking suddenness Mount Fuji rose white-capped to complete a scene of peace.  Crash!  In the midst of this idyll I had to leap for my life to the side of the road, for hurtling madly round the corner came a line of Japanese military tanks, painted in brown and green, with determined ruthless head peeping out, as their engines of death shattered the poetry of the countryside.   It was a symbol of the war machine breaking into the Asia of the artist and the dreamer.

 When I returned to Tokyo I saw how the soldiers dominated national life how the civilians in the Government had little to say before the military men, how the War Office scorned the Foreign Office and how the young officers set them selves up as a Spartan example to the youth of the country and taught that Japan had a mission to save the world.  I went to see the Navy Minister, Admiral Osumi “Will not the financial situation be a barrier to the building up of a great Navy?”

 I sailed past the British rocky heights of Hong Kong, where battleships lay, a defense of British interests in South China.  There was excitement on the day on which I arrived, for young and old British citizens merchants and clerks, teachers and lawyers were donning uniforms for all night manoeuvres.

 When the Philippines came in sight I little expected to find among the Filipinos any trace of the WORSHIP of the SOLDIERS.  I was disillusioned for no sooner had I entered the Office of one of Manila’s leading politicians than he told me: “We must build up a Filipino Army, an independent army of our own, to defend our shores and to provide a training for our youth.  We must build up a Filipino Navy.  We must have an air force, for no nation is a real independent nation without an air force.” 

My journey continued towards the South, across the Equator, past Borneo to the Celebes and there, to Java.  In the smiling islands I thought that such savage preparation as that of modern warfare would be distant, but I was mistaken.  In the first port where I landed, Soerabaya, bombing seaplanes darted out towards the open sea.  “We are building up our air force,” the Dutch Colonists declared.  “We have bought fourteen Douglas planes for the Amsterdam to Batavia civil air route, but we believe that military considerations entered into the purchase of those aeroplanes.”  In Borneo the Dutch are increasing the fortifications of the leading oil ports, Balikpapan and Tarakan. 

In the centre of Java lies a magnificent temple built in pyramid shape over a thousand years ago, called Borobudur, where thousands of carved images seem to smile down upon the foibles of mankind.  “Here at last” I contemplated, as I travelled past rice fields and rubber trees, past tapioca plants and sugar cane, “I shall be able to breathe in the peace of the East. Alas! Almost within the shadows of the grey piles of massive stone, I heard the tramp, tramp of marching men, or rather a shuffling thud, for their feet were naked, disturbing symbolically the silence of the temple. 

Singapore!  A car drove me out into the country and fif­teen miles away from the City, a giant Indian Sikh soldier examined carefully my pass and let me through the barrier in the entanglement of barbed wire.  I was in the great new naval base on which Great Britain is spending many millions of pounds and which she is com­pleting at great speed.  Thousands of coolies were at work excavating, shovelling, carrying earth and stone in that tremendous scheme of converting a formerly malaria-stricken swamp into Britain’s out­post in the Far East.  I looked down-almost dizzy at the dry dock, a masterpiece of naval construction, which will hold the largest battleships afloat and saw at the gate the granite blocks, which are smoothed to a measurement of 1/4000 of an inch!  Great Britain is not being left behind in the military and naval race in the Far East.

 A dirty little tramp steamer chugged its way with myself as its only passenger to the Kingdom of Siam, which, so the Siamese claim, is the only true independent Buddhist nation in the world.  No one had greater scorn for the soldier and the fighter than the great Buddha, who lived four hundred years before Christ, and who taught that all life and all desire were evil.  Surely in Siam, a country without enemies, with Great Britain on one side and France on the other, I should find a country where there was no worship of the soldier!

 On the contrary, however, I found when I reached its capitol, Bangkok, that the revolution had led to a military dictatorship and that the Army was the real master of Siam, I went to see the Prime Minister, who is at the same time the Foreign Minister and the Commander in Chief of all the Siamese forces.  He was clad in the green uniform of a Siamese General and he received me in a room decorated with ancient and new weapons used in Siamese warfare.  “I am a soldier?" he declared bluntly and proudly.

 I went out to a large field beneath the ramparts of the Royal Palace. Workmen were busy erecting wooden towers and cloth scenes, which I saw were scenes of battle. My American companion pointed to the field and said: “That is a revolutionary change in the Siamese.  Formerly no one would have dared to touch that ground, for it was sacred, being the burial ground, but today it is being made ready for a great military display.”  The Siamese Buddhists beneath that soil would indeed turn in their graves if they knew that the consecrated field was being used for the worship of the soldier, and that a few days later Siamese military aeroplanes would encircle overhead and drop imitation bombs upon their resting place.    

Soldiers have been sent to the schools of Siam to demonstrate to the children the use of machine guns and sometimes terrifying the village youngsters who, never having seen a machine gun in their lives, are scared by the din of the war engines.

 “Why do you lay such stress on the soldier?" I asked the Minister of Education:  “We believe in military drill and military training for the youth of Siam, because they give discipline and. build character,” he declared.  Through French Indo-China I travelled and there again I saw the worship of the soldier and the lauding of the French Army

 At last I came to China, where soldiers have been regarded as the scum of society and where the scholar has been the cynosure of all eyes.  For days I traversed the country into the interior, through a district where Communist troops had marched time and time again and where bandits had their lairs.  This was real China and here, I thought, as I questioned a class of Schoolboys, I would find the old despising of the soldier.  They were one and all, fiery militants.  “I want to go to a military school and learn how to handle machine guns and tanks,” declared Wong, a youth of eighteen.  “China must become a nation with a great army,” shouted Chen.  “We must have military institutes throughout the land,” proclaimed Chiang, a meek boy with glasses.  “In the next year,” was the opinion of big-shouldered Wu, “We must have a great military machine to be able to conquer Soviet Russia and Japan!”

 Goodbye to the Pacifism of the China of yesterdays, I reflected as I left the school and passed a brigade of clumsy young men in brown uniforms, doing their compulsory military training.

 I went to see Marshal Chang Hsueh-liang, who is, after Chiang Kai-shek, the most powerful man in China.  “We want military training to build up the character of Chinese youths!” he declared to me.

 I walked through a part of Kwangtung Province and there in one town I saw sentries guarding each temple.  When I tried to enter to see the images, they barred my way with their bayonets.  The temples, I learned, had become the dwelling place of the soldiers.

 Many of the troops are at one time bandits and at other times soldiers.  Last week many folks in Changsha were startled to see a bandit chief from the South of Hunan arrive in Changsha the capitol, and pay a visit to the Governor. Next day, however, it was announced that the arch robber had been made a Colonel and that his three hundred thieves had been converted into soldiers in the Governor’s Army.

That is typical of old China.  The passion of respectable youth for militarism and for military aeroplanes is, on the other hand, revolutionary.  It reveals an Asia which is bubbling over with change and which is casting aside old beliefs for a new and dangerous creed, the WORSHIP of the SOLDIER.


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