The Sand Pebbles
by Richard McKenna.
Naval Institute Press, [1962] 2001.
Paper, 624 pages, $26.

Reviewed by Casey Chalk

This October marked the one-year anniversary of the release of Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, an American/Canadian couple captured by the Taliban and held for five years before they were rescued. The couple, who had three children while in Taliban control, were kidnapped in October 2012 while backpacking in Wardak Province, a notorious militant stronghold near Kabul. The anniversary of both their release and their initial abduction should be a stark warning about the stupidity of Americans who, often motivated by a self-deceptive utopianism that includes defining themselves “citizens of the world,” fail to consider the ramifications of their decisions.

Not long after my first tour in Afghanistan, the mother of a recent college graduate approached me at church. The family had missionary friends who ran a bakery in Kabul, and she wanted to know if the city was safe for her daughter to visit. I responded with an emphatic “no.” I was on the receiving end of small-arms fire and 107mm rockets, and several people I knew were killed. When I spoke to the daughter, I could see that all my warnings meant nothing to this young, idealistic girl. She thought such a dangerous place was the exact right place to be. Exasperated, I told her that when she got over there and was kidnapped by the Taliban, it was going to be my buddies, or people like my buddies, risking their lives to rescue her American ass. No matter where Americans go in this world, the reality—and responsibilities—of U.S. citizenship follow us. Being “citizens of the world” may be inspiring jargon, but it’s useless when staring down the barrel of a gun.

Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles, which military historians rank among the best American war novels, reminds us of this truth. The book tells of a U.S. gunboat, the San Pablo—captured during the Spanish-American War and refitted by the U.S. Navy—patrolling the Yangtze River in China in 1926. Written by a man who himself served in China and the Pacific in World War II and the Korean War, it is a fascinating account of the intersection of Chinese and U.S. military culture. One of the novel’s most interesting subplots revolves around an American Christian mission deep inside China, one that comes under increasing threat during the beginning of the Chinese Civil War.

The American missionaries—many of whom are openly antagonistic towards the U.S. military presence on the Yangtze—desire to be perceived as a neutral party propagating the Christian faith in the interior of China. This becomes increasingly difficult as the civil war intensifies and all Americans, regardless of personal politics, are perceived as representatives of the colonialist West. When U.S. cruisers shell Nanking to protect missionaries and U.S. interests, the San Pablo, nicknamed the Sand Pebbles by its American crew, breaks through a Chinese blockade to rescue three American missionaries.

Yet the American missionaries do not want to be saved. “They wanted no gunboat protection and no reprisals or indemnities, whatever might happen to them. Of course they could not do that. As American citizens, they were as much bound by the treaties as the Chinese were.” To be rescued by the San Pablo would undermine the mission’s attempt to be a neutral party, solely focused on Christianity. As the San Pablo approaches, one missionary asks, “Why should anyone feel forced to choose, in that way? Why can’t we just be citizens of the human race?”

The missionaries determine to renounce their American citizenship and reject the rescue attempt. They declare themselves stateless persons, like many White Russians living in China at the time, and send their names to Geneva to request Nansen passports, which were at the time given to those deemed stateless persons by the League of Nations. When a force of Sand Pebbles arrive at the mission—having already suffered several casualties in battle on the Yangtze—they find the missionaries’ stratagem less than amusing. The missionary tells the officer leading the expedition, “By this signed declaration we have temporarily renounced nationality in itself. Are you not able to understand that?” The lieutenant responds: “I understand it to be impossible. No sane person would try.”

Indeed, the Chinese communists approaching the mission to exterminate Christianity in China also couldn’t care less about the missionaries’ quixotic attempts to untether themselves from their national identity. The same is true for the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Abu Sayyaf, and Boko Haram. When they see Americans, they perceive only enemies to be exploited or killed. No amount of starry-eyed rhetoric by American idealists about global citizenship can change that.

The missionaries try to justify their act of renunciation with the claim, “we are still Americans in our hearts, but not in the absolutely exclusive way the nation demands of us.” Yet such a political gnosticism flies in the face of the natural groundedness of our existence as humans. We are never fully autonomous, atomized individuals. We are unable to sever ourselves from the people and place into which we are born.

Those missionaries might have recalled that Holy Scripture also teaches this reality. This is certainly the case in the Old Testament and its story of a group uniquely chosen to be God’s own covenant people, an identity clearly affirmed in the life and teachings of Christ. Jesus in numerous examples in the Gospels emphasizes his Jewish heritage and prioritizes his mission to his own people. Moreover, Revelation describes a scene from heaven:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)

As later theologians—and missionaries—have reemphasized, cultural and national identity remains, even in the age to come. Christianity doesn’t nullify these identities—it brings them to their proper end and fulfillment in God.

Truth is, apart from gaining some other citizenship and renouncing their own, Americans cannot escape their national identity. Because of this, we all carry a grave responsibility whenever we travel overseas, especially to dangerous places that the Department of State warns us to avoid.

Indeed, as I explained to that idealistic college grad eager for a missionary adventure, American civilians are routinely kidnapped by nefarious forces. They are held for ransom and sometimes murdered. Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle are only one of several recent cases of people betrayed by circumstances—or their own foolishness.

In many similar cases, U.S. special forces are called upon to act. Sometimes they fail and suffer casualties. There was the 2008 rescue of an American businessman in Afghanistan, an attempted rescue in 2016 of an American professor in Kabul, and the attempted rescue of journalist James Foley in Syria. American citizen Jessica Buchanan was rescued in Somalia in 2012, while American photojournalist Luke Somers was killed during a failed rescue attempt in Yemen in 2014. And of course we cannot forget the failure of Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, in which eight U.S. servicemen died trying to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran.

In each case, American soldiers put their lives at risk to rescue civilians. Some Americans out to save the world may wish to think of themselves as “citizens of the world” who can dispense with all their prior attachments, but as that officer on the San Pablo declares, this is insanity. We are all people of a particular culture, society, and nation. Americans must recognize that, regardless of our personal feelings, our nation possesses a powerful military. Guided by national interests and ideals, it will try to rescue its citizens from those who intend them harm. Few other nationals enjoy such a gift—and such a responsibility. The military of the Republic of Korea, for example, is unlikely to come to the aid of the many thousands of South Korean missionaries serving across the globe. Due to this responsibility, my advice to all romantic American globetrotters still stands: think about that the soldier who might get killed trying to rescue you. Because he will almost certainly come, just as the Sand Pebbles came. 

Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, and a contributor for The American Conservative.