Retribution: The Battle For Japan, 1944-45, by Max Hastings
How much you appreciate this book will depend in large part upon the extent to which you appreciate the author’s editorializing as he talks about the last year or so of the Pacific War against Japan. In some ways at least this book is designed to be a revisionist history, and so it discusses such matters as the success of the Chinese Communists in appealing to the Chinese people despite their total ineffectiveness against the Japanese, a mistake that was to cost the Chinese dearly up to the present day and for the foreseeable future, and gives a highly negative view of Douglas MacArthur’s military expertise as well as the questionable choice of various places that the marines and USN attacked during the course of the war that did not always end up being very useful (Palau, Iwo Jima) in terms of military operations. And if your tolerance for such things is limited, such as the thought that a historian can and should say that something is a fair claim and act as a critic of the existing secondary record, then your interest in this book will likely be limited. I have more fondness for revisionist histories so I generally enjoyed this book, for what it’s worth.
This book is a sizable one at about 550 pages long, and it is divided into twenty-two topical chapters. The book begins with a list of illustrations, maps, and an introduction by the author. After this there is a discussion of the dilemmas and dimensions of the American war effort, including a summit in Oahu that goes badly (1). The author explores the spirit of the Japanese warriors (2) and then turns his attention to the British in Burma and how they felt forgotten (3). A look at the American naval forces follows (4) as well as a discussion of the return to the Philippines at Leyte (5), which the author judges to be a total waste because of its insuitability as a base, and then the lucky break that the United States navy got due to Japanese timidity at Leyte Gulf (6), as well as the battle ashore in Leyte (7). The author discusses the fall of Stillwell due to his struggles with China’s nationalist leadership (8), McArthur’s behavior on Luzon (9), as well as, in quick succession, Iwo Jima (10), the submarine blockade of Japan’s merchant marine (11), and LeMay’s firebombing raids on Japan’s cities (12). There is another look at Burma (13), the collapse of Australian morale and worth in the war effort (14), as well as the experience of captivity and slavery by prisoners of war and civilians under Japanese rule (15). This leads to a look at Okinowa (16), Mao’s war in China (17), as well as the doomed effort by European nations to recover their Pacific empires (18). The book then winds down with a discussion of the nuclear bombs on Japan (19), the Soviet invasion of Manchuria (20), the last act of Japanese surrender (21), and some of the legacies of World War II (22), after which there is a chronology, acknowledgments, notes and sources, and an index.
In reading a book like this one has to understand that even with a fairly decent size, it is simply impossible for single-length volume books to do any degree of justice to the massive scope of World War II. This may sound like a bit of a cliche, but given that whole books can and have been written about individual campaigns, and even small aspects of individual campaigns, to write a book that covers the liberation of the Philippines, the Iwo Jima, Palau, and Okinowa campaigns, the building of the China road and the reconquest of Burma, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, the firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japanese cities, the horrifying treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese, and other aspects besides of necessity will not be able to cover any of those subjects in a huge amount of depth. Where there is depth, it is because the author is able to suavely use his own critical writing as well as the skillful citation of the writings and sayings of others to present vignettes that serve to illustrate the points that the author is making. For the most part, it must be admitted, this technique works wonders in making the subject matter come alive and allowing the author to wrestle with the questions of the justification of various decisions at the time and since and the puzzling absence of control over key elements of the American war effort, such as LeMay’s bombings, when LeMay himself was only a major general in his late 30’s, by no means one of the highest ranking officers around. The importance of people to history is something that this book explores thoughtfully even as it seeks to make judgments on much that was done during the latter stages of World War II.