A huge meteor landed on Indonesia — at least it appears so on my globe that I keep by my recliner. There was a planetary disaster in our living room about a year ago, and this “earth” was bruised by my clumsiness.
I hold that globe often. It entertains me. No, I’m not good at geography. I know some things, but not that much. But holding a globe for an extended period is a kind of mental game.
I often have my phone next to me while I do this. What does the 12,000-foot Mt. Erebus look like in Antarctica at the bottom of the earth next to the Ross Ice Shelf? Pretty cool, actually. You can find images of that volcano erupting against the icy backdrop. It looks otherworldly. What about Reunion Island off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean? Well, kind of cool, too. I discovered there’s a highway extending into the ocean around part of the volcanic island. Look it up.
There’s so much to study on a globe. I always find something new. And most of us can’t travel like we might want. But with a globe and a phone, you can explore in a certain way. I recommend it.
Sometimes I leave the phone in the bedroom and just hold the world and think of scale and of history. One inch on that globe is 660 miles. I make an inch with my thumb and index finger and touch the Pacific Ocean. Man, the Pacific is a beast. We all know this, but how often do you really contemplate the distance? It’s a harsh, unforgiving wilderness to a human without the protection of modern technology — and even sometimes with that protection, right? The Pacific is a huge hunk of this earth, and it is a vast, wet horizon for thousands of miles.
And then there are the dots, those little islands out in the nothingness. Unless you hold a globe and study it, you might not appreciate how many islands are in the Pacific and how isolated they are. For instance, find Caroline island on a map and think about living there among its 131,200 people. Imagine how removed its citizens must feel from the rest of the world.
I’ve been thinking about the Pacific as I watch a Netflix series on World War II. Of course, that series deals with the European theatre of war, too. And along those lines, I have been looking at the globe with that time period in mind. I’m looking a lot at Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. The battle between Hitler and Stalin for the town the Russian despot named for himself was one of the most brutal conflicts in world history.
The cruelest leaders think nothing of human life outside of their own. Hitler and Stalin were willing to sacrifice anyone for their own glory, and Stalingrad is evidence of this, with 2 million casualties from Soviet and Axis forces. The Germans bombed the city to rubble, then nearly finished off the Russians. But then winter set in, and Stalin stealthily moved massive forces behind the Germans, blocking their passage out of the city and back to Germany. Thousands of German soldiers froze and starved to death with Hitler demanding that they never surrender, despite their slow and torturous death to the elements. Thinking of this history, I imagine the reality of one little dot on the globe for millions of people at that time. I search the city online, then and now.
And, of course, I’m thinking of Pearl Harbor this week, too, “a day that will live in infamy,” which also happens to be my birthday. My grandfather, who fought in the Philippines, and whose ship was hit by a kamikaze pilot, was troubled that my birth fell on that day, but my mom told him that my birth gave them something else to think of on that day.
The Netflix series is interesting because it addresses some of the Japanese thinking behind the attack. It seems random, right? But there was some back story. For instance, Japan established itself as a military force in in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and helped secure the Pacific against the Germans in World War I. But despite its military might, Japanese leadership felt belittled by Western countries that controlled much of the Pacific. And as the global economy collapsed in the Great Depression, Japan sought to secure “Asia for Asians” under Japanese imperial rule. They promoted the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which sought to create a “block of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers.” With this in mind, the expansionist Japanese invaded Manchuria, a barbaric military assault roundly opposed by the West. But Japan saw hypocrisy in Western nations controlling Asian territories while opposing Japan’s imperialist aims.
Militant nationalism was like a virus spreading across the globe at that time, and Japan was sick with it, too. They sought to kill their way to prosperity and glory and aligned with Hitler.
When Japan decided to go to war with the United States, Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Marshal Admiral of the imperial Japanese Navy, and the architect of Pearl Harbor, thought fighting the U.S. was crazy. He had attended Harvard from 1919-21 and perhaps his time in the U.S. gave him perspective on why an attack was bad. But Yamamoto decided that if war with the U.S. was inevitable, then Japan needed to go truly offensive and wipe out U.S. naval and air power before America could enter the conflict. This would then allow the Japanese to grab more territory in the Pacific. Yamamoto ordered 30 ships, 408 planes and 16,000 men to travel 4,000 miles across the Pacific on a secret mission to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.
Just think of such a mission now with all of our sophisticated surveillance technology. Impossible. But the Japanese managed to go undetected and catch the U.S. off guard. They killed 2,403 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians. But that historic attack awoke a giant. The U.S. was in it for real at that point.
If you hold a globe, look at Japan, then look at Hawaii. Think of all those lives fighting across the vast space of ocean. And think about how poor the navigational and radar technology was compared to now. Then find the little island of Midway on a globe. A monumental WWII battle took place in the Pacific around that island. It’s fascinating to me that squadrons of U.S. pilots were flying aimlessly at sea over the water, unable to find the Japanese, with the battle appearing won for Japan, when two sets of U.S. planes almost simultaneously found the dots against the vast nothingness and dove down to decimate the Japanese.
I hold the globe, look at all that blue, and think of those moments when pilots surely felt lost or low on fuel. If you ran out of gas, you crashed into the sea. The Pacific, in my mind, represents isolation. And I think of my own grandfather, Wilson Benjamin Mitcham, trying to hold onto his life — and ultimately mine — out in that vast ocean loneliness.
But all of this is just one line of thought while holding a globe. I can find the Bering Strait and get carried away thinking about the Ice Age and how thousands of years ago, small groups of people crossed from Siberia, seeking a better life. Their journey led to many native American societies in North and South America. Think of all the people who lived and died here before this land was even "discovered" from across the Atlantic. There is something about holding the “earth" that brings these narratives into sharper view.
If you have someone on your Christmas list who seems to think similarly to me, then you’d probably do OK getting them a globe if they don’t have one already.
It’s fun to hold the world if you're willing to sit and think.