A Wunderkammer Of Essays


Title: Pacific

Rating: 2 Stars

Simon Winchester attempts to somehow capture the essence or the spirit of the Pacific Ocean and the nations and the people that live in it.

This is clearly, any way that you look at it, an unimaginable undertaking. The Pacific Ocean is huge, covering around 1/3 the surface area of the planet. It has a huge effect upon the rest of the planet. Many nations, from The United States to Kiribati, inhabit it. There is untold history that can be told about untold people.

This is an impossible task. Winchester freely admits it. He pretty much gives up right away and claims that he will try to capture the spirit of this unimaginably huge task in a series of loosely interconnected essays that each discuss some very specific aspect of the Pacific Ocean.

In my opinion, in that he fails. Some of the essays are interesting and informative. Others left me cold and uninterested. However, in one book, to try to tackle the subjects of atomic testing, surfboarding, climate change, the rise of China, ancient Polynesian navigational techniques, and deep underwater exploration almost invariably means that some of the essays are going to land with a thud to the reader, and at the end of it, the reader is going to be thinking, WTF? What have I read? Have I learned anything about this mysterious ocean?

At the end of the day, it seemed like Winchester just had these series of essays lying around and was looking for some additional way to monetize them. He squinted, held them up to the light, maybe did some kind of word search, and was delighted to find that at some point in the text of each essay, the word Pacific appeared. Voila!

It seemed to be a little show-offy as well. It’s almost as if Winchester felt some need to prove to the world what a true polymath he is, so decided to throw all of these heterogeneous essays into one book just so that people can look at him and be amazed at the extreme breadth and depth of knowledge that he’s attained. The fact that in some footnotes he paints himself as a protagonist in some adventure story (kayaking in the boiling water of a volcano, climbing a mountain in a storm so fierce that he had to help his stoned, terrified guides off of the mountain that they were supposed to be guiding him on) makes him sound like some twenty-first century Allan Quatermain (look it up kids).

OK, I’m done venting. As I said, there were some good essays in the mix that were informative and amusing, albeit largely in a sad, colonial way (the Western world once again takes a well deserved beating here).

Here are some fun facts:

  • The United States once considered the Galapagos Islands as a suitable area for atomic tests (gah!)
  • For the second atomic test in the Pacific (Castle Bravo), some mistakes were made. First of all, the size of it was dramatically under-estimated. Secondly, even though the winds were known to be blowing towards populated islands, it was set off anyway.
  • Accordingly, an entire populated island was radiated. Physicians sat around and watched the indigenous people get sick before calling in medical help because they wanted to study the symptoms. Unprotected sailors were sent out to clean boats that were known to be contaminated.
  • In the Korean DMZ, United States soldiers tried to chop down a tree that was obstructing their view. North Korean soldiers believed that that tree was actually planted by their leader. The North Korean soldiers attacked with axes and ended up killing two American soldiers.
  • With the full approval of US President Gerald Ford, this inspired Operation Paul Bunyan. A crew of 60 US soldiers, 64 South Korean soldiers, and a howitzer; as well as for backup, an entire US infantry company, thirty helicopters, B-52 bombers, various fighter jets, and, off-shore, a fucking carrier group, went out to the DMZ and chopped down the tree. The US really showed North Korea that time!
  • In the late 1940’s, after the end of WWII, the Vietnamese, under Ho Chi Minh, petitioned for independence. The French ‘owned’ this territory and were not going to allow this to happen. The only problem was that France didn’t exactly win WWII, so its army wasn’t exactly up to the task of fighting off a committed, indigenous revolution. They demanded that the British do their fighting for them. The British obliged and tried to occupy Vietnam. However, the British did not have enough forces to do the job themselves. So, they turned to the POW Japanese soldiers. The British freed the Japanese and had them take up arms to fight the rebellion. So, to sum up, British used Japanese POW’s, who had previously subjugated the Vietnamese, to suppress the local rebellion led by a man who patterned himself after George Washington so that they could in turn hand over the territory to the French. Isn’t imperialism grand? If Asia does continue to rise up as expected this century, the West is going to find out how much of a bitch payback really is.
  • And let’s not even go into Australia and how they used literacy tests to keep out the undesirables. The choice of the literacy test was up to the customs official. Sometimes, and I shit you not, if the customs official wanted especially hard to keep an undesirable (ie not white) out of Australia, he’d administer the literacy test in Gaelic.

So, interesting, scary, unsettling, disturbing things were learned, which is always a good thing. I probably would have given it a higher grade if he didn’t try some grand hubris-tic gesture of linking these clearly different essays into some logical construct.


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