Football During Wartime

Michael Caine and Sly Stallone in Escape to Victory (1981)

Since there is no football going on due to the Coronavirus, I thought I would repost one of our entries from the old Weird IR site about football during unusual circumstances.

When I was young, I remember watching a movie called Escape to Victory in which Rocky, Pelé, and Michael Caine played a football match against the Nazis. Yes, the description sounds great, and the whole thing ended with a Great Escape-style breakout. 

Like other war movies, this one bastardized a true story, made all the characters American or English, and had a happy ending. The story Escape to Victory was based on would have made for a better movie. In 1942, after the Nazis invaded and occupied Ukraine, players from the disbanded teams FC Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev were noticed playing on the weekends by German soldiers and were invited to play a series of matches against teams of German and Hungarian soldiers. The Ukrainians destroyed their opponents in every match, embarrassing the Germans enough that the Gestapo rounded up several of their players and sent them to labor camps, where several were put to death. The Soviets tweaked the story to make it more dramatic, portraying a climatic “Death Match” in which all of the Ukrainian players were immediately arrested following a match and soon after executed.

One famous football during wartime story that is used to illustrate the possibilities of international cooperation is that of the WW I Christmas Truce of 1914. As the story goes, British and German troops, facing each other in trenches with little action since the early fall, started singing Christmas carols to each other as the holiday approached. And then on Christmas Day, soldiers came out of their trenches, supposedly at various points along the long front, and engaged in gift-giving and impromptu football matches. 

Below is a historical re-enactment of the Christmas Truce football match, courtesy of British comics Hale & Pace.

This last story doesn’t take place during wartime, but in North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea, so I guess it counts. During the last World Cup in South Africa, the late Great Leader Kim Jong Il famously became so incensed at his team’s poor performance in the tournament that he subjected the team upon their return to a public shaming. The coach received worse – he was expelled from the sport and sent to work on a building development.

Spasiba for the memories, Soviet spy-bear

Have you heard the Cold War story of the night a suspected Soviet saboteur tried to climb the fence at a military base in Duluth, Minnesota? The event occurred on October 25, 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The sentry who noticed the dark figure on the fence shot at it and then raised the alarm. Warning alarms were similarly raised at airfields throughout the region. At an airfield in Wisconsin however, the wrong alert war raised. The base was mistakenly alerted that a nuclear attack had started, so air crews rushed to get their nuclear-armed planes on to the tarmac. Luckily, the airfield’s commander called the Duluth commander for verification and was told the suspected Soviet saboteur was just a bear.  He quickly sent out an officer onto the tarmac to stop the planes from taking off.

In a separate event two days later, on the penultimate day of the missile crisis, radar operators in New Jersey picked up what they thought was a missile launch from Cuba, leading them to warn other military commands that a nuclear attack appeared to have begun. Afterward, the radar operators discovered a software test tape had been inserted into their systems, simulating an attack emanating from Cuba, while at the same time an orbiting satellite came over the horizon, leading the radar operators to think that actual missiles were being launched from Cuba! 

I love historical anecdotes. After all, what could be more amusing than the stories of how close the world came to nuclear destruction not once but twice…during the already tense Cuban Missile Crisis (as if we weren’t already close enough during that 13-day period). There is a nihilistic joy in reading Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety (Princeton UP, 1993), the book from which I found these stories of technical mishaps involving nuclear weapons. Or maybe it’s just relief that technology has improved. The book came out twenty years ago, a leftover Cold War project, but it’s still good read for those of you who like weird IR. If you find this book, make sure to read about all the nuclear-armed B-52s that have crashed over the years.

The 1954 Castle Bravo Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Every now and then, we come upon an incident from the past that has been obscured by the march of time. The American government’s 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test, in which approximately 1200 Marshall Islanders and 23 Japanese fishermen were contaminated with the fallout from a U.S nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is not necessarily “weird”, but it is worth remembering for the impact it had on the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which was hit by fallout from the nuclear blast, at its Exhibition Hall near Tokyo Harbor

In March 1954, the U.S. began a series of high-yield thermonuclear tests code-named Operation Castle at Bikini Atoll, part of the U.S.-administered Marshall Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The tests were held to test the new 2nd generation of nuclear weapons; the first test, designated Castle Bravo, took place on March 1. The scientists running the tests had predicted that the Castle Bravo explosion would be approximately equivalent to 6 megatons of TNT. They were way off the mark, as the device detonated with 15 megatons of force.

A danger zone had been announced prior to the test. It was predicted that the blast would not affect nearby inhabited islands of the Marshall Islands group. Moreover, ships were warned to stay out of the danger zone. The larger than expected yield of the explosion meant that the recommended danger zone around the explosion was too small.

The fallout from the greater then predicted blast fell on islanders on the Rongelap and Utirik atolls of the Marshall Islands group and on a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The fallout material consisted of irradiated, pulverized coral reef. The wind and sea currents spread the radiation around the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the world.

The Marshall Islanders were not evacuated for three days later and many suffered radiation sickness. Nearly 1200 claims were filed with U.S. authorities for radiation sickness and related illnesses. Payouts to claimants started in 1956; by 1995 over $43 million had been paid out.

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru had been catching fish 14 miles outside the 57,000 danger zone but the fallout fell on the ship for three hours. The fishermen took time to retrieve their fishing gear from the sea so that they could sail away, exposing themselves to radioactive fallout for several hours.

The burned scalp of a crewmember of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru’s crew were taken to Tokyo for hospitalization for symptoms of acute radiation syndrome, including burns, nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, among others. The only death of the crew occurred on September 23, when Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died at his hospital.

The U.S. government, led by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, stonewalled the multiple requests from Japanese medical staff for information about the cause of the radiation illness. The U.S. government eventually a paltry compensation of roughly $5,000 to the fishery, the crewmembers, and Kuboyama’s widow.

Daniel Aldrich notes that, due to fears that the radiation could also contaminate fish that would end up at Japanese restaurants and supermarkets, the incident gave birth to the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It’s interesting that such a social movement did not arise from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but rather the general fear and uncertainty that Japanese seafood could be radiated.

How does Trump not understand Tit-for-tat in International Trade?

With so many stories these days conjecturing about Trump’s mental well-being (here’s the latest, written by a Republican political strategist), perhaps nothing he says or does should come as a surprise.

This story still astounds though, since it indicates that the President lacks the mental capacity of an adolescent. As we all know, Trump has been engaging in a trade war with China that consists of Trump raising tariffs on Chinese imports into the US, and then China retaliating by raising tariffs on US imports into China. Its been going on for over a year now, since spring 2018. Trump claims he started the trade war because China was unfairly treating the US in its trade relations by maintaining an artificially low yuan exchange rate, being biased against US goods, violating US copyrights and patents, and overall just not importing enough from the US. Fine. This is understood and many his supporters agree with him (even when it hurts their bottom line, as is the case with many US farmers).

Oh, and Trump also incorrectly states that China is paying the tariffs, which is like saying that Mexico was going to pay for his wall. The companies buying the Chinese goods and importing them into the US are the ones who pay the tariffs to US authorities, and they pass these tariffs costs off directly to consumers who buy them in the US.

So anyways, back to the story: The US and China have been trading blows back and forth over the past year and a half, with Trump declaring increases in tariffs every so often, which are always duly reciprocated by Chinese increases in tariffs. This idea of reciprocity is also known as tit-for-tat, and its the basic underlying principle of international relations…actually, all social relations. Whatever action you take against another, they can and will do the same thing back to you. Treat others as you want to be treated, aka the Golden Rule.

So it comes as a surprise that reports tell of Trump becoming angry that China would dare retaliate after his latest announcement of a tariff increase in late August 2019. According to CNBC: “The president was outraged after he learned Aug. 23 that China had formalized plans to slap duties on $75 billion in U.S. products in response to new tariffs from Washington on Sept. 1. His initial reaction, communicated to aides on a White House trade call held that day, was to suggest doubling existing tariffs.” He had to be talked down by Treasury Secretary and financial matters babysitter Steven Mnuchin, who warned him that such an increase in such a short time period could devastate the stock market.

Steven Mnuchin and wife, in happier times. Washington, USA – 15 Nov 2017
Credit: Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (9224878a)

How does he not understand that China would reciprocate, even after they’ve reciprocated countless times? Why does anyone think this madness can continue? CNBC also reported that the US manufacturing sector declined for the first time in three years, which along with others signs, is pointing to a possible US recession.

Pence displays U.S. military might in a show of force in….Iceland

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, midway through a European tour that his boss was supposed to take, showed up in Iceland today with a massive show of force. Pence’s Secret Service detail was augmented with snipers on rooftops, helicopters hovering over buildings, bomb-sniffing dogs, the Reykjavik police force, backup police from neighboring towns, and a special Icelandic “Viking SWAT” police force. Oh yeah, and six military planes overflew the country prior to the visit.

All of this for an island of 350,000 people with the 3rd lowest murder rate in the world. Iceland is so peaceful that its President shops and goes to the hot spring baths without a security detail.

Trump said that Pence was “straight out of central casting” after interviewing him for VP

Trump Picks a Fight with U.S. ally Denmark over Greenland

The life span of a news story having to do with the Trump Administration is about one week, so it’s probably safe to encapsulate the bizarre story of Trump’s desire to buy Greenland, the large island located in the North Atlantic. Greenland is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, meaning that it governs itself but allows Denmark control over its foreign affairs.

According to reports first broke by The Wall Street Journal, U.S. President Donald Trump has for the last several months been asking around to see if the U.S. government can purchase Greenland from Denmark. The rumors came to a head mid-August with the Wall Street Journal report. Trump himself confirmed the rumors on August 18.

The U.S. purchase of Greenland would finally complete the encirclement of the Great Northern Threat of Canada

The people and politicians of Greenland and Denmark did not take so kindly to the interest however. Greenland’s foreign minister replied that the country was “open for business, not for sale.” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen replied that Trump’s idea of trying to purchase the island was “absurd,” which led Trump to cancel an upcoming trip to Denmark to celebrate the U.S.-Denmark relationship. He labeled Frederiksen’s remarks as “nasty” (an adjective which he has used before to criticize women such as Hillary Clinton and Meghan Markle) and then canceled the long-planned trip. It’s a funny way to conduct foreign relations with allies, to say the least.

A purchase of such a large mass of land by the U.S. government would be astounding and historic, especially by the political party that advocates small government and fiscal conservatism. It brings to mind the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia, which was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in 1867. The purchase become known popularly as “Seward’s Folly” until the Klondike Gold Rush started in 1897. Fossil fuel extraction in Alaska began with the first oil well in 1902.

It would not be the first time that the U.S. has explored purchasing Greenland either. The Truman Administration offered Denmark $100 million for the island in 1946. Seward himself tried looking into purchasing Greenland in 1868 after the Alaska Purchase. It should be noted that Greenland hosts Thule Air Base, an American military installation.

The riff between Trump and his Danish counterpart, in addition to past U.S. administrations’ interest, is apparently a big enough deal that the Issues Correlates of War (ICOW) dataset, which tracks territorial disputes around the world, is now considering this an official territorial dispute (according to ICOW’s Facebook page).

So why would Trump want to buy Greenland? Of all the issues going on around the world at the moment, why is he thinking about this?

Greenland is believed to hold many natural resources, but is covered in ice. That ice though is melting at a precipitous rate due to global climate change. CNN just reported here that Greenland lost 11 billion tons of ice in just one day. This of course will result in those natural resources being more easily extractable within the next few decades.

It is possible though that Trump is concerned about his legacy as U.S. president. Completing the one thing he actually knows how to do, purchasing real estate, may be his way of making his mark in U.S. (and Greenland) history. Of course, such a move probably would not make up for all the horrible moves he has made as president – including putting migrants in cages, starting trade wars with China and others, and overseeing the disintegration of the U.S. prestige and hegemony.

Animals Spies are Back!

Six years after enraged Egyptians caught and imprisoned a spy bird (and later released, killed, and ate it), animals moonlighting as spies are back in the news.

Back at the end of April 2019, Norwegian fishermen became intrigued by a white Beluga whale that was wearing a harness and harassing their boats. Experts have come to believe that the whale has possibly been trained by the Russian navy to do something, though that something is still the subject of debate. Is it a spy whale, a whale saboteur, or a whale trained to disrupt shipping lanes?

Martin Biuw of the Institute of Marine Research in Norway and Audun Rikardsen of the Arctic University of Norway both cite the Russian navy as the likely master of the spy whale.

Whatever type of nefarious training it is, one thing is clear…the whale is kind of cute. And the fishermen don’t seem too threatened by it. No word yet whether the Norwegians have eaten the whale…

The Oncoming Filipino-Canadian Trash War

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte is threatening to start a war against Canada if Canada does not take back trash that was shipped to Manila by a private company five years ago.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte waving hello to Canada

According to news reports, the Canadian company, Chronic Plastics, “reportedly shipped 103 containers holding 2,450 tons of trash between 2013 and 2014. While they were labeled as recyclable plastics, Philippine inspectors found them to not be recyclable.” Surprise surprise! North Americans do not know how to properly sort their trash!

The trash now sits in long-abandoned shipping containers sweltering in the heat. Local news reports say there could be “as much as 2,500 tons of trash in 103 shipping containers.”

One of the shipping containers of Canadian trash

To be fair, the Philippines has been complaining to Canada about the trash ever since the containers were opened. During a visit to Manila in 2015, local reporters asked Trudeau about the garbage, and Trudeau replied that “a ‘Canadian solution’ was in the works and he vowed to make legislative changes to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

In June 2018, the Philippines’s Office of the Ombudsman ruled against Chronic Plastics, finding that it shipped the cargo without proper import clearances. The company stated that the contents were recyclable plastics, but in actuality, they contain old wires, CDs, used plastic cups and soiled adult diapers and other reeking household trash, making them worthless as recyclables.

Still you have to wonder what Duterte’s usual histrionics will accomplish, other than to boost his own domestic support. The Philippines should take the case to the World Court at the Hague since the Basel Convention, to which Canada is a signatory, was made to reduce trash being sent from developed to developing countries.

Mexican/Korean leads raid of North Korean ’embassy’ in Spain

A mysterious raid on a North Korean diplomatic compound in Madrid (which serves as its embassy) has been blamed on an equally mysterious Mexican/Korean individual. Spanish authorities are pointing to Adrian Hong Chang as the leader of the raid that took place on February 22. According to El Pais, “The 35-year-old is a US resident with a Mexican passport who ‘owns several dubious companies and is in contact with various intelligence services.’”

Hong Chang is a known critic of Kim Jong Un’s regime who has testified against North Korea in front of the Canadian Senate in 2016. Hong Chang also started a NGO called Liberty in North Korea that has helped North Koreans defect. More recently, Hong Chang identified himself as the president of the Joseon Institute, a thinktank devoted to preparing for a post-Kim North Korea.

Hong Chang giving the ubiquitous TED talk

In the Feb 22 raid, the perpetrators tied up the occupants of the compound, struck one or more of them, and stole hard drives and documents. A group named Cheollima Civil Defense (CCD) took responsibility for the raid. The same group also helped the son of Kim Jong Nam go into hiding after Nam, Un’s older half-brother, was killed by women hired by North Korean agents at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. After the raid, Hong Chang contacted the FBI and passed over information taken from the diplomatic compound.

Most of his fellow suspects are said to be South Korea. The Spanish authorities have issued international arrest warrants for the suspects.

The North Korean diplomatic compound in Madrid was raided on Feb 22

So why target the North Korean compound in Spain of all places? Could it be a provocation against North Korean government’s most well known foreign employee, the Special Representative of the Foreign Ministry of North Korea, Alejandro Cao de Benós.

As we’ve described in past entries (we’re still in the process of adding our archives to the new site), Alejandro is a Spaniard who used to cosplay with other European weirdos in North Korea military uniforms. He used his IT expertise to build websites for the North Korean foreign ministry and they finally hired him as a plenipotentiary to represent the regime overseas. Alejandro currently lives in Spain and visits North Korea a couple of times a year. Perhaps the Madrid raid was an attempt to embarrass Alejandro or hurt his standing with the Kim regime.

Is it a signal? Iranian pol visits Japan while Pence tears into regime

Iranian Parliament speaker Ali Larijani visited Tokyo February 13 to celebrate the 90th anniversary this year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Iran. While in Tokyo, Larijani held talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and several Diet members.

The timing couldn’t be more interesting: At the very same time that Larijani was in Tokyo, US Vice President Mike Pence was at a Middle East Security conference in Warsaw, excoriating the Iranian regime and pushing Europe to join the US in abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

As outlined in our last post about the Trump Nobel nomination, there has been a very one-way relationship between Abe and Trump. Abe kisses up to Trump, and Trump removes the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership. Abe kisses up to Trump some more, and Trump levies tariffs against Japan. Abe keeps it up, Trump keeps Abe in the dark on the US-North Korea summit. And then Trump has the gall to ask Abe to nominate Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize.

While Larijani was in Tokyo, he took the opportunity to criticize the US-led proceedings in Warsaw. That’s right – a prominent Iranian politician criticized US actions from the capital of one of the US’s closest allies.

Japan has long been caught between a rock and hard place when it comes to its relationship with Iran. On one hand, Japan is dependent upon its security relationship with the US. On the other hand, it needs cheap crude oil, and it imports plenty of that from Iran. Japan was one of a handful of countries that received a waiver from US sanctions to import oil from Iran in November, after the US withdrew from JCPOA.

Is the timing of Larijani’s visit a signal? After getting dogged so many times by Trump, despite his best efforts to buddy up to him, is Abe finally showing a back bone? Remember that when Trump outed Abe as his Nobel nominator (which generally is not done), someone leaked to the Japanese press the fact that the request originated from the White House. Maybe both of these are signs that Abe has had enough. After all, Trump is extremely unpopular in Japan.