Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Retribution" by Max Hastings (2007)

Sometimes you have to go back and read one of those big ass books you have on your shelf because you keep looking at it and thinking, "I remember that one being good, but I don't remember exactly why." Especially when they're one of your WW II books, and especially when they're by Max Hastings. This guy is outstanding.

"Retribution" chronicles the last year of the war in the Pacific. It is the sister book to Hastings' "Armageddon" which details the same time period just in the European theater. Hastings is one of the best historians of the Second World War writing today. As with most good historians, his strength lies not in an impressive statistical recitation of facts or numbers, but rather in his extraordinary ability to contextualize the narrative he is entertaining. Hastings lets you know why the events he writes about matter, even when most people at the time didn't even think they did. He gives personal accounts from both the Allied side and the Japanese side. Not many historians do that. Even rarer still in the world of WW II books is Hastings' frequent and pointed quotes from the Chinese soldiers engaged in a war against Japan on the Asian mainland.

Hastings opens the book by reminding you of how high a cost the war took in the lives of those who participated in it on all sides. For example, the Japanese kept one million soldiers in garrison in the remote and seemingly inconsequential Kwangtung region of northern China. One million men, in an area where nothing happened for almost ten years. All this does is make you imagine how many more men must have been involved in the more crucial areas of the war, and put the staggering numbers of casualties in perspective. In point of fact, Hastings maintains throughout the book that many of the histories of the Pacific War are built on the ridiculous notion that its nuclear climax represents the bloodiest possible outcome. Hastings boldly asserts that even a few additional weeks of conflict, much less a full scale invasion of the Japanese home islands, would have resulted in even more fatalities than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined (even if you were only counting Japanese deaths).

In order to illustrate how vast, how expansive the whole war was, Hastings says it might be easier for us to understand the scope of the war if we added an S to the end of the name we give it... The Second World WARS. Considering the two major Axis powers hardly coordinated in any meaningful way, this seems obvious at the same time it seems almost sacrilegious. And, intriguingly, Hastings asserts that the label 'The Greatest Generation' is inapt. He argues that it is more appropriate to call them the generation to which the greatest things happened. Obviously this is an author who is unafraid to state his opinions even when they threaten to offend you, the reader.

Hastings reminded you that Imperial Japan wasn't just an aggressive martial tyranny seeking regional domination. Well, they were that, but they weren't just that. Japan saw itself in the 1930's as a latecomer to the great global game of building empires. The rise of Japan can be viewed honestly in the West in the same way an older brother who bullied his younger siblings might see his little brother become something less than an Eagle Scout. With dispassion afforded by hindsight and decades of distance, Americans today can consider Japan's entry into WW II as a example of the horrific consequences of setting a deplorable example to those who were always watching and learning. It's not that the fault lies solely at the feet of the US and European imperial powers, but we weren't exactly blameless. Japan's policy of "Asia for Asians" made perfect sense in a world dominated by white empires and it seems heartbreakingly similar to our own 'Monroe Doctrine.' Of course the brutality with which the Japanese treated their Asian subjects made it clear that their occupation would be far more heinous to bear than either that of Britain or France or America.

Oddly, considering all this,  Japan had hitched their star to a European savior. Japan's only hope for victory in establishing their Pacific/Asian empire (which was geographically the largest in the history of the world) lay in Germany's Hitler defeating the Western powers in Europe. Even the surprise raid on Pearl Harbor was not so destructive or decisive as it has been made to seem. The US Navy's 4 aircraft carriers were nowhere near Pearl that fateful Sunday morning in December '41. The oil stocks on shore were also untouched by the raiders' bombs, and the dry docks, crucial to any long-term war effort, were left untouched by a canceled third wave of Japanese bombers. Even the greatest blow Imperial Japan ever dealt the United States still relied on a greater German victory thousands of miles away in order for it to be a lasting victory of any kind.

In fact, far from being the menacing monolithic terror American propaganda made it out to be, the Japanese government during the war years was chaotic, uncoordinated, and shockingly decentralized. Prime Minister Churchill in his democratic Britain had far more influence over the course of his military's destiny than Tojo ever did over his. Nevertheless, Tojo was labeled a dictator and Churchill a lion for freedom. In fact, Hastings reminded you that it is useful to remember that Japan in '45 mirrors England in '40. Both were island nations cut off from their allies and facing military behemoths unlike anything the world had seen before. Yet the same tenacity we praise in Churchill seems an insanity we lament in Hirohito. What we credit as one nation's "finest hour" we decry in the other as a valid excuse for using the world's first two nuclear weapons against civilians. Context, man. It's a bitch.

To illustrate how hopeless Japan's struggle was, Hastings cited a mathematical statistic that stood out to you as few stats do. Page 53, "For every four tons of supplies the United States shipped to its ground forces in the Pacific, Japan was able to ship just two pounds." 4 tons versus two pounds? 8,000... to 2? That's worse odds than the Alamo, worse than Thermopylae. And those battles didn't turn out so victorious for the outnumbered. How could the Japanese have ever thought they could win without a commensurate Nazi victory?

Early on in the book, Hastings asks the grand question of the question Pacific War. Pg. 27, "The enemy was an island nation. If the US Navy could secure sufficient Pacific footholds to provide air and naval basing facilities (for forces dedicated to heavy bombing and enforcing an absolute quarantine) on the route to Japan, was it also necessary to fight a major ground campaign?" The course of the Pacific War suggests that no one was confident of the answer to this question until the moment the formal surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay.

When you think about these huge naval battles that characterized the Pacific War, especially towards the end of the war, it is easy for you to imagine them as grand conflicts fought between machines; silver gleaming aircraft zooming down to blast great hulking behemoths churning the surface of the ocean itself with the titanic power of their mechanized might; like some high budget Sci-Fi movie. Machine versus machine with no actual people involved, unless they survived to talk about how epic the whole thing was. Hastings, however, never lets you forget that there were human beings on the receiving end of all that firepower. Every spectacular explosion meant that some frightened young man had just died a terrifying death, either strapped into a cramped cockpit or sweltering in the bowels of a mighty naval vessel. Hastings refuses to allow the extraordinary industrialization of the greatest war in history to rob the individual soldier of their humanity. He forces you to remember what a sacrifice each of these battles demanded of their host nations. It wasn't just that huge and expensive machines were being wasted against an intractable enemy, it was that human beings were being wasted as well, and wasted at a shocking pace.

Thousands upon thousands of people lost their lives on battlefields few even remember today. Hastings makes it clear, in fact, that entire fronts of the war, encompassing the struggles of millions of men on both sides and the deaths of comparable numbers of civilians, are now completely ignored by history. The invasion to liberate the Philippines was not only the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific War, including the largest naval battle in the history of the world, but it was also probably totally unnecessary to the overall war effort. Iwo Jima was so bad, American commanders chaffed at not being allowed to use chemical weapons to root out their enemies.. It was a volcanic ashen nightmare and it was the first time in the whole war that American casualties equaled those of the Japanese, and it was all done to save just a slightly greater number of American flyers who had to use the island as an emergency landing strip as the number of Marines who died to provide that safe landing place for them. Civilians on Saipan, persuaded by Japanese propaganda that the Americans were evil, merciless, rapacious  monsters, threw themselves and their own children off towering cliffs into the rocky ocean far below, and they did so by the thousands. Single nights on the home islands of Japan saw hundreds of thousands of civilians burned alive, suffocated, or crushed under falling rubble under the most ruthless area bombings of the war.

Ostensibly, the urban centers of Japan were incinerated by massive fire bombings in order to destroy the empire's war industry. Precision bombing was as much a fantasy over Japan as it was over Germany, even with the new futuristic B-29 bombers. General Curtis LeMay figured out how to give his commanders the greatest possible chance to take out factories, warehouses, rail heads, and repair facilities... just burn everything. If you can't guarantee you can hit a bulls eye, then just burn the whole target to a cinder. The buildings were made mostly of wood and paper so high explosive bombs weren't as sure of a weapon as napalm. Sadly this, like many of the island invasions farther out in the Pacific, proved unnecessary. The US submarine forces had eviscerated Japanese war production more effectively than fleets of bombers blanketing the skies over Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama ever could. The blockade of the home islands was the most effective since Lincoln cut off Confederate ports during the American Civil War. By 1945, there was effectively no war material being brought into the country for LeMay's bombers to destroy. There were only people, mostly women, children, and elderly.

The descriptions of the first hand witnesses to this firebombing campaign beggar the imagination. Dante's "Inferno" doesn't even come close to the realities of what we did to those people. The eventual use of nuclear weapons did not represent an increase in the destruction of Japanese cities, it only represented an increase in efficiency.

These atrocities seem to fade in significance in our daily lives, but they shouldn't. These are the deaths upon which the entire modern era is built. No morally sound society can embrace such a decadent and comfortable lifestyle as we have come to know without recognizing the horrors which brought it about; at least not without the expectation of some sort of karmic justice. We forget these sacrifices at the threat of our own civilization. The Second World War was great, without question.. but whether or not it was good is only to be determined by how we, we the recipients of all the benefits of those sacrifices, how we live our lives today.

"Retribution" seems an odd name for this book, especially when you consider the companion book about the fall of Germany was entitled "Armageddon." Objectively, it feels like the titles should be reversed. The Germans with their concentration camps, mass executions, and unimaginable atrocities should arguably have received some great retribution. While the fate of Japan, who suffered blockade and starvation, inconceivable firebombings that dwarfed those in Dresden and Hamburg, and a final nuclear annihilation the world has feared ever since... should have received the title of Armageddon. But Hastings makes the case that the violence of the Pacific War was not due to any latent racism on the part of the Americans (which other historians have argued) but rather to the American passion for justice. The unspeakable atrocities committed by the armies of Japan, whether in Nanking or Manchuria, in Manila or Burma, in Korea or in the POW camps on the home islands, these crimes had to be answered. And the world knew about the Japanese crimes long before the war was over, while the Nazi's greatest sins were only discovered as the German government was already collapsing.

Hastings makes this case on Pg. 368 saying, "The Japanese, having started the war, waged it with such savagery towards the innocent and impotent that it is easy to understand the rage which filled Allied hearts in 1945, when all was revealed... War is inherently inhumane, but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy."

He doubles down 100 pages later when ruminating on the political context of dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan saying, "Japan would certainly have used atomic weapons if it possessed them. The nation had gambled upon launching a ruthless war of conquest. The gamble had failed and it was time to pay." Damn.

Hastings reminds you that the leaders of Japan had famously refused to warn America that war was upon them before they destroyed the fleet at Pearl Harbor. If they had done so, the surprise, and therefore the sock, would have been ruined. The same logic applied to withholding explicit warning of a nuclear attack. The Americans were hoping to shock Japan into sitting down at the negotiating table. Warning the Japanese that the worst was on the way would have ruined the effect. (It is important to make the distinction here that when Nagasaki was bombed, America and Japan had been at war for almost four years. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the attack WAS the declaration of war. In addition, the Potsdam declaration, signed by the Allies to much fanfare only weeks before Nagasaki was vaporized, promised "prompt and utter destruction" of the home islands of Japan if they did not surrender. This is not exactly an explicit warning, but is was considerably more than the 2,500 casualties of the attack on Pearl Harbor received.)

The same day that saw a second Japanese city destroyed by a single atomic bomb saw the Russians invade Japanese-held China. Manchuria had long been considered by the Japanese to be a safe haven from the worst of the war. It was a supposed to be a permanent Japanese colony in mainland Asia. hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had moved there from the home islands to protect themselves from the American bombings and from the looming American invasion. The Empire of Japan had a million soldiers guarding Manchuria and they never suspected a thing.

Stalin had secretly moved a million and a half battle-hardened veterans across 6,000 miles of the Russian steppe to crush Manchuria, breaking a treaty he had signed with Japan to guarantee that neither side would attack the other. This agreement was what freed Stalin to move so many troops to his Western front to destroy Germany. Those same Red Army soldiers were now spilling into the great Japanese mainland Asian colony. This new front, Manchuria, was larger than all of Eastern Europe and the Russians conquered it in less than a month. Some Japanese citizens considered the Russian invasion even more shocking than the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In August of 1945, emperor Hirohito informed his government that they must accept the Americans' terms and end the war. Japan must surrender. Oddly, some of the junior officers and staff of the Japanese military plotted to stage a coup to prevent any surrender, against the orders of their supreme leader. By contrast, a year and a month earlier, in July of '44, when it became clear that Germany could no longer hope to win the war, the junior officers and staff of Hitler's military attempted to assassinate him and overthrow the Nazi regime specifically in order to force a surrender. Conversely, even under the most inhumane and horrific retribution imaginable, the Japanese had a hard time accepting defeat. They were more fanatical than the Nazis were about keeping the war going.

Now that is fanaticism.

With such devotion to destruction on all sides, it is a wonder anyone won that war at all.

On to the next book!

P. S.  Screw Douglas MacArthur. He was a particularly awful general. He was more interested in fighting a war to achieve his own fame then to accomplish the interests of his nation. Many thousands of young Americans,  even more Japanese, and an obscene number of Philippinos died because of MacArthur's desire for publicity. Some of your friends have tried to convince you he wasn't all that bad, but the more you learn about him, the worse your opinion becomes.

P.P.S. Seriously....            MacArthur sucked.