9:26 a.m. July 19, 2013

The War Nerd: ATOP Recruiting and The Greatest Admiral in World History

There’s a weird overlap between war nerding and the scraggy world of ESL teaching. Both draw from a huge pool of messed-up autodidacts who bounce around the world losing friends and alienating people. Some of the most bitter arguments I’ve had about wars that normal, healthy people never even heard of happened in Saudi Arabia, where a whole platoon of us ESL teachers were marooned, for a month, inside a huge, empty university in Riyadh. We were being paid to sit around in this expensive, empty university for the month left on our contracts—all of us, brought together for that last month from towns all over the Magic Kingdom. All male, of course—men and women aren’t allowed to mix in Saudi—and all pedants on any topic you’d care to name, from unarmed combat to homebrewed wine.

It’s harder than you think, doing nothing in a vast, empty building all day. You start to understand why ghosts are always in such a bad mood. There wasn’t much to do all day except talk, and “talk” in these all-male groups turns into bragging pretty quickly, arm-wrestling by other means, as Clausewitz would have said if he’d been stuck with us. Guys regress at a frightening rate. I remember this very tough South African/Pakistani Afrikaans speaker from Cape Flats, who got more aggressive the more bored he was. He ended up just saying over and over, “You know, these fooking Americans with their MMA shit, man, I will fook them opp!” Everybody would nod agreeably; nobody wanted to quibble, because though he was boring beyond belief, he was also telling the truth. So he’d go on to his clincher line: “I will put their teddies on the shelf, man! I’ll put their teddies on the shelf.” That one was funny the first 400 times or so, but it got old after that.

Other guys devolved in ways peculiar to their particular disorders, so that by the time we were allowed to leave—after a few adventures, like besieging our sleazy employer’s office to get that last month’s pay—we were all reduced to the level of stupidity you get in a seventh-grade homeroom class. It was kind of scary, like Lord of the Flies played out by middle-aged men. No pigs, of course—this was Saudi. And no violence, just an endless stream of talk about violence. Including war, of course. Every male ESL teacher is a war nerd, in my experience. Some of them are damn good at it, too, except that the level of anger in the profession—every male ESL teacher is also insanely angry, mostly at being an ESL teacher—led to some weird obsessions. Neo-Confederates abounded; one of my colleagues was known as “KKK Dave,” and he was ready to remind you why he got that nickname every time anything involving the Civil War, or as he insisted on calling it, “The War of Northern Aggression,” came up.

Now that I remember it, that had to be one of the weirdest scenes in world history: KKK Dave, this short, thick Army lifer from Indiana, sitting in a stuffed chair by a Java Joe stand that was all alone in the middle of a marble-floored Saudi university lobby that was big enough to drive a C-5A through. And on this tiny atoll of stuffed chairs in this sea of marble (oh, they love their marble!), continually being swept and mopped by the Bangladeshi serfs, Dave would be frothing at the mouth at how Forrest was the finest commander in US history (an arguable point, at least) and the war was caused entirely by the evil Feds, 19th-century Obama prototypes, cleverly forcing the Southern states to start a war to defend slavery, when of course it wasn’t about slavery at all.

Dave would make his point by repeating it—I mean, more than you expect to hear outside of a mental hospital. And other closed-loops would be going at the same time, like the South African dreaming happily of what he would do to the teddies of those MMA believers. Yes, it was back on the shelf for them.

I only tried to argue with KKK Dave once, pointing out that nobody actually forced South Carolina’s lunatic secessionists to fire on an American fortress in their harbor. That was probably the only thing that could have stopped the tape loop in Dave’s head: open, treasonous, opposition. After that, he moved to another atoll in the vast sea of marble—I think it was the Jugo Juice bar near the escalator. And I took pity on him and started looking for another atoll of my own, choosing the second-floor coffee bar, until I got sick of the small talk there, which was a different variety of gibberish, mostly Islamic pedantry about Ramadan rules from Northern English Somalis who talked like Ali G. At that point, with about a week to go in our strange confinement, I started looking out for classrooms with doors that could be locked from the inside, where no one could come and talk to me at all. Since there were about 5000 state-of-the-art classrooms in that marble hulk, not one of which would ever be used for anything you could call learning, it was fairly easy to lose myself for the duration, no longer forced to listen to any tape loops but my own.

All in all, it was a good argument for mixing the genders. At least from the men’s side. From what my wife said, the women had a fine time eating sweets and playing computer games, didn’t miss us at all. I didn’t blame them; it was impossible to imagine anybody missing conversation like ours. Before that long month was out, I reached a simple conclusion: All male ESL teachers are war nerds, and most of them are insane.

What reminded me of all this was that my friend Carlos, a fellow vet of that huge, empty room in Riyadh, sent me an ESL job ad from South Korea that manages to combine TESL and war nerding in one completely loopy package. Here it is, in all its Korean-chauvinist glory:

***ATOP Recruiting offers lots of teaching positions in Korea!!! (Admiral Yi Sun Sin is the greatest admiral in the world history)***

Posted By: ATOP Recruiting
Date: Saturday, 29 June 2013, at 1:57 p.m.

Do you know the Great Admiral Yi Sun Sin? When Im Jin Wae Ran (1952) broke out, he was the admiral in Jeollanamdo province.
He predicted the invasion of Japan so he designed and made Geo Buk Sun battleship.
When he fought with Japan on the sea, he wrecked 269 Japanese battle ships.
He had only 40 battleships including Geo Buk Sun (1952).
When he won another battle, Japanese navy had 333 ships but he had only 12 ships.
I think he is the best admiral in the world history.
And he wrote diary during the war, it was registered in UNESCO as one of the world treasures.
There are several places in Korea to celebrate his great achievements:
Hyunchungsa (http://hcs.cha.go.kr/depart/HcsIndex.action) Chungyeolsa, Chungminsa

You can visit this website for more information on the many beautiful historical spots in South Korea: http://jikimi.cha.go.kr/english/new/index.action **************************************************************** If you want to experience the modern lifestyle in South Korea, then Seoul and Busan are the perfect locations for you to teach. But if you teach in the country side, you will have the chance to learn Korean culture and history!!! Are you in Korea? Have you just finished your current contract and looking for a job?! ATOP Recruiting Company can find the best job for you in a couple of days!!!

What I like best about this ad is that it isn’t shy. Right at the start, the author mixes his two passions, his company “ATOP” (not exactly a shy name, you’ll notice) and his crush on Admiral Yi. No attempt at a smooth transition. Just boom, “ATOP Recruiting offers lots of teaching positions in Korea,” followed by three exclamation points, and then without stopping for breath, “Admiral Yi Sun Sin is the greatest admiral in world history.”

If you were some kind of sane person, especially a sane person of the female gender—which, it must be confessed, produces more than its share of sanity—this ad might not really do it for you. It might seem a little disjointed, not to say crazy. What’s the link between TESL jobs in Korea and some old admiral? But believe me, if you tried this on the collection of damaged, swollen male egos that collected around the Java Joe atoll, the Jugo Juice bar, or any of the other pelagic outposts in that Riyadh sea of marble, this ad would have seemed like a day at the office. In fact, argument would instantly have broken out over whether Admiral Yi was, in fact, “the greatest admiral in world history”—and the fact that few of us had heard of Admiral Yi would not have impeded the discussion at all. In freelance verbal war-nerdery, you lead with your power; you bring up your contender—Nelson, Yamamoto, Ruyter—and instantly bombard the other stuffed chairs with every goddamn tidbit of info you can call up about him on the spot.

And when the argument has dribbled away onto other topics dear to the male ESL pedant’s heart, you might well turn back to that Korean job ad with a special interest, with the feeling that whoever posted it was a nut after your own heart. So, if you accept that ads depend on a deep knowledge of audience, I suspect this was a good ad. Whether you actually want to recruit the sort of people it would draw…that’s another question.

Of course recruiting may not really be what the Korean nationalist who posted this had in mind. He may simply have wanted to get the name of Admiral Yi Sun Sin out there with the English-speaking (and –teaching) public. You can’t blame him for that, because Yi may well have been the greatest admiral in history. The guy from ATOP isn’t good with his dates; Yi’s great battles occurred during the 1590s, not the 1950s as written in the ad—but Yi’s greatness was very real. He did, in fact, win a crucial naval battle against the Japanese when he was outnumbered more than 10:1. And you can’t really blame a contemporary Korean war nerd for transposing those digits; after all, the 1950s were a fairly rough time on the ol’ Peninsula, just like the 1590s.

There’s a desperation about the way the ad shrieks at you, demanding you give Yi his props—and yet, as I said, Yi deserves adulation. This is the sad side of being a war nerd from a smaller country: You have your heroes, and by the nature of things, the odds against smaller countries, your heroes are on average at least as brave, at least as brilliant, as those of the big nations. They have to be; those who aren’t are wiped off the board very quickly, unlike mediocre officers in bigger systems.

So you grow up worshipping Yi—with damn good reason—but you make your living teaching English, the language of bigger, more powerful systems, knowing in your bitter male ESL teacher’s heart that Yi on his worst day could have wiped the floor with Nelson or Farragut. So your hero-worship pops out in strange places, like the second sentence of a job ad.

To be an admiral from a country like Korea, always striving heroically but always shadowed by China and Japan—and now the Anglos too—is particularly bitter, because an admiral, much more than a general, is in the power of forces way out of his control. A man can become a great general with nothing but a few soldiers and some basic infantry weapons, but an admiral needs capital. In that way, a general is like a writer—doesn’t need much capital to get started—where an admiral is like a film director—he’s just the face, the figurehead on the prow. It was Yi’s luck to have the old designs for the “turtle ships,” with spiked, closed decks, on hand, and rulers willing to fund their construction, just in time to face a Japanese navy that specialized in boarding enemy vessels and cutting down their crews with the sword. The design worked perfectly; the Japanese, the great enemy, were defeated, and an anomalous peace descended on Korea, confirming once and for all the Korean Dream: No goddamn foreigners around, ever, at all.

And now the kids gotta learn English. So much for the Hermit Kingdom. So the least Mr. ATOP can do, dangling money in front of these TESL mercenaries, is to make fellow Korean war nerds of them in the same breath, infect them with the cult of Admiral Yi as he infects his own country with their foreign tongue.

It’s one of the strangest and saddest parts of writing these columns, knowing that so much greatness, like Yi’s, gets washed away by the bigger stories. The big, successful empires can get by with decent commanders, sometimes with a lot less than that; if they lose an army or a fleet, they make another one and come back. So many tribes defeated the Romans, or the Han, or the British, or us, with superhuman guts and cunning, only to see facsimiles of the men they’d wiped out marching ashore again a few months later. It hurts, because it reminds you that the stories that mean so much to you don’t really cover the truth. It’s system that wins, not some commander’s brilliance. And “system” means so many things, you’ll never figure it out.

I remember that feeling, reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” All that military brilliance, all that courage and blood, in the service of nasty civil wars that just left Colombia weaker and more miserable than it started. At least Yi’s story is happier than that. His brilliance had a context, and a pretty successful one, too. Korean military chauvinism is alive and well, permeating even these ads, pushing back against the bigger systems. For all the surface goofiness, it makes a good, crazy, war-nerdy sense.