Remembering the era when General Douglas MacArthur wouldn’t agree to a government request to change his famous remark on leaving the Philippines from “I shall return” to “We shall return”
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. By Max Hastings. Knopf, 615 pp., $35.
By Janice Harayda
One of the paradoxes of the wave of historical revisionism now sweeping the United States is that while many Americans vow “never to forget” the Holocaust, they turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II. The reasons for the selective memory are complex and range from the failings of schools to the possibility that – as some have psychologists have suggested – the human mind can only bear to think about so much evil.
But anyone who wants to understand the scope of savagery might start with Retribution, the British journalist Max Hastings’s latest work of military history. One virtue of this immensely readable book is that it blends with great skill the approaches that have been called “top-down” and “bottom-up” history. Retribution has memorable portraits of military leaders such as Chester Nimitz, Curtis LeMay and Douglas MacArthur (who objected when the Office of War Information wanted to change for public consumption his famous “I shall return” to “We shall return”). And Hastings’s analyses of the decisions of generals, admirals and statesmen lead to many persuasive conclusions – most notably, that dropping the atomic bombs resulted fewer deaths than would have occurred if the war had continued apace.
Amid such glimpses of those at the top, Retribution shows the shattering effects of the war on the men and women at the bottom, those who survived the firebombing of Tokyo or fought in Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere. Stories of unimaginable suffering are leavened with lighter moments. Families could send parcels to Allied prisoners of war, but the Japanese seldom delivered them. So a U.S. artillery captain held captive on Luzon was thrilled to get a package from home “which he found wonderfully sensibly chosen: a carton of cigarettes, a sweater, a jar of candy and some vitamin pills.”
But for many Americans, the most startling parts of this book are likely to involve the accounts of Japanese brutality to the 100,000 Allied POWs and others. These atrocities go beyond what anyone might expect from such popular books as The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s story of working in captivity on the Burma-Siam railroad – to say nothing of movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Bridge on the River Kwai.
“There were so many cases of arbitrary beheadings, clubbings and bayonetings in different parts of the empire that it is impossible to dismiss these as unauthorized initiatives by individual officers and men,” Hastings writes. Some of the sadism recalls Josef Mengele’s experiments in Nazi death camps: Eight American airmen were killed by unanesthetized vivisecton carried out in front of medical students at a Japanese hospital. Hastings disagrees with Japanese and other observers who say that it is time to put aside old grievances about such atrocities:
“Germany has paid almost $6 billion to 1.5 million victims of the Hitler era. Austria has paid $400 million to 132,000 people. By contrast, modern Japan goes to extraordinary lengths to escape any admission of responsibility, far less of liability for compensation, towards its wartime victims.”
Hastings ascribes the Japanese position partly to a tendency to excuse — “even to ennoble” — the shameful actions of parents and grandparents. Whatever the reason for what he calls “denial,” it can hardly help Japan’s relations with the world. America found one kind of retribution on the deck of the battleship Missouri, but another kind has clearly eluded its former prisoners of war and others.
Best lines: On submarine crews: “Freshmen had to master the delicate art of using submarine toilets inside a pressure hull: ‘It was hard to flush below a hundred feet and keep a clean face,’ wrote one.” On Tom Brokaw–esque romanticizing: “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times. 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.’”
Worst lines: “In the first campaigns, nations which are victims rather than initiators of aggression enjoy scanty choices.” Does anyone “enjoy” having few choices? And it’s painful to see a journalist as good as Hastings using “task” as a verb: “One of Vedder’s corpsman had been tasked to carry his instruments ashore …”
Sample chapter titles: “The British in Burma,” “America’s Return to the Philippines,” “MacArthur on Luzon,” “Blood Miniature: Iwo Jima,” “Australians: ‘Bludging’ and ‘Mopping Up,’ “Okinawa,” “Mao’s War,” “The Bombs.”
Editor: Robert Lacey (HarperCollins, UK), Ashbel Green (Knopf)
Published: March 2008 www.aaknopf.com. This book was called Nemesis in Britain.
Recommendation? Highly recommended to history book clubs and fans of military history. This book could also be a great Father’s Day gift for a father who likes history or military lore.
Read an excerpt: Go to www.aaknopf.com and search for “Retribution.”
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Retribution was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19.
Furthermore: Hastings calls Retribution a counterpart to his earlier Armageddon, which describes the war against Germany in 1944–1945. He has been a foreign correspondent, the editor of The Daily Telegraph and Journalist of the Year in Britain.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.