Mary Edwards Walker — Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, and surgeon who became the only woman, and one of only eight civilians, to receive the Medal of Honor.

Mary Edwards Walker I

She worked as a teacher to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married fellow medical school student Albert Miller set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. It failed to take off, largely because female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in 1860, until she was suspended after refusing to quit the all-male school debating society.

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The An Lushan Rebellion

On this day in 763, the devastating An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China came to an end. Sanning seven years and three emperors, the revolt was led by General An Lushan, who declared himself emperor and established the rival Yan Dynasty in the north. The scale of the conflict was beyond the norm for most of the medieval world, involving the mobilization of 800,000 to 1 million troops in total.

Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from 13 million to 36 million; because China accounted for about a third of the world’s population at the time, the higher figure — which is admittedly controversial — would represent one-sixth of all humans, making the An Lushan Rebellion proportionally the deadliest conflict ever (and even in absolute terms it remains in the top ten).

The world’s second-bloodiest conflict in total loss of life is another Chinese civil war, that of the Three Kingdoms era, which spanned almost one hundred years during the 2nd and 3rd century. Anywhere from 36-40 million people were killed, a number that would not be surpassed until WWII in the mid-20th century (though some estimates put the Mongol Conquests of the 13th-14th century at around the same amount as the Three Kingdoms).

A contemporary list of history’s biggest wars is dominated by China, including WWII (in which the country suffered 14-20 million casualties, second only to Russia), the aforementioned Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century (20-100 million deaths), and the 17th century conquest of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing (25 million).

China’s Forgotten Contributions to World War II

Like the Soviet Union, China played a large but understated role in history’s greatest conflict, essentially doing to Japan what the Russians did to its German ally: draining Axis troops and resources through a constant and ferocious battle of attrition, all while the Western Allies opened up another invasion route. China had been fighting Japan long before the world war had even broken out, and its experiences were by far among the longest and bloodiest of any participant.

Yet this vital contribution is barely acknowledged among the more prevailing U.S.-centered version of events. At most, the Chinese — again, like the Russians — are footnoted as allies who did do some fighting, yet are not accorded due credit for the sheer scale and strategic importance of their contributions (not always purposefully, although the Cold War did not endear us to giving the Communist enemy much credit for helping end the war of all wars).

Oxford historian Rana Mitter has endeavored to resolve this problem with the new book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945which explores the full breadth of China’s experience of the war, from the Japanese invasion that took place years before, to the political chaos the followed the conqueror’s expulsion.

Judging from an interview with the author on Pacific Standard, the book seems both comprehensive and balanced, revealing modern China’s own complex relationship with its past (unlike the other Allies, the Chinese remain comparatively more reserved about their World War II experience, for reasons the article touches on).

I plan on reading the book soon, and I recommend you all check out the interview hyperlinked in the preceding paragraph. It really sold me on why this is such an important effort, especially the following quote:

The scale of China’s involvement in the war was massive. Chiang, for example, fielded four million troops at the Nationalist’s height, while China as a whole lost an estimated 14 million in the war. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.

For point of reference, the U.S. suffered total of over 420,000 combat deaths in the entire war — a sobering contrast to China’s very different experience in the war (especially as half to two-thirds of Chinese deaths were civilians).