10 Discussion Questions
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45
by Max Hastings
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How did the Allies achieve victory in the Pacific in World War II? Max Hastings tells the story of the cataclysmic events leading to V-J Day in his latest work of military history, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, 615 pp., $35) www.aaknopf.com. Here are some starter questions about the book for history book clubs and others.
1. You could argue that, as used in the title of this book, the word “retribution” has more than one meaning. What are some of them? Which do you see as the most important?
2. The War in the Pacific differed from the War in Europe in many ways, including in its scale. “In the Pacific there were no great battles resembling Normandy, the Bulge, the Vistula and Oder crossings, exploiting mass and maneuver. Instead, there was a series of violently intense miniatures, rendered all the more vivid in the minds of participants because they were so concentrated in space.” [Page 119] This reality of the War in the Pacific poses an obvious challenge for military historians who need to create drama in order to maintain interest a long book. How does Hastings create that drama?
3. Hastings tries to debunk a number of myths about World War II, one of which involves the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some people believe that this act caused a needless loss of life because the Japanese would have surrendered if warned about the bomb. Hastings disagrees. “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 writes. “Japanese intransigence does not of itself validate the use of atomic bombs, but it should frame the context of debate.” [Page xix] How – and how well — does he make the case for this point of view?
4. What myths about the war does Hastings try to banish? How effective are his attempts?
5. Parts of Retribution may be controversial. In some of these, Hastings compares the nature if not the scope of Japanese atrocities to those of the Nazis, who used some similar methods of torture or death, such as vivisection of unanesthetized prisoners. “In the face of evidence from so many different times, places, units and circumstances, it became impossible for Japan’s leaders credibly to deny systematic inhumanity as gross as that of the Nazis,” Hastings writes. [Page 236] Based on the evidence in Retribution, is this comparison justifiable?
6. Hastings is British journalist born a few months after World War II ended. Apart from the British spellings retained in the American edition of Retribution, do you see any evidence that his nationality affected his telling of the story? Given the current political climate in the U.S., would an American writer have spoken so bluntly about the reluctance of the Japanese to come to terms with the atrocities committed in World War II?
7. The former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has called those who lived through World War II “the greatest generation.” Hastings challenges this view. “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times,” he writes. “This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’” [Page xx] Some American writers have also faulted Brokaw’s view as romanticized. How, if at all, did Retribution affect your view the phrase “the greatest generation”?
8. Hastings explores in some depth the motives of kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last days of World War II. “Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms,” he writes. “Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.” What parallels do you see between the tactics and motives kamikaze pilots and those of contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere? [Pages 164–65]
9. In reviewing Retribution for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Kann responds to Hastings’s view that only total war enabled the U.S. exploit weapons of mass destruction. “As we have repeatedly discovered since – World War II – in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq – limited war is much more likely to favor belligerents of limited means,” Kann writes. What, if any, implications does Retribution have for wars like the one we are fighting in Iraq? [“Total War in the Pacific,” by Peter R. Kann, the Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008, page W10.]
10. Hastings says that he didn’t want to write another history of the war in the Pacific so much to describe ‘a massive and terrible experience, set in a chronological framework.’ Did he succeed? How does Retribution benefit or suffer from the approach he chose?
Your book group may also want to read: The Railway Man, a memoir by Eric Lomax of working as a prisoner of war on the Burma-Siam railroad, and Hiroshima, John Hersey’s classic report on six Hiroshimans who survived when the atomic bomb fell on their city.
This guide may be expanded soon. If you have read Retribution, please feel free to suggest additional questions. A review of the book appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19. One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.