William J. Astore
Review of Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for
Japan, 1944-45. New York: Knopf, 2008. Pp. xxv,
615. ISBN 978-0-307-26351-3.
November 1945, my uncle, a U.S. Marine sergeant, was stationed on
the island of Peleliu in the Pacific. A year earlier, in September
and October 1944, U.S. Marines and soldiers had fought bitterly for
this island in a campaign whose brutality is memorably captured by
My uncle, a self-described "rock happy gyrene," had some free time,
so he and a couple friends went out to take pictures. In a letter to
my father, my uncle wrote they took pictures "Mostly of the scenery
and Jap pill-boxes. Also a picture of some of the prisoners (Japs)
on a truck. Compared to the boys who were prisoners of those little
yellow 'bastards,' these boys are living the life of 'Reilly.' They
are well-fed and husky but pretty short."
uncle's description of the Japanese as "little yellow bastards" was
for those times a mild one. By the time he wrote this letter,
Japanese mistreatment of Allied prisoners-of-war was well known.
Japanese POWs on Peleliu may not have been living the "Life of
Reilly," but compared to malnourished and emaciated Allied POWs,
often used as slave laborers and savagely tortured by their Japanese
captors, my uncle's depiction certainly would have resonated with
nearly all those who fought against the Japanese in World War II.
Max Hastings understands such resonances in Retribution, his
masterly survey of the closing stages of the war against Japan. It
was first published in Britain as Nemesis (2007). Knopf may
have felt most Americans would not recognize the reference to the
Greek goddess of retributive justice. But the title was apt, since
Nemesis was the "indignant avenger," the merciless punisher of
humanity's hubris and excess.
And certainly Japanese militarism and imperialism in the Pacific was
marked by deep-seated martial pride as well as titanic violence and
inhumanity, which the Allies avenged mercilessly.
particular strength of Hastings's account is that he addresses not
just the usual topics of the Pacific War, but its enormous cost to
Asian peoples. China, for example, lost at least 15 million people
in its war against Japan; at least a million Vietnamese died in the
Japanese-caused famine of 1944-5; the Philippines in 1942 replaced
one colonial overlord with another, only to discover the Japanese
were far more ruthless, racist, and murderous than the Americans.
Hastings is often provocative. The Philippines in 1944-5, he
suggests, witnessed countless horrors in a campaign fought in part
to satisfy the vanity of a single man, General Douglas MacArthur,
who got his "I shall return" moment at the price of 750,000 dead,
mostly Filipino civilians. Hastings's critique of "America's Caesar"
is scathing; he notes, for example, how MacArthur allowed the
"geographical convenience" of Leyte Island "to blind him to its
unsuitability for every important strategic purpose"(188) and
consistently underestimated enemy opposition even as he clamored for
more men and matériel.
the autocratic and vainglorious MacArthur is Hastings's goat,
General William (Bill) Slim, commander of the Fourteenth Army in
Burma, is his hero: "In contrast to almost every other outstanding
commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being,
possessed of notable self-knowledge …. His calm, robust style of
leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the
admiration of all who served under him" (68-9). Hastings's summary
of the Burma Campaign is especially colorful and strong. He suggests
the campaign had much more to do with restoring British imperial
prestige than with any military necessity. Slim's army was a
polyglot force that included Indian, Nepalese, and African troops,
which often used elephants for portage and bridging (he notes in
passing that some four thousand elephants died in Burma in the war).
Hastings is a master of the telling, often dryly humorous, anecdote:
"tins of mutton were delivered to the 4/1st Gurkhas, bearing labels
which showed images of female sheep. The men declined to eat them.
The battalion CO instructed his quartermaster to find a crayon and
draw testicles on the beasts. The amended mutton was found
Hastings covers familiar topics with insight. With respect to the
great naval battle at Leyte Gulf, he rightly criticizes Admiral Bull
Halsey for impetuosity and over-aggressiveness and Vice-Admiral
Takeo Kurita for timidity and fatalism. But he also recognizes the
systemic breakdown in the Imperial Japanese Navy's seamanship and
morale: "their ship recognition was inept, their tactics primitive,
their gunnery woeful, their spirit feeble" (153). Failure of
conventional attacks soon led the Japanese to experiment with, and
then to embrace, suicide attacks--the kamikazes--which only
intensified mutual hatreds. Nemesis was thus unleashed.
Western societies cherish a distinction
between spontaneous individual adoption of a course of action which
makes death probable, and institutionalisation of a tactic which
makes it inevitable. Thus, the Allies regarded the kamikazes with
unfeigned repugnance as well as fear .… This new terror prompted
among Americans an escalation of hatred, a diminution of mercy
Land warfare was especially alien and brutal in the Pacific.
Japanese island garrisons often had nowhere to retreat and fought
almost to the last man. They ingeniously exploited thick cover and
held their fire until the last possible moment. In "Report from the South
Pacific," an anonymous U.S. sergeant who fought on Guadalcanal
warned that "a man's keenness of eye or dullness of eye may
determine whether or not he will live. Ten men in my platoon were
killed because they walked up on a Jap 37mm gun. The Japanese gun
was so well camouflaged that I got within four feet of the gun
before I saw it."
Hastings notes the most common American combat experience in the
Pacific was being "pinned down" by an enemy he could not see. The
typical response was to resort to firepower and flamethrowers to
blast and burn out the (mostly) hidden defenders. Under such
conditions, there was little chance to give quarter, and even when
offered, few Japanese accepted.
But the Japanese were not simply fanatics; most were no more willing
to die for their country than their foes. "They had simply been
conditioned to accept a different norm of sacrifice" (54). "See you
at the Yasukuni Shrine" (dedicated to those who died in service of
the emperor) was their equivalent to "Death before dishonor." But
the brutality of army training and discipline, together with
Japanese racism, bred utter contempt for other peoples, leading to
massacres of innocents like the one in Manila in 1945. The
"systematic inhumanity" of the Japanese "[was] as gross as that of
the Nazis" (236). But Hastings also notes that, in the case of
street fighting in Manila, the United States resorted to massive
firepower that also killed innocent Filipinos indiscriminately,
though not intentionally. As he surveyed the ruins of his old
quarters (the penthouse of the Manila Hotel), MacArthur spoke of how
he "was tasting to the acid dregs the bitterness of a devastated and
beloved home," to which Hastings has his own acid rejoinder: "It
seems bizarre that he paraded his own loss of mere possessions in
the midst of a devastating human catastrophe" (238).
Two more human catastrophes occurred at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and
Hastings's chapters on these battles are concise and compelling. The
ferocity of Japanese resistance convinced Americans that their enemy
was determined to die rather than accept defeat. "The prospect of
invading Kyushu and Honshu in the face of Japanese forces many times
greater than those on Okinawa, and presumably imbued with the same
fighting spirit, filled those responsible with dismay" (403),
Hastings correctly notes. The only alternatives to invasion seemed
to be blockade, incendiary air attacks, and Soviet entry into the
war against Japan.
With respect to blockade, Hastings celebrates the achievement of
American submariners, citing the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey's
conclusion in 1946 that their contribution to the war against
Japanese shipping was singularly effective. Hastings agrees: "No
other combatant force as small as the U.S. Navy's submarine
flotillas and their 16,000 men achieved a comparable impact upon the
war anywhere in the world" (280). Turning to strategic bombing by
B-29 Superfortresses, Hastings sagely remarks that
The Japanese people found themselves at
last within range of American bombers at a time when Allied moral
sensibility was numbed by kamikaze attacks, revelations of savagery
towards POWs and subject peoples, together with general war
weariness. Joined to these considerations was the messianic
determination of senior American airmen to be seen to make a
decisive contribution to victory, to secure their future as a
service independent of the army (282).
horrifyingly indiscriminate as General Curtis LeMay's firebombing
raids were, especially against Tokyo in March 1945, Hastings
concludes they had a morally defensible purpose--to weaken the will
of Japan to resist.
Here, Hastings absolves LeMay (as well as Britain's Arthur "Bomber"
Harris in Europe) for his role in "area bombing": "It seems quite
mistaken to nominate either officer as a sin eater for the mass
slaughter of civilians, a policy for which responsibility rightly
belongs to their superiors" (315). This is both insightful and
inadequate. In the documentary The Fog of War,
Robert S. McNamara, then an Army Air Force officer, recalled that
LeMay told him they had better win the war against Japan, or they
would be tried as war criminals. Even the hard-bitten LeMay was
uneasy (though publicly unrepentant) about the hundreds of thousands
of civilians incinerated in his campaign.
The morality of LeMay's campaign requires careful thought. Never in
our history had Americans killed so many enemy non-combatants in so
short a time. At Tokyo in March, one hundred thousand were killed;
in subsequent firebombing raids, perhaps an additional two hundred
thousand; then at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, another two hundred
thousand. Was killing half a million Japanese civilians from March
to August 1945 necessary to ending the war quickly? If so, does
that make it morally defensible?
paraphrase Harry Truman, American "beastliness" was a regrettable
but resolute and necessary response. The horrors inflicted upon
Japan were calculated to convince the Japanese "beast" that the war
was lost. A more rapid surrender would save both Allied and
ultimately Japanese lives. Hastings provides the context necessary
to come to grips with these hard truths.
What remains telling to me is the extent to which U.S. strategic
bombing of Japan is neglected compared to the Combined Bombing
Offensive (CBO) in Europe. In my six years of teaching at the U.S.
Air Force Academy as well as reviewing course material at Air
Command and Staff College, I saw much more attention paid to the
triumphal lessons of the CBO. For example, all cadets at the Air
Force Academy are given a special history lesson on the CBO,
praising its contribution to Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
However, in my time at the Academy, no equivalent lesson was taught
concerning LeMay's B-29 incendiary raids on Japan.
This disparity reflects the U.S. Air Force's moral unease about
LeMay's campaign. To mount effective raids against Japan, LeMay
(with the full support of Generals Norstad and Arnold and their
civilian superiors) had to abandon the vision (or "rhetoric," to use
Tami Biddle's phrase)
of precision strategic bombing for the reality of a massive and
indiscriminate "dehousing" campaign that targeted young and old.
This directly contradicted America's image of itself as morally and
technically superior to its enemy, which may be why LeMay's campaign
remains largely forgotten by most Americans today—indeed, even most
Hastings reminds us that the decision to use atomic bombs was not
a discrete choice but the culmination of a series of events--the
concept, the organization, the construction, the testing, followed
by actual deployment. To have decided not to drop the bombs, the
president would have had consciously to act to stop a process that
had acquired immense forward momentum. As Freeman Dyson noted in the
documentary The Day after Trinity,
only a man of iron will could have done this, and President Truman,
great as he became, was, in the summer of 1945, an uncertain and
tend to look back at public support for the war as unified and
total. It was not. Allied political and military leaders well knew
that they did not have an open-ended commitment to get the job done
at any and all costs. In the necessary debate over the morality
of dropping the bombs and their impact in shortening the war, we
must remember that public support for the war was declining fast--a
fact that further drove Allied leaders to seek the quickest possible
Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to produce a quick ending. But they
were not even the last shots of the air war against Japan. Another
way to understand these attacks is in the context of prior and
subsequent incendiary raids against Japanese cities. The awesome
might of the atomic bombs was more of a post-war construction; it
was also the logical fulfillment of the previous incendiary raids.
No one has ever described Hiroshima and Nagasaki as precision
attacks against purely military targets. They were part of an
unrepentant campaign of "shock and awe" against a seemingly
implacable enemy that needed to be threatened with total
annihilation to convince him to surrender. Armageddon met Nemesis,
and Japan finally ended its dithering and prevarication to surrender
that August, spurred on as well by the Soviet offensive in
Manchuria. Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, the navy minister, confessed,
"The atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense,
God's gifts" (509), because they finally allowed the Japanese to
bear what otherwise could not be borne--the dishonor of admitting
their cause was lost. Hastings tartly concludes that "Those who seek
to argue that Japan was ready to surrender before Hiroshima are
peddlers of fantasies" (513).
Hastings ends his stunning account on a sober note--the failure of
modern-day Japan to "come to terms with the horrors which it
inflicted upon Asia almost two-thirds of a century ago" (550). This
failure is not just cultural but one of narrative dissonance. Today,
the American narrative of the Pacific War is clear. A perfidious
sneak attack was avenged by a righteous victory. Initially surprised
and outclassed, Americans mobilized and surged to victory, then
ruled Japan benevolently after the war. The Japanese narrative is
far more tortured, with glorious early victories forgotten in the
catastrophic defeats that came later. Allied memories involve
triumph over great difficulties, most notably a tenacious, often
terrible, enemy. Japanese memories are nightmarish landscapes within
which "the individual wanders through endless dreamlike scenes of
degradation, horror, and death, a shapeless nightmare of plotless
This dissonance may explain, if not excuse, Japanese reluctance to
confront their past deeds.
Retribution, Hastings has quite simply produced a tour de
force truly worthy of the staggering events that marked the climax
of World War II in the Pacific.
Pennsylvania College of Technology