Book Review: Tower Of Skulls

Tower Of Skulls: A History Of The Asia-Pacific War July 1937-May 1942, by Richard B. Frank

This book, a weighty work of more than 500 pages of text, to say nothing of its massive endnotes, is a revisionist history, but not of the sort that I find a problem with. What the author is attempting here, and which largely succeeds, is an effort at turning a study of the first part of World War II’s Pacific War into a Pacific history that integrates that concerns of the various people involved, with a high degree of interest in China and the influence of Chinese resistance to Japanese domination and Japan’s maladroit efforts at diplomacy and brutal military tactics as being responsible for the larger conflicts that other areas got drawn into. Japan’s attempt to extricate itself victorious from the self-inflicted Chinese quagmire that it got itself into only entangled it in further conflicts which it was able to deal with, at least in the short term, via opportunistic and tactical means but which ended up ensnaring Japan in increasingly difficult warfare on a logistical level that it would ultimately be unable to handle. The author handles this sprawling topic with skill, drawing upon sources that allow for a reassessment of China’s achievements in self-defense and that also point out American unwillingness to betray its Chinese ally, which was necessary for the avoidance of war with Japan, in a way that avoids conspiracy theory while pointing to FDR’s essential unreliability as well as the major shortcomings in leaders like Stillwell and MacArthur in their behavior.

This book is eighteen chapters long and it is divided into expressively titled chapters that deal in a chronological fashion with World War II from its beginnings in China to the peak of Japanese growth up to May 1942. So we start with the Marco Polo Bridge as a prologue (1), and then go through several chapters that detail the Japanese efforts in 1937 that were immensely successful at taking over cities like Shanghai and Nanking (1), killing many unprepared Chinese troops (2), forcing China to desperate straights like flooding the Yangtze to try to stop Japan’s advance at horrific cost (3), and leading to a massive refugee migration of tens of millions of people away from Japanese rule (4). The author discusses the Japanese abuse of prisoners (5), Japan’s efforts at diplomacy (6, 7, 8, 9), which combined tragedy and farce with inabilities to deal openly with others or present win-win options for others that only broadened the conflict. Then more combinations of tragedy and farce come in with the bungled nature of the American warning to Pearl Harbor for war and the failure of its local commanders to adequately prepare for the need to defend themselves (10, 11). After that comes a discussion of the litany of failures that occurred after the declaration of war, such as the fall of Hong Kong, Guam, and Wake Island (12), the setup and fall of Singapore (13, 14), the fall of the Dutch East Indies (15), the conquest of the Philippines (16), the fall of Burma (17), and the barbaric nature of the Japanese treatment of conquered areas as they reached the peak of their control in the Pacific (18). The book ends with acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, map and illustration credits, and an index.

This book is a welcome one to those who want an in-depth look at the Pacific War that connects the various elements of conflict and diplomacy together in a satisfactory way, demonstrating not only the unity of the Atlantic and Pacific Wars as part of the larger World War, but also demonstrating the importance of politics, the general popularity of Japanese imperialism with the general public, and a judicious reassessment of Chiang Kai-Shek as a leader of considerable strategic genius even if it did not lead to his own benefit as Chinese leader. The influence of World War II in shaping Chinese identity as a national rather than a local one, and the dangerous nature of Japan’s politics and its decision to wage war because it would have been unable to do so effectively later on based on America’s late peacetime efforts at rearmament, suggest that FDR is not to blame for World War II and that a great many mistakes were made that hindered the Allied effort at the beginning, including a disastrously poor effort in Malaysia and major logistical failures in the Philippines.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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