Writers for Conservatives, 69: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
That’s the subtitle of the book under discussion, Retribution, another of Max Hastings’ magnificent books about World War II, akin to Armageddon, about the final throes of Nazi Germany, a book I wrote about not long ago. I cannot praise his work enough. Although this is not about the course of the war in 1942 and ’43, he refers to it often, and we know it as the preliminary to the actions that follow in the last two years of the war. When the Japanese were swiftly overrunning Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Burma, Malaya, Borneo, Indo-China, the Philippines — they seemed invincible, but the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, severely tested them, and thereafter, their weaknesses began to show, as, for instance, their seeming inability to learn from experience and improve their weapons. The Zero, a superior fighter plane in 1941, was soon outclassed by American planes, like the Grumman Hellcat, and the tactical skill shown by the Japanese navy in the battles around Guadalcanal gave way to clumsiness in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Although chronology is not ignored, and the book moves inexorably forward, the book is really organized around subjects like “The British in Burma” or “Blockade: War Under Water,” because in that way we can better grasp the larger outlines and issues of the war. For example, instead of proceeding from island to island, as a conventional account would do, the only island campaigns Hastings describes in detail are Iwo Jima and Okinawa. As he points out, battles in the Pacific were short and intense, quite unlike the European battles, and important as they were, they were not so essential as submarine warfare. As the U.S. strategic Bombing Survey put it,
“The war against shipping was the most decisive single factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy and logistic support of Japanese military and naval power. Submarines accounted for the majority of vessel sinkings.”
For nearly everything Japan depended on imports, and once the subs stopped focusing on warships and saw the significance of tankers and freighters, they strangled the Japanese economy. As Hastings says,
“No other combatant force as small as the U.S. Navy’s submarine flotillas and their 16,000 men achieved a comparable impact upon the war anywhere in the world.”
The B-29 campaign, led by Curtis LeMay, which burned out Japanese cities, while it was certainly destructive (far more so than the A-bombs), was mainly psychological in effect. It reminds me of Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas: it exposed the impotence of the government and the power of the U.S. And men like LeMay are “indispensable to those who fight wars on behalf of any nation.”
The value of the book is enhanced by its scope — it covers the British campaign in Burma as well as the war in China and the Russian campaign in Manchuria — and the balanced judgments he brings to bear on those conflicts. The question raised by the Japanese defeat of the colonial powers — Britain, France, and Holland — are most apparent in Burma (the troubles in Indo China and the Dutch East Indies only became pressing after the war), but it is only an undercurrent. The Burmese troops the Japanese raised melted away in the heat of battle. Hastings admires General Slim, whom he regards as the best British general of the war, and his Burma campaign was masterly (although he was never appreciated by his government).
The Chinese situation was complex, and the Americans never mastered it. We mainly supported Chiang, but there were some supporters of Mao. What no one saw was that each side, far from wishing to fight the Japanese, were only preparing for their own struggle for mastery after the war. Hastings’ account of different characters, their ideas, and their consequences, is wonderfully illuminating. I have never read such a clarifying account of the Chinese mess.
Another subject that Hastings handles skillfully is MacArthur, who largely escapes critical scrutiny in most accounts of the war. I am not thinking of his blunders in the Philippines in 1941 and ’42 (bad as they were, he was in a hopeless situation), but his strategic decision to invade the Philippines. The problem was that he had been built into such a hero in the dark days of 1942 that his wishes couldn’t be ignored. It was not until 1951 that Truman brought him down. It would have been better, certainly for the Philippines, if MacArthur had invaded the Philippines only to seize a couple of air fields. As it was, he exposed civilians in Manila to slaughter, and he wasted troops liberating every corner of the archipelago.
No book that I know of treats the Russian invasion of Manchuria, and Retribution is valuable for that alone.
Throughout, Hastings describes the brutality exercised by the Japanese on civilians and prisoners, and at the end he speaks of the Japanese denial of their past:
“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 two-thirds of a century ago.”
Reading this book not only informs the reader of the Pacific war, it educates him in the fine art of balanced judgment of historical facts. *