Monday, 17 March 2008

In the Navy

I've met quite a few ex-US Navy guys in Japan; the big naval base at Yokosuka is nearby and a large number of the men stationed there seem to end up staying on in this area after leaving the services. Without exception they've been funny, interesting and nice people, which has always made me suspicious of people who portray the US armed forces in a negative light. (Europeans tend to see the US military as composed either of redneck barbarians like the guys in Deliverance, or of mean-spirited, arrogant, amoral yobs. Neither of these stereotypes exists in my experience, but then again I've only met those who end up stationed in Japan.)

They also tell great stories. One of my favourites is about the USS Pueblo, which is a technical research ship that was captured in 1968 by North Korea (apparently it was 'spying') who have kept it ever since.

The facts of the Pueblo case are typical squalid cold-war fare. The Pueblo had around 80 crew, who were imprisoned, starved and tortured by the North Koreans in an effort to get them to admit to being spies. Eventually the CO relented and gave the requested admission after being told that his entire crew would be executed if he didn't; all the captives were eventually released when the US government gave an official apology.

But the CO and his crew were men with a sense of humour, which is what elevates the story above the mundane. Firstly, they would take considerable effort to sabotage the North Koreans' plans to use them as a propaganda tool, mainly by secretly giving their captives the finger in staged photographs. This continued until the North Koreans found out and started torturing them even more. Secondly, as nobody in North Korea could understand English properly, the crew would insert puns into their 'confessions' which would not be noticed by censors. The famous example is the confession offered by the CO, which contained the lines "We paean the North Korean state. We paean the great leader Kim Il Sung" - which sounded suitably crawling to the North Koreans, but sounds like "We pee on the North Korean state..." to an American. Finally, as soon as the men were released, they retracted their admissions and the the US government took back its apology.

It's something we can all understand. Without doubt, if you were captured by the North Koreans, you would want to do the same thing: to get back at them somehow, however petty. Spite is such a readily recognisable human instinct. But it makes me wonder about the world of today when I reflect that last year, when a group of British sailors were take prisoner by the Iranian Republican Guard after an incident in the Gulf, none of them made any effort to undermine their captors and in fact seemed all too ready to sing like canaries. Are the sailors of 2008 so different to those 40 years ago?

No comments: