I didn't think I had it in me, but I have just finished yet another book about World War II, probably the hundredth or so that I have read in a lifetime of interest in the myriad angles, intricacies and strategies of that great conflict fought by my parents' generation. I am glad that I did what with the dust-up in Georgia and a war in Iraq that has lasted considerably longer than the time between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and their unconditional surrender.
Retribution: The Battle For Japan, 1944-45, published in March, focuses on the closing years of the war in the Pacific and among the lessons it offers is that the politicians who are starting wars these days like Bush and Putin, as well as pundits like Kristol and Kagan who are constantly agitating for even more wars, are a bunch of cocked hats by comparison.
I doubt that Max Hastings, the esteemed journalist-historian and author of Retribution, would say as much. In fact, Hastings has pretty much been in the neocon camp on Iraq.
That doesn't diminish a provocative book full of fresh insights that acknowledges Japanese brutality was returned in kind by the Americans, and to pretend that race had nothing to do with that tit-for-tat is to ignore the historic record. But Hastings writes that neither should it be ignored that Japanese sadism and disregard for the lives of their own infantrymen, fliers and subjugates invited the Yankee payback.
As Hastings notes in the introduction:
"For students of history . . . the manner in which the Second World War ended is even more fascinating than that in which it began. Giants of their respective nations, or rather mortal men cast into giants' roles, resolved the great issues of the twentieth century on battlefields in three dimensions, and in the war rooms of their capitals. Some of the most populous societies on earth teemed in flux. Technology displayed a terrifying maturity. . . . For millions, 1944-45 brought liberation, the banishment of privation, fear and oppression; but air attacks during those years killed larger numbers of people than in the rest of the conflict put together. Posterity knows that the war ended in August 1945. However, it would have provided scant comfort to the men who risked their lives in the Pacific island battles, as well as in the other bloody campaigns of that spring and summer, to be assured that the tumult would soon be stilled. Soldiers may accept a need to be the first to die in a war, but there is often an unseemly scramble to avoid becoming the last."
Hastings sharpens Retribution to a fine edge with bottom-up accounts from ordinary people -- British Gurkas, American submariners, Japanese enlisted men and civilians, Aussie blodgers, Koumingtang resistance fighters and Russian paratroopers whose oral histories convey the human cost of war in a way that official accounts cannot.
He eschews detailed retellings of the last great battles of the Pacific war, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Manchuria, as well as the great bombing raids on Japanese cities that culminated in the atomic bombings. This is well trod ground, and he instead focuses on more nuanced areas to which historians in the thrall of the ebb and flow of battle pay no attention:
* Despite their stunning successes in the early years of the war, Japanese conduct of the war itself -- the command and operation of its army, navy, air forces and logistical network -- was shockingly inept. Even after the tide had turned so disastrously in 1944, leaving the Japanese fleet a shambles, the ability of the high command to continually delude itself into believing that things somehow would get better as they got worse because the Japanese were superior is mind boggling.
* While cooperation and coordination between the British and Americas was extensive, there was an antipathy in Washington toward Winston Churchill's insistence that Burma and other British colonies in Southeast Asia be retaken because putting the empire back together again was properly viewed as less important than the ultimate objective of forcing the Japanese to surrender.
* General Douglas MacArthur, whose massive ego and ability at self aggrandizement is legion, undertook the largest ground campaign of America's war in the Pacific to satisfy his own ambitions and not advance that ultimate Allied goal.
* If the U.S. Navy with its superior submarine force had addressed a systematic blockade of Japan earlier in the war, the mainland would have been starved of oil and other material much earlier. As it was, sinking warships remained the priority until 1944.
* The American blockade already had strangled Japanese industry when massive incendiary bombing raids on major cities began in the spring of 1945. It quickly became obvious that the Japanese people were being punished out of proportion, but with the acquiescence of President Roosevelt and absent any outcry in the U.S., General Curtis LeMay was given an extraordinary amount of latitude to incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians.
* Australian troops, important players in both the European and Pacific theaters early in the war, became marginalized in the final years because of a parochial intransigence regarding the war Down Under once it was realized that Japanese efforts to take Australia had been repulsed.
* Arguments that the U.S. should have spared Japan the A-bomb attacks and showed the Japanese a moral and political generosity that it never showed Americans would would seem to crumble in the face of the stubborn refusal of the military-dominated government in Tokyo to capitulate.
While I agree with the decision to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki because an invasion of the mainland would waste so many more lives and prolong the suffering of the many thousands of POWs held by the Japanese, Hastings does abandon his usual balance in giving short shrift to the fact that Washington was getting signals before the bombings that the Japanese might soon sue for peace.
But "along with a thrill of power and the instinctive pleasure at the thought of Japan cringing in abject surrender, America's deep-rooted humanitarianism had begun to assert itself," the British Embassy in Washington suggested in a cable to the Foreign Office in London. Indeed, soul searching about using these weapons was underway although the U.S. kept up the pressure on Japan and another 15,000 Japanese died in subsequent conventional bombing raids before the surrender.
In the end, wrote Japanese historian Kazutoshi Hando, the reason for surrender "For Japan's civilian politicians, it was the dropping of the atomic bombs. For the Japanese army, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria."
"What is remarkable . . . is not how many Japanese rejected surrender, but how many embraced it gratefully, whatever protestations they made to the contrary. This outcome once more highlights the gulf between the private acknowledgement of reality and the public embrace of fantasy which had been the bane of the Japanese nation, and of Asia."
Yet as I well know having lived in Tokyo and traveled the breadth and length of Japan, most Japanese still are unable to honestly acknowledge their history.
As Hastings concludes:
"They still seek to excuse, and even to ennoble, the actions of their parents and grandparents, so many of whom forsook humanity in favor of a perversion of honor and an aggressive nationalism which should properly be recalled with shame. As long as such denial persists, it will remain impossible for the world to believe that Japan has come to terms with the horrors which it inflicted upon Asia almost two-thirds of a century ago."