WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Burial of First Cavalry troops at Santo Tomas

In February 1945, over 3700 Allied civilians were held captive by the Japanese in the Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila, Philippines.  General MacArthur knew of their existence and feared that the Japanese would execute them, as they had other prisoners under their control.  MacArthur faced multiple obstacles in attempting a rescue: the Japanese had a stranglehold on the city, the monsoons had brought drenching rain to the area, and his troops were unfamiliar with the territory.  Still, he devised a plan to rescue the civilians and charged the First Cavalry to carry it out.  Just 66 hours after landing in the Philippines, the First Cav tanks broke through the gates of Santo Tomas and liberated the prisoners.  Once the civilians were safe, the military fought the Japanese for over a month, before securing the city.  I am very familiar with this piece of military history, as my husband and his family were among the 3700 who were saved.

The line-up in Kabul, August 21

It was impossible to watch the events in Afghanistan last week without wondering, “where is our modern-day MacArthur?”.  Our exit from Afghanistan has been a debacle, seemingly without intelligence or a plan.  It was always going to be messy, and we were never going to be able to extricate all of the Afghan people who helped us, but it didn’t have to be this bad.  As I write this on Sunday there are still thousands of U.S. citizens trapped by the Taliban, along with untold numbers of Afghani people who helped us and were promised safe passage out of the country.  The President’s message on Friday was filled with untruths.  One only had to juxtapose his comment about Americans’ ability to get out of Kabul with the live reporting by CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who reported that same hour that it was almost impossible to safely get inside the airport. Biden also claimed that there was no rift with our allies over our exit from Afghanistan.  Earlier that same day the Germans, French and British had blistered the U.S. for the way in which we were exiting, exposing not only our own citizens to harm, but those of our allies.  Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Biden’s plan “imbecilic”.   To be sure, there is plenty of blame to be placed on all three of Biden’s predecessors for the problems of the past 20 years, but the way in which we leave Afghanistan is squarely on his shoulders.

We are used to politicians covering their backsides, so Biden’s remarks weren’t that surprising.  What was striking were the actions of Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley.   Or more precisely, their inaction.  There are a lot of people calling for their resignations over the fiasco in Kabul, but under the Constitution, they answer to the Commander-in-Chief, and must carry out his orders.  At their press conference last week they exhibited the same enthusiasm for their mission as would a private ordered to empty latrines.  Assuming they disagree with the strategy and are just following orders, I don’t believe they should be fired.  I think they should resign.  When General “Mad Dog” Mattis disagreed with Trump’s policy on Syria, he resigned rather than carry out orders with which he vehemently disagreed.   That’s what people with principles do.  Instead, Austin was asked a question about rescuing all of the Americans and his response was, “we do not have the capability to go in (to Kabul) and get large numbers of people”.  Yes, General, we do.  In fact we have one of the most capable armies in the history of the world.  So clearly t’s not a matter of capabilities, it’s a matter of will.  Can you imagine any of the great U.S. Generals – Grant, Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton – making that statement?  Had MacArthur taken that approach, my husband might very well have died in the prison camp.  There is a report that a U.S. Army general called his counterpart in Britain, asking him to stop the rescue missions for their citizens because it was making the U.S. look bad.  The Pentagon denies that report; the British are standing by it.  My fervent hope is that this blog is rendered obsolete by Tuesday and that the generals have Special Ops teams at work getting people out.

             Women in Kabul, 2001

No matter the events of the next few weeks, we are a long way from knowing how all of this will play out.  In the short term, it’s safe to say that women and girls will have a very difficult time under the Taliban.   There are already reports of women who were turned away from their places of work and young girls denied entrance to their schools.  Young girls are being “married” to Taliban members.  God help them.  In the long run, we can only hope that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists bent on destroying us.

Ultimately, the fate of the Afghanistan lies with its people.  Perhaps the younger generation, more educated and aware of the broader world than their counterparts 20 years ago, will spark a rebellion against the barbarians now in charge.  Only time will tell.

Afghanistan has long been known as “the country where empires go to die”.  We are now one of them.  The shame lies not in our exit, but that the manner of it was not befitting the brave people who fought there.

 

 

 

 

PERSPECTIVE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

My husband and his mother, 1941

Ten years ago this week my mother-in-law passed away at the age of 96.  That’s a good run by anyone’s standards but given her life story, it was truly extraordinary.  I’ve been thinking about her a lot this summer as we have wended our way through the coronavirus pandemic.  At times it was easy to get discouraged, between social distancing, isolation from family and not being able to eat the raspberry granola pancakes at our favorite restaurant.  But whenever I would begin to feel just the teensiest bit sorry for myself I would think of all that she endured and realize what a dope I was for being ungrateful.   Some may have read my previous posts about her, or read our book, In the Enemy’s Camp, but for those of you who are unfamiliar the following is a recap.

 

          Internee shanties 

Kathleen Chapman Watson was born in the Philippines to a British mother and an American father.  She enjoyed a wonderful childhood that she spoke about fondly for the rest of her days.  At age 22 she married Daniel Watson, a Scot who was based in Manila working for a Glasgow import/export company.  They expanded their family in 1937 with a son, Richard, and in 1941 with my husband, Alan.  They believed their life to be perfect.  Then in December 1941 the Japanese attacked Manila.  By January, all men who possessed Allied citizenship were taken to an internment camp at Santo Tomas University.  Kathleen and the boys stayed in their home but the Japanese slowly began to confiscate their possessions.  First it was their car, then furniture and finally, their house.  By August, her parents were sent to the U.S. in a prisoner exchange and she saw no choice but to join Danny in the camp.  All told, more than 3500 Allied citizens ended up in Santo Tomas, mostly businessmen and their families.  The overcrowding was stifling, both in terms of privacy and space.  Eventually many of the families, including Daniel and Kathleen,  built shanties outside the main dormitory building to gain some semblance of a home.

For more than three and one-half years they lived with the privations and vagaries of their Japanese captors.  By the end of their captivity they were allotted just 800 calories per day.  Danny had every tropical disease known to man and his 6’2″ frame was skeletal.  Kathleen suffered with malaria throughout their internment.  The news they received was spotty at best and most updates were based on unsubstantiated rumor.  Finally in September of 1944 they heard the rumblings of something unrefutable: American bomber planes.   By Christmas of that year they were still held captive, with increasing retribution and punishments by the Japanese.  The salvation they thought was imminent in September had still not materialized. Yet despite their disappointment, in the diary that Kathleen kept during their time in Santo Tomas, this is what she wrote on that Christmas Day:

Contrary to all expectations, Danny and I have agreed that is is the happiest Christmas we have ever experienced because our sense of appreciation has been so sharpened that every simple thing has appeared in a roseate hue.  This Christmas season, watered by the tears of desperation and despair, and enriched with a great hope for a new future in a brave new world, is a Christmas which we shall always remember.  

Her children were habitually hungry, she and her husband were weakened and sick, and she hadn’t seen her family in over three years. Still, her optimistic attitude shined through.  It was her defining characteristic until her dying day – she always found something cheerful on which to focus.  So, as I said at the beginning of this post, whenever I feel a little down with all that’s going on in the world I try to channel her buoyant outlook and remember that as bad as things are, I’m not living in a leaky shanty held captive by an invading army.  Sort of puts things in perspective.

2007 – Kathleen with her two great-grandsons 

Footnote: Kathleen’s optimism was rewarded in February 1945 when the First Cavalry burst through the gates of the camp and rescued the prisoners.  The family set sail for the United States in early April and by mid-May they were safely docked in Los Angeles.  Abandoning their plans to move to Scotland, they decided to settle in Pasadena, where they eventually started a business, worked hard, and lived the American dream.