Hearing the Little Voices, or Why History Matters


Daniel N. White

Why do we need to read history?  Why does history matter?  Because history helps us to hear the little voices, to discriminate among them, and to silence, perhaps, some of the more troublesome ones.  And to act on those little voices, the right ones, when they tell us something important.

For an explanation of this, let’s crack open my favorite novel, The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna.   You might have heard of it somewhere along the way; you might also have seen the 1968 movie, with Candice Bergen and Steve McQueen, which was a fairly decent film.

The book is noteworthy because it is one of a scant handful of novels about machinery, written by an author who firsthand knew and understood the world of machinery.  I’ve always been a sprocket-head first class, so seeing machinery written about this well always appealed to me.  The book also has passages of descriptive sociology and cultural anthropology of the first order running through it; particularly about the world of men.  It is also the best book ever written about the below decks Navy—the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis  thought so too and said so on the dust jacket when their press reprinted it some years ago.

McKenna wrote this book after he retired after 20-something years as a torpedo mechanic in the Navy.  Sadly, McKenna died way too young from a heart attack, shortly after this book’s publication.*

The Sand Pebbles is the story of a Caliban-like machinist’s mate in the China Fleet in the 1920s, back when the US, as well as the other Western powers, ran their warships up and down the major rivers of China.  The protagonist, Jake Holman, is posted to the most obscure ship on the China Station, patrolling the far reaches of the Yangtze River.  Once aboard, Holman makes it a point, as he always had done, to master every single aspect of the ship’s engineering spaces.  The ship is a creaky old relic taken from Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and it has a knock in the engine that has always been there and that has always defeated all prior repair efforts.  The knock causes main bearing wear that in turn causes increased coal burning and regular major repairs to clean and re-clearance the ship’s crank bearings.  Holman is driven to find out what the cause of the knock is, and to fix it.

Early on in the book Holman is spending time in the ship’s bilges, sloshing around in the dirty bilge water, getting the rustproofing tar in his uniforms and skin and hair, staring at the huge pieces of rotating machinery just inches from his face, trying to figure out what the problem is.

McKenna talks about all the little voices in the engine room around Holman, all the little noises of the machinery in operation, all its sights and smells, and how it is all a confusing welter of little voices, each trying to be heard.  He can hear them, but he can’t hear the right one, on account of the crowded welter of them all, and his ignorance of what voice he should be listening for.

Under the ship’s main crank spinning overhead, Holman sees a drop of oil on the engine soleplate, a drop of oil that expands and contracts regularly.  All of a sudden, Holman recognizes that he’s seeing something important–this drop of oil, expanding and contracting, indicates relative movement in the soleplates, where they should be absolutely dead tight.  Holman picks up a ballpeen hammer and beats on all the soleplate bolts, and discovers that many of them are loose.

The light bulb goes off in Holman’s head–the soleplate bolts are loose, and the soleplates therefore are in misalignment, causing the rest of the machinery to be in misalignment, all on account of a long-ago grounding that bent the hull slightly.  Making the soleplates true and tight to the hull will fix the problem that has dogged the ship’s engine for decades.

McKenna goes on for a spell about the little voices in the passage that tells the above story.  Anyone who has worked around machinery knows about those little voices, because they are always out there in machinery, telling you the machine’s story about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what you can do to fix it if it is broken.  Anybody who is any good as a wrench, or e-tech, knows about the little voices and how important it is to listen for them.  You don’t fix broken things very well without having an ear for the little voices, no matter how skilled you are as a technician.  To be any good, you have to have the craft knowledge, the skills, AND the ear for the little voices.

The story of Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles is really the same story about us and history.   History gives us, should we choose to use it, the ability to hear the little voices that tell us the key important facts about some big event going on around us, some big event that is surrounded by a huge welter of competing voices.  And if we read history with a keen eye—if we listen to it with discriminating ears–we are far better able to pick out the right little voice out there from all the welter of them that explains things to us, and gives us, combined with our life craft-skills that we acquire as we live and learn, the ability to understand, and perhaps even fix, the problems in our world that bedevil us.

Ace technicians, with a sure eye, ear, and feel for the little voices, are rare, as are ace historians, and ace political leaders.  But we all can do better if we are aware of these little voices, and try at least to listen for them.  And that is what the study of history is for.

Here’s an example from our today.  In our train-wreck of a war in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) troops, which the US military is training, sometimes turn sides and shoot the trainers—Green on Blue violence is what the Pentagon calls it.  Shoot the trainers, and if they aren’t themselves shot, they then defect to the Taliban.

Such attacks, according to the Pentagon, are unprecedented in human history.  That’s rubbish.  We only need look back to France’s war in Algeria (1954-62): to cock our heads and listen to the little voices of that war.    Listen for that voice, and maybe heed it:

One day in the war there was this French infantry patrol out in the bled (the deep countryside) that got fired on by someone hiding in an orchard just outside this small village.  The French patrol returned fire, and a dead fellaga (FLN—Front National Liberation, the Algerian Moslems fighting for Algeria’s independence from France) fell from one of the trees. The members of the patrol went over to his body to investigate and discovered that the person who shot at them was a very old man, who had let fly at them with some antique muzzleloader.  The soldiers went through his pockets, and found a Medaille Militaire**in his pocket, from the old man’s First World War days in the French Army.  Thumbing the medal, and looking down at the corpse of the dead old man, the Lieutenant said, “You know, there’s just something terribly wrong with this war, terribly wrong.

That fellaga, a combat veteran, knew what he was up against and what he was doing and how suicidal it was for him when he grabbed his muzzleloader and went to try and bag him a Frenchman.   The obvious lesson was that the gig was up for France in Algeria, and that France had to leave.  Even if that wasn’t quite clear yet to that Lieutenant.  He, and most all of France, had not yet the ears to hear, even if the little voices were screaming it.

In that war, there were dozens of instances of Algerian troops killing their French officers and NCOs while they slept and then deserting to the FLN—in at least one instance, a full company of men did.

The French were deaf to what events like these were telling them about Algérie Française. They refused to hear the little voices.  We are equally deaf, and I’d say deliberately so in the Pentagon’s case, with what Green on Blue attacks are telling us about our war in Afghanistan.

When the Pentagon claims these attacks are unprecedented, beyond human ken and understanding, they’re willfully refusing to pay any attention to the discordant voices of history.   Anyone who has read anything about the French war in Algeria knows better about the lazy canards about Green on Blue put out by the Pentagon.  Anyone who has read anything about counterinsurgency has read about that war, as the French were the foremost practitioners of counterinsurgency in the 20th century, and knows about the Algerian soldiers regularly mutinying and killing their French leaders and deserting.***

The gig is up for us in Afghanistan, and the American endeavor in that country is every bit as dead as Algerie Francais.  That is clear and beyond refutation.

That lesson should be obvious, if you know your history and understand the little voices studying it lets you hear.   Few in this country have read any of that history, any history much period, and so we don’t hear those little voices, and so the problems we face remain beyond our ken to understand enough to fix.  But Jake Holman heard those voices in the engine room, and he fixed that engine.  But that’s another, absolutely great, story from that book that I’ll leave to you.

* McKenna wrote some interesting science fiction stories, and McKenna’s wife put together another book, a collection of short stories and his speeches, after he died in the early 1960’s.    I particularly recommend his speech about Josephus Daniels, Woodrow Wilson’s great reforming (yet also incorrigibly racist like Wilson, which McKenna overlooks) Secretary of the Navy.

**Equivalent more or less to the US Distinguished Service Cross.  The French army, like the US Army until the Korean War, did not award the highest decorations for valor to colored troops.  The Medaille Militaire was the highest award for valor that any French colonial soldier could get.

*** A good book on the French war in Algeria for the novice, or expert is Ted Morgan’s autobiographical My Battle of Algiers.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

5 thoughts on “Hearing the Little Voices, or Why History Matters

  1. Thank you, Mr. White, for another extremely interesting post. Allow me to add some info for those not familiar with the 1966 movie, directed by Robert Wise (whom I worship more for 1951’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still” than “West Side Story,” etc.). The ship is named the San Pablo; “sand pebbles” is the approximate pronunciation the Chinese come up with if I recall correctly (unless the crew themselves dub her that–it’s been a while since I watched this film). Though the movie runs three hours, I don’t recall that Jake Holman’s mechanical endeavors are played up significantly. (Steve McQueen got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the protagonist; the Japanese actor simply known as Mako received same for Best Supporting Actor–neither was awarded the statuette, however.) The film focuses on the shaky relations with “the natives,” and the internal strife among different factions as nationalist sentiment rises. McQueen’s and Mako’s characters develop a close relationship that leads to a heartbreaking development.

    The definitive picture of the war for independence from France waged in Algeria is available in the documentary-like dramatic masterpiece of Gillo (splg.?) Pontecorvo, “Battle Of Algiers,” from around the same time (1965 or ’66). The Bonus Material (Criterion Collection “deluxe” version) is absolutely fascinating. The French actually initiated the use of terrorist bombings in Algiers, then screamed bloody murder when the liberation forces adopted the tactic. France also practiced horrendous torture techniques on captured accused rebels. The general in charge of the French “counterinsurgency” campaign died within past few months; his obit was prominent on NY Times. He is interviewed in the Bonus Material cited here, answering some questions with brutal frankness, clamming up with a virtual wink to the camera on others.

    But let us now take a brief excursion a bit further back in history! During the US war to wrest territory from Mexico–technically, from Spain and France–in the 1840s, some immigrant Irish troops who’d been pressganged into service deserted and fought for Mexico. I haven’t personally dug in for deep research on this but believe it to be true. Having lived under the oppression of Britain in their native land, and encountered prejudice on arrival on US shores, these troops couldn’t stomach being used to suppress the aspirations for freedom of the indigenous people in the land to the south. This Irish presence down south may also explain how a leading bank in Chile (I think that’s the country in question) could come to bear the name Banco O’Higgins!! Yes, history is fascinating but “our” leaders have been determined for some time now to NOT learn a damned thing from it.

    • I wouldn’t say that our leaders have not learned from history. They go to the finest schools and have some of the best educations money can buy. Rather, I would say that they have learned how to prevent the working and middle classes from learning anything about history, especially the dubious part our corporate “elites” have played in it. For example, the U.S. military learned from Vietnam not how to win dirty little guerrilla wars, or any sort of war, but rather how to keep the U.S. press from reporting on their manifest, if not legendary failures. See General David Petraeus for the epitome of the public-relations “lessons learned” from Vietnam. The United States military keeps losing wars against barely armed nobodies and it does not matter to our leaders because, “War is the Health of the State” — and now practically the State’s only business.

      As well, one has to look at history from the point of view of those most interested in profiting from it. Certainly, if one looks at the nation-as-a-whole, America’s many wars throughout the second half of the 20th century — and first decades of the 21st — show that the nation-as-a-whole has lost time and again, squandering vast resources in the process. And since this keeps happening again and again, it would seem that those in charge have learned nothing from history. But if we look at the ever-increasing wealth and power that those in charge continue to accumulate, then one would have to conclude that they have learned very well how to profit at the expense of the country-as-a-whole. What the country has lost, they have won. So the question does not concern whether those in charge have learned from history, but rather, what they have learned from it. As the victims of Hurricane Katrina said of the Shock Doctrine vultures who quickly descended upon the misery in order to profit from it: “They’re not blind. They’re evil. They see just fine.”

  2. I recently ordered a copy of The Sand Pebbles from an online bookseller, but I haven’t received it yet. I read it many years ago and saw the movie, but only sometime in the 1970s after I had returned from Vietnam and gotten out of the Navy. For me, the book always resonated because of my own experiences serving in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent deployed to the brown-water rivers and canals of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam from July, 1970 through January, 1972. Like the crew of the San Pablo, we U.S sailors found ourselves trying to do our technical jobs while caught in the undertow of revolutionary forces that we could scarcely comprehend, much less influence one way or the other with all our machines. As Barbara Tuchman wrote of the failed American attempt to intervene militarily in the Chinese Civil War of 1911-49: “In the end, China went her own way, as if the Americans had never come.” Ditto for Vietnam. Ditto for Iraq. Ditto for Afghanistan. Americans in the U.S military know a lot about machines. They just don’t know very much about people or their history.

    • Yes, Mike. Well put. If you combine your two comments: foreign countries and people go their own way (after much suffering at our hands), even as certain Americans profit greatly off of our doomed interventions. But doomed for whom? Not for the profiteers. Just for the troops and the “colonials” caught up in a machine-like (and machine-driven) exercise in wealth extraction.

  3. Pingback: Hearing the Little Voices, or Why History Matters | Ghosts of Tom Joad - Peter Van Buren

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