Seventy years ago, October 1944, there was a horrendous sea and air battle in the Philippines. Fought over days, it has been referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf although the fighting occurred over a much wider region of east central Philippines. It cost tens of thousands of Japanese and Allied lives, scores of ships and hundreds of aircraft.
It was the most lethal battle to Japanese forces of the entire Pacific war on sea and air, meant that the Imperial Navy was effectively defeated, and allowed Douglas MacArthur to wade ashore to the Philippines, as he promised he would.
The battle was fought in the same seas that have now wrought the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda). These were where the fleets of Admiral Halsey and his Japanese opponents decided the fate of the Pacific War. Aircraft carriers and battleships were sunk. The first kamikaze attacks were launched by the Japanese leading to the loss of several large American warships.
Some of the sea battles were near Tacloban where one of my relatives who I never met reportedly died at sea in late October 1944. We never knew... just one of the thousands of "missing." MacArthur, indeed, temporarily had his on-shore headquarters in Tacloban.
The devastation, suffering, and sadness that have engulfed this central Philippine city and surrounding province will not be fully understood for weeks or months. For a nation that knows typhoons, earthquakes and political trauma, much too much. Filipino-Americans will do what they can, as will the American Navy and Marines. But all will be too little. As with Haiti or so many other tragedies, nothing can assuage the losses.
I was in Cebu and Tacloban City several times. Also, Manila in 1986 at the Manila Hotel amidst a military insurrection. Dodging bullets on the big southern island of Mindanao a bit later. I know this country in its majesty and misery. Magellan's cross in Cebu -- been there.
About central Philippines -- there is nothing more beautiful, blue and deep seas, and what used to be richly anointed palm forests. Absent natural disasters or warfare, this is the place to live. But the world does not leave the Philippines alone. Japanese invasions, Spanish and American colonialism, earthquakes, typhoons, and an insurrection now and then. No wonder Filipinos turn to God.
No other global region is more obviously endangered.
I am no meteorologist, but I can look at the sea levels. We all can understand the frequency of typhoons, and their historic severity. We can all grasp the trends that the United Nations has now reiterated. Low lying, coastal and tropical areas are looking forward to some very bad shit within decades not centuries. The Maldives should move. Florida should retreat to Orlando. Perhaps even non-tropical areas such as lower Manhattan, too, should head to Ithaca.
When Admirals Kurita and Halsey squared off on the eastern/central islands of the Philippines in October 1944, there was no typhoon. The Pacific war would grind on for another horrific year of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Now there are, repeatedly, natural disasters. These are no random occurrences. Typhoons, Sandy, Katrina, are now the normal. Tbey bring deaths and destruction somehow equivalent to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, not because of superpower conflict but because of superpower wanton endangerment of the earth.
You might object to the metaphoric tie between destruction from warfare and a typhoon albeit from the same sea. Yet, do not dismiss that we are all confronting warfare on a new scale and of a new kind. And we are losing. The environmental catastrophe is a world war in the making.
War is war. A fight for survival is, well, the same fight. Here, ironically, the location is precisely the same, the identical waters, and perhaps my old cousin who no doubt died in Leyte was washed ashore.
*Daniel Nelson leads an international consulting firm in Virginia