Thursday, 1 April 2021

Review - The Korean War - Max Hastings


It's been a while since I did a book review, so here's one to compensate that small piece of neglect.

Once you've read one of Hastings' books you've read them all, when it comes to his writing style, but his grasp of both the broad sweep of history and the minutiae of the individual's experience of it is unrivaled.

I guess when you've been writing successfully about war for as long as he has, you've probably mastered the art of contextualising personal experience with epic historical conflict.

He traces the origins of the conflict, the progression of both the UN forces' advances and retreats, and the impact of the conflict on the participants. He provides some interesting and relevant commentary on the connection between the Korean war and events later in other parts of southeast Asia and asks (rhetorically) whether anything was learned from the stalemate in Korea.

My knowledge of the Korean war was pretty sparse, and reading this has put a great deal of the origins of later conflicts in perspective. An understanding of the background of the political atmosphere in the USA, especially as it related to presidential elections is important. It is relevant to note that in February 1952, Truman's approval mark stood at 22 percent. This was the all-time lowest approval mark for a sitting U.S. president, though matched by Richard Nixon in 1974.

He describes the performance of the Eighth Army during the winter of 1950 in a chapter called The Big Bug-Out, in a narrative that put me in mind of the morale of the Americans in Vietnam in 1970, when draftees  (mostly) were fragging their NCOs and officers at an alarming rate.

Hastings interviewed many combatants on both sides, pointing out that he had to take anything he heard from the North Koreans or Chinese with a grain of salt, because of the propaganda involved, but the honesty of many of the British and Americans involved is revealing. Again, there is a thread common to both Vietnam and Korea in that many of the fighting soldiers were honest about their lack of commitment. Many of those involved were conscripts.

President Truman had reinstated the draft in 1948,  and the new Selective Service Act provided for the drafting of men between 19 and 26 for twelve months of active service. In 1950 the Korean War draft called up men between the ages of eighteen-and-a-half and 35 for terms of duty averaging two years. Men who served in World War II did not have to sign up. 

The British National Service Scheme also meant that conscripts from the UK fought in Korea, notable amongst them Michael Caine. 

Hasting's research is comprehensive and his word portraits of those he interviewed are engaging. He also exhibits a direct and impactful narrative style that maintains the reader's attention.

Do yourself a favour and get a copy, or rock up to your local library.

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Monday, 29 March 2021

Inspirational People (3)

Not the lad in the story


Quite a few decades ago, I was responsible for a special school in a provincial city. It had an enrolment of about 70, 30% of whom were children with severe autism.

The remainder of the children attending had severe and profound intellectual and physical impairments. The combination of children with severe autism, who were generally mobile, and children with severe physical impairment, who were not, was challenging in terms of management. We got around the problem of keeping children with no mobility and protective behaviours safe, in a population of children with autism, a few who were physically aggressive, by a combination of careful grouping and staff allocation.

Unfortunately, the staff allocation which operated at the time was insufficient to maintain an adequate number of supervision hours to maintain safety, so we used the school budget to fill the gaps. We were what was called a "self-managed" school which meant we had the discretion and ability to do this. We simply purchased extra teacher aide hours out of the school budget and employed people to provide additional supervision.

One lad with autism needed one-on-one aide support the whole time he was at school. Without it, he was always at risk of running away (which was dangerous, but usually manageable) or harming other children (which was also dangerous, but with a fit and agile teacher aide - usually male - also manageable).

The school budget provided this for the first four years of his attendance. At the beginning of the fifth year, after constructing a budget, it was quite obvious that the funds were simply not there any longer, because of a range of reasons which had nothing to do with managing students with severe autism and were based on state Treasury allocation guidelines.

This lad was in the care of his father, as his mother was no longer on the scene for reasons not relevant to this situation. The dad worked full time in a physically demanding occupation, had a carer employed by a charity to fill in the gaps before and after school, and organised his life around the demands of total care for the lad which involved keeping him safe (locked in) at night, feeding him, bathing him, and providing everything necessary. Respite was never available, and I often wondered how he maintained his sanity and usually cheerful demeanor. School provided his best and only respite, and it looked as if this was no longer going to be possible. To make the budget work, we would have needed to restrict his son's enrolment to four days per week, which meant that the dad would have to leave his employment, which was rigidly five days per week. This was not a tenable prospect, but we were stuck for a solution.

I went to talk to one of the management team in our district office about this issue and in the course of the conversation reminded him that I planned to retire at the end of that year. The bloke I was talking to, a person of long and varied experience and a lateral thinker (unusual for someone in his position) went quiet for a minute and then asked me if I had ever worked as an AVT (Advisory Visiting Teacher). I had, many years ago in the mid-seventies, and I reminded him how much I had enjoyed the work.

He had a different problem he was trying to solve, that of finding someone with the requisite skills and experience to work as an AVT in the western end of the region. The job was itinerant and required many overnight absences from home, which was the major reason he was having problems filling it.

I had enjoyed that work in the past, and absences from home were not going to be a problem for my family, as our children were adults, and all but one had left home. In that sense I was a good match - but who would do my job during my absences, which would amount to one full week per term? My suggestion was that I ask for expressions of interest for acting principal from senior teaching staff during my absences, and when the person was selected, take the whole proposition to the school P & C for their approval. If they were OK with it, the entire (AVT's) salary would be allocated to the school budget and used to purchase teacher aide hours to allow full-time attendance for the lad with autism. You can buy a lot of teacher aide hours with a teacher's salary.

To cut a long story short, the P & C were OK with the proposition, we had a number of teachers interested in acting as principal for the time required. One was appointed and I began to work as an AVT for the specified period. The aide time was applied, and the lad in question was able to stay full time at school, and his dad kept his job. In other words, it was a win all around.

The inspirational person I'm writing about was obviously the dad concerned, but the EQ bureaucrat who came up with the innovative proposition was, in the world of educational administration, also pretty inspirational.

As a footnote to this story, after a break at the beginning of retirement in which I wrote my memoir, I returned to the AVT work and continued it until 2017, until age caught up with me.

I actually failed retirement at the first attempt.

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Hugh White - Without America

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