Friday, December 9, 2011

Beat by chewing gum

I had hoped to be finished by now with another book that's related to Pearl Harbor Day (Dec 7), but I've still got a couple hundred pages to go, so instead I'll post a review about a book that looks at the end of the war with Japan.

In Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, British historian Max Hastings relates a story during his account of the battle in the Philippines that illustrates the frustration Japanese soldiers felt at seeing how much better equipped and supported American soldiers were than they. One Japanese soldier found American gum wrappers by a road and a wad of gum stuck to a weed. The soldier related: "Here we were, holding on for dear life, and these characters were chewing gum while they fought! I felt more sad than angry. The chewing gum tinfoil told me just how miserably we had been beaten" (pg 241).

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Vintage)That is a common theme throughout this detailed and thorough look at the war with Japan during those last couple of years - that Japan's chances to beat an industrial giant like the US were slim from the beginning. In spite of some early successes, Japanese leadership relied too heavily upon "fighting spirit" and fanaticism to achieve victories rather than adequately supporting their armies and providing them with improving technologies. The warped Bushido code of honor achieved much but at a huge moral, psychological, and human cost. Japanese soldiers fought like tigers to maintain ground and honor but they also died in much greater numbers than did their enemies in nearly every battle. And in those last years of the war it was a lost cause and their leaders showed a callous disregard for the lives of their people.

Hastings discusses the moral aspects of many incidents, and details the Japanese inhumanities toward enemy soldiers, prisoners, and civilians. War crimes were committed by all sides in the conflict, but Japanese murders, rapes, and other atrocities were institutionalized and systematic rather than occurring as more isolated and individual events, as was the case with other belligerents (except perhaps the Soviets). Hastings is somewhat critical when discussing LeMay's firebombing tactics, and includes horrific accounts by some Tokyo survivors. He covers in detail the morality of using atomic weapons, including numerous arguments against it. But he makes a very strong argument that because of the duplicitous manner in which Japan started the conflict and the inhumane way they conducted it, Japan essentially forfeited any claims for humane treatment after defeat. Basically, his argument is that they got a just "retribution."

This is an amazing and compelling history, covering not only the Americans but also the British, Australians, Chinese, Soviets, etc. Hastings discusses how the European nations were seen unsympathetically by America as fighting primarily to maintain Asian empires, and why the Australians were viewed as less committed and usually given the task of "mopping up." I'd always wondered what role other nations played in the Pacific conflict, but to me those parts weren't quite as interesting. I also felt that the account of the invasion of Okinawa was somewhat inadequate given the impact it had on public perception and tolerance for the war. Nonetheless, a highly recommended book for those interested in the subject.

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