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Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45by Max Hastings
Synopses & Reviews
Hailed in Britain as “Spectacular . . . Searingly powerful” (Andrew Roberts, The Sunday Telegraph), a riveting, impeccably informed chronicle of the final year of the Pacific war. In his critically acclaimed Armageddon, Hastings detailed the last twelve months of the struggle for Germany. Here, in what can be considered a companion volume, he covers the horrific story of the war against Japan.
By the summer of 1944 it was clear that Japans defeat was inevitable, but how the drive to victory would be achieved remained to be seen. The ensuing drama—that ended in Japans utter devastation—was acted out across the vast stage of Asia, with massive clashes of naval and air forces, fighting through jungles, and barbarities by an apparently incomprehensible foe. In recounting the saga of this time and place, Max Hastings gives us incisive portraits of the theaters key figures—MacArthur, Nimitz, Mountbatten, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. But he is equally adept in his portrayals of the ordinary soldiers and sailors—American, British, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese—caught in some of the wars bloodiest campaigns.
With unprecedented insight, Hastings discusses Japans war against China, now all but forgotten in the West, MacArthurs follies in the Philippines, the Marines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Soviet blitzkrieg in Manchuria. He analyzes the decision-making process that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which, he convincingly argues, ultimately saved lives. Finally, he delves into the Japanese wartime mind-set, which caused an otherwise civilized society to carry out atrocities that haunt the nation to this day.
Retribution is a brilliant telling of an epic conflict from a master military historian at the height of his powers.
"The British military historian Max Hastings is best known for volumes that insist on recounting World War II from the bottom up. Hastings wants his readers to learn history from the perspective of the army grunts, sailors and airmen who endured the tedium and barbarity of war. His is military history as told from the foxhole — or, in the case of this narrative of the last year of the Pacific war,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) as told from the decks of aircraft carriers. Too often the little actors in history are forgotten in the shadows of the kings, presidents and generals who send them into battle. In 'Retribution,' Hastings does not leave out the big actors, but what is new and original are the personal stories he has extracted from oral histories and his own interviews with veterans of the American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and even Chinese armies. A fine writer, Hastings conveys many heart-rending testimonies. He quotes a sailor describing his friend's decapitation during a kamikaze raid: 'His head fell off at my feet. I looked down ... and I believe his mouth was still trying to tell me something.' A Japanese soldier observes his starving men cooking the remains of a dead officer. A Marine on Iwo Jima comes across 'piles of dead Marines, waiting to be collected.' Hastings' veterans recount numerous firefights, ambushes, massacres and rapes. War crimes are committed by all sides — but most methodically by the Japanese. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur refuses to bombard Manila's old Spanish district, one of his officers complains: 'War is never pretty. I am frank to say I would sacrifice Philipino (sic) lives under such circumstances to save the lives of my men. I feel quite bitter about this tonight.' Hastings draws an array of lessons from these stories. He concludes, unarguably, that war is chaotic, arbitrary and brutal for the people on the frontlines, and that generals often make decisions that needlessly sacrifice their soldiers. He is very tough on MacArthur, criticizing many of the Pacific commander's strategic moves, particularly his decision to waste lives and resources in seizing Manila. Describing the U.S. loss of 8,140 men on Luzon, Hastings observes that 'Japanese barbarism rendered the battle for Manila a human catastrophe, but MacArthur's obsession with seizing the city created the circumstances for it. ... MacArthur presided over the largest ground campaign of America's war in the Pacific in a fashion which satisfied his own ambitions more convincingly than the national purpose of his country.' But when it comes to 'Retribution''s central theme — that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly justified and necessary to persuade a recalcitrant enemy to surrender — Hastings abandons his critical faculties. He is not content simply to argue that 'the fate which befell Japan in 1945' was 'retributive justice' for that country's misdeeds. In language reminiscent of the patriotically correct criticism of the Smithsonian's attempt in 1995 to mount an exhibit about the Enola Gay, Hastings asserts, 'The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence.' He calls these unnamed writers 'peddlers of fantasies.' Of course, the American Legion agrees with him. But it is an assertion rather than an argument, and the evidence of ongoing, robust debate is abundant. Numerous historians continue to question one aspect or another of the standard defense of President Harry Truman's decision to use the bomb, in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 'against an enemy that was essentially defeated.' Three years ago, the Japanese scholar Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a widely praised book, 'Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan,' revealing evidence from Japanese and Russian archives that it was the Soviet entry into the war — and not the atomic bombings — that induced surrender. But Hastings does not alert his readers to this new evidence. Let's clear the deck here: Few, if any, critics of the atomic bombings believe that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have been preferable to the use of weapons of mass destruction. But the critics — and Hastings — know that this was not the real choice; Hastings admits that an invasion 'would almost certainly have been unnecessary.' The real question is whether lives could have been saved by following the advice of War Secretary Henry Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, the State Department's Joseph Grew, Gen. George Marshall and numerous other advisers to the president. They — and by the way, The Washington Post at the time — urged Truman to clarify the terms of unconditional surrender by stipulating that the United States would allow Japan to retain its emperor as a constitutional monarch. There is good evidence — even in Hastings' book — that this might have led to an earlier surrender. But while Hastings devotes two full chapters to these issues, he can't find the space to note that Truman, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and Adm. William D. Leahy, the president's chief of staff, all reportedly agreed on Aug. 3, 1945 — three days before 140,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima — that Japan was 'looking for peace.' Similarly, Hastings says Byrnes advised Truman that Americans would not stand for a clarification of the terms of surrender that appeared to coddle Japan. But Hastings does not tell his readers that the Senate Republican leadership was publicly attacking Truman for prolonging the war by not giving the Japanese what the State Department knew they wanted: a guarantee of the continuation of the emperorship. Rather, Hastings has this to say about Byrnes' judgments: 'If there was a strand of triumphalism in American conduct, why should there not have been?' In the end, I don't quarrel with many of the facts in this book. But I am appalled by the critical evidence left out. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary because Hastings' narrative is fully compatible with a more nuanced interpretation of how the Pacific war ended. He amply demonstrates, for instance, that the Japanese were essentially defeated before the atomic bombs fell. But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain a hot-button issue, something that can make otherwise responsible historians nose-dive into polemics. Kai Bird is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.' He lives in Kathmandu." Reviewed by Kai Bird, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Book News Annotation:
Having written Armageddon about the closing year of the Second World War in Europe, veteran British journalist Hastings here turns his attention east for a similar project about the Pacific theater. His integrated military history of the final year of war before Japan's surrender attempts to treat all the campaigns of the Eastern theater of a piece, including such neglected aspects as the Chinese experience and the Russian assault on Manchuria, with the exception of indigenous anti-colonial resistance movements, which were too large a topic to include. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Max Hastings is the author of more than fifteen books. He has served as a foreign correspondent and as the editor of Britains Evening Standard and The Daily Telegraph and has received numerous British Press Awards, including Journalist of the Year in 1982, and Editor of the Year in 1988. He lives outside London.
Table of Contents
"Hastings is a military historian in the grand tradition . . . He is equally adept at analyzing the broad sweep of strategy and creating thrilling set pieces that put the reader in the cockpit of a fighter plane or the conning tower of a submarine."
--Evan Thomas, The New York Times Book Review
"Compelling . . . To the broad sweep of military events Mr. Hastings adds myriad human stories . . . and he does not hesitate to offer his own keen analysis along the way."
--Peter R. Kann, The Wall Street Journal
"The great merit of Max Hastings's many books on war is his skill at bringing the numbers, as it were, down to earth. Through the imaginative power of his writing, we get an inkling . . . of what it must have been like to slog one's way up a cliff at Iwo Jima, or be firebombed in Tokyo."
--Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books
"Hastings has another winner . . . This book is first-rate popular history, stiffened with a strongly stated point of view . . . A close-up and personal look at war as it affected real people, and how it felt to them at the time."--Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Explosive, argumentative, intensely researched . . . Demands to be read. A book of stunning disclosures."--Tom Mackin, Sunday Star-Ledger
"[A] masterful interpretive narrative . . . Hastings is both comprehensive and finely acute."
"Spectacular . . . Searingly powerful. Hastings makes important points about the war in the East that have been all too rarely heard."
--Andrew Roberts, The Sunday Telegraph
"A triumph . . . The key to the book's success lies not in its accessibility, nor in its vivid portraits of the key figures in the drama--although it has both--but in something else entirely: the author's supremely confident ambition."
--Laurence Rees, The Sunday Times
"Extraordinary . . . Anyone who believes that we're all living through a uniquely troubled time should read this . . . book."
--Georgie Rose, The Sunday Herald
"This is a book not only for military history buffs but for anyone who wants to understand what happened in half the world during one of the bloodiest periods of the blood-soaked 20th century."
"Highly readable . . . An admirably balanced re-examination of the last phases of a conflict that it is not fashionable to remember."
--Dan van der Vat, The Guardian
"Engrossing . . . Its originality lies in the meticulousness of the author's research and the amazing witnesses he has found."
--Murray Sayle, The Evening Standard
"Hastings is . . . a master of the sort of detail that illuminates the human cost. It is the way he leaps so adeptly to and fro between the vast panorama and the tiny snapshot pictures that makes him such a readable historian."--Mail on Sunday
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