Max Hastings. Retribution. Knopf. 656 pages. $35.00

One of the most trenchant memoirs of World War II is Quartered Safe Out Here, written by George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels. As a young corporal, Fraser found himself in as great a pickle as Flash ever was, only without the compensating comforts of loot and lovely ladies: Fraser was part of General William Slim’s “forgotten army,” which far from the newspaper headlines and with very limited resources was fighting a fierce campaign against the Japanese in Burma.

Slim was one of the war’s most competent and popular generals, expert at sowing confusion among his enemies through clever feints, among them a deception plan codenamed “Cloak,” whereby British troops staged a fake crossing of the Irrawaddy River. The purpose of these feints, however, was not always immediately apparent to his weary troops, as proved by this passage revealing the grumbling British foot soldier at his grumbliest:

He confused 9th Section, too; we dug in at no fewer than three different positions in as many hours, Grandarse lost his upper dentures on a sandbank, little Nixon disturbed a nest of black scorpions in the dark, we dug in hurriedly in a fourth position, and the general feeling was that the blame for the whole operation lay at the door of, first, Winston Churchill, secondly the royal family, and thirdly (for some unimaginable reason) Vera Lynn. . . . We did not know that “Cloak” had worked brilliantly. We were footsore, hungry, forbidden to light fires, and on a hundred percent stand to — even although, as Grandarse, articulating with difficulty, pointed out, there wasn’t a Jap within miles.

The passage is quoted in British historian and journalist Max Hastings’s latest book, Retribution, which covers the final year of the war in the Pacific. As a military historian, Hastings is known for his adeptness at switching from the “big picture” desk plans of the generals to the infantry man’s foxhole perspective, and for vividly evoking those Tolstoyan moments on the battlefield when tunnel vision sets in and only a pounding heartbeat is felt. He quotes Slim on the battlefield experience: “In the end every important battle develops to a point where there is no real control by senior commanders. Each soldier feels himself to be alone. . . . The dominant feeling of the battlefield is loneliness, gentlemen.”

Compared to the late American World War II historian Stephen Ambrose, whose writing amounts to a celebration of the citizen-soldier, Hastings is more coolly analytical. Moreover, his purpose in Retribution is not to refight the campaigns of the war in detail, but, in response to the distortions of recent revisionist history, to describe how the options appeared to the decision-makers at the time, to convey the spirit governing the participant armies and their generals, and to sharpen our focus on the moral issues which have become fuzzy over time. (Just consider the Clint Eastwood movie Letters from Iwo Jima, which tends to present the Japanese soldiers as “just folks.”) Retribution is a counterpart to Hastings’s Armageddon from 2004, which deals with the same phase of the war in Europe, and read together, they yield illuminating comparisons between the two theaters.

Formally, the Japanese and the Germans were allies, of course, but fortunately they did not act as such when it came to coordinating war strategies. As Hastings notes, despite S.S. leader Heinrich Himmler’s attempts to redefine the Japanese as Aryans of a Lesser Kind, his heart was not really in the exercise. For their part, the Japanese looked upon everyone else, including their fellow Asians, as infinitely inferior. The racial self-delusions of the Axis powers thus made them less effective than they would otherwise have been. Only in the late stages of the battle of Stalingrad did Hitler attempt to get the Japanese to attack Russia, but by then it was too late: Japan had its hands full elsewhere.

Much to the chagrin of General Douglas MacArthur and of Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, the Pacific was declared the war’s secondary theater by the Allied political leaders: The defeat of the Germans in Europe was priority one. This meant that once the Japanese wave had been stemmed with the victories in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, enough resources were allocated to enable U.S. commanders to push the Japanese back, but not enough to allow them to end things quickly.

For the British and Americans alike, the Pacific was hands down the war’s most hated theater in which to fight, though perhaps even more frustrating for the Americans, as so many of the advantages conferred by speed and superior firepower were negated there. Instead of great battles like Normandy or the Bulge, where the emphasis was on mass and maneuvers, notes Hastings, all too often the Allies found themselves involved in close-quarter fighting of the most brutal kind, “a series of violently intense miniatures” fought on Japanese terms: “The U.S. whose power seemed so awesome when viewed across the canvass of global war, found itself unable effectively to leverage this in battles of bloody handkerchief proportions.” Add to this disease, bugs, and heat.

The Pacific war was fought against the Japanese with a level of hatred generally not felt against the Germans. (The horrors of the death camps did not become common knowledge until the very end of the war.) This hatred stemmed from the way the Japanese treated their prisoners of war. According to the Bushido code, which dictates how the Samurai warrior conducts himself on the battlefield, it is shameful to be taken prisoner: A true warrior should fight to the death or commit suicide rather than permit himself to be captured. This ancient piece of savagery, masquerading as chivalry, was the philosophy governing the Japanese army. Thus the 1941 Japanese Field Service Code states, “You shall not undergo the shame of being taken alive. You shall not bequeath a sullied name,” and Prime Minister Tojo had instructed his soldiers to “not survive in shame as a prisoner. Die, to ensure that you do not leave ignominy behind you!”

By the same logic, Allied soldiers who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner had lost the right to be treated as men. Unlike the Germans, who for reasons of self interest usually stayed within the Geneva Convention in their handling of American and British pows (but not Russians), the Japanese had not signed the Convention. In vague terms, they had let it be known that they would abide by its rules, except when these were incompatible with Japanese culture. This “incompatibility” turned out to be profound: The Japanese totally disregarded the Convention. This was reflected in the stunning death rate among prisoners of war: 27 percent of Japanese captives perished, compared to 4 percent of the Western Allies held as German pows. In some Japanese camps it ran as high as 44 percent.

The savagery exhibited by the Japanese was a source of constant puzzlement to Allied soldiers. Hastings mentions a diary found by Oscar Griswold, commander of the XIV Corps, on a fallen enemy, in which the Japanese soldier waxes lyrical about the sunset, then proceeds to proudly recount how he bashed the head of a Filipino baby against a tree in a massacre of civilians. Another American quoted wonders how this mentality coexists with “the exquisite watercolors in the diaries which they leave lying in the red mud.”

As Hastings emphasizes, such cruelty was systemic, the product of a deliberate policy, not mere random acts by individual soldiers: “In modern times, only Hitler’s ss has matched militarist Japan in rationalizing and institutionalizing atrocity.” The Soviets committed huge atrocities in repayment for Nazi acts, he adds, but at least they did not bother to pretend they were behaving as gentlemen.

In world war II, Hastings argues, from a technical point of view, the German soldier was indisputably the world’s most skillful, both on the attack and on the defensive, as the long-drawn-out defense of Germany proved. Even while retreating, the Germans would constantly counterattack, often brilliantly. Fortunately, the German strengths in generalship were negated by the lunatic at the top and by the country’s inability to compete with the industrial might of the U.S.

Like the Germans, the Japanese military had racked up some impressive wins at the beginning of the war, but their initial triumphs had been achieved against inferior enemies, first in the 1930s against a technologically backwards China that lacked heavy weapons, and then in 1941–42 when they overran Hong Kong, Malaya, and Burma. The Japanese victory in Singapore, where 35,000 Japanese defeated 70,000 Brits, was won against sleepy garrison troops, and the same was true of the Japanese victories in the Philippines. Thus, notes Hastings, rather than indicate true Japanese strength, these successes laid bare the local weakness of the defenders.

The Japanese soldier was characterized by his unquestioning obedience: He was beaten for the slightest infraction, according to Hastings. Against the Chinese, he had been conditioned to kill indiscriminately through bayonet practice on live victims and by beheadings. Excessive zeal and aggression was rewarded, such as that displayed by the infamous Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, whose heinous acts included eating the liver of a dead Allied pilot: “The more we eat,” he said, “the brighter will burn the fire of our hatred of the enemy.”

Compared to the German general staff, their Japanese colleagues were an unimaginative lot. In keeping with the demand for total obedience, personal initiative in military commanders was discouraged. Masaharu Homma, the general who had been in charge of the campaign in the Philippines in 1942, never received another field command because he had exercised independent judgment when faced with unrealistic orders; other capable officers were treated similarly and made to languish in outposts. According to Hastings, “the result was that by the summer of 1944, many of those charged with saving Japan by their military endeavors possessed the hearts of lions, but the brains of sheep.”

Thus Japan’s military leaders were supremely indifferent to the diplomatic or economic consequences of their actions. Their attitude to intelligence was equally cavalier, as testified by intelligence officer Major Shoji Takahashi:

The Japanese army did not take intelligence nearly seriously enough. At South Asia army hq, we had no proper system, no analytical section, no resources — that is how bad it was. Perhaps our attitude reflected Japan’s historic isolation from the rest of the world. We had no tradition of being interested in other societies and what they were doing. It came as a shock to realize how powerful the Allies were becoming, and how much they knew about our actions and intentions.

In addition, the Japanese were technologically backwards and resistant to innovation. Compared to the fearsome German Tiger tank, the Japanese tanks were thin-shelled, rinky-dink, sheet-metal toys, dismissed by Hastings as “tankettes,” and up against American Sherman tanks, Japanese infantry had nothing comparable to the Panzerfaust (neither did the Allies, for that matter), the highly effective German tank-killer. Their leaders believed that fighting spirit alone could make up for inferior equipment.

An American colonel, reporting on the enemy’s fighting capabilities, noted that “there is seldom any coordination between units” and that “the Japanese officer generally has no idea of modern methods of fighting in large mass.” But he also concluded that “Japanese small unit tactics are tops.”

This meant that when the Japanese attacked frontally, or when they counterattacked, they were usually wiped out. But when they were dug in, they were a formidable opponent, literally going under ground. (In the book, a British officer inadvertently finds himself standing on top of an enemy bunker without realizing it, until a machine gun opens up underneath him.) This led General Slim to characterize the Japanese soldier as “the most formidable fighting insect in history,” while another British officer cited calls them “first class soldiers in a third class army.”

The same characteristics and flaws repeat themselves at sea. In spirit, the Japanese navy was slightly more refined than the army; as keen students of the British navy, its officers had picked up such social niceties as a fondness for playing bridge. But like in the army, sailors were beaten for the slightest infraction. And navy ruthlessness could certainly rival that of the army: Hastings recounts an incident in which a lifeboat from a destroyer was lowered to pick up survivors from a sunken Japanese battleship; when all seats were taken, the officers in the lifeboat drew their swords and resolutely hacked off the hands of their own fellow seamen clinging to the sides.

The Japanese had a love affair with surface ships, relying on their huge cruisers and battleships, and unlike the Germans, whose wolfpacks had come close to strangling Britain, they put little effort into submarines: Being wedded to the notion of “decisive battle” between surface ships, they were obsessed with defeating the American surface navy. More humdrum tasks such as protecting their merchant shipping were neglected.

The Japanese navy also lacked an effective anti-submarine air force with radar equipment. Hastings quotes a young technology graduate, Haruki Iki, who studied in the 1930s at the Naval Technical Institute, where the prevalent attitude to radar was, “Why do we need this? Men’s eyes see perfectly well.” No surprise, then, that Japanese radar was infinitely inferior to that of the Allies.

Even the famed Zero fighter, which at the start of the war was a nimble and versatile aircraft, was never updated, and by 1944 it was no match for the American Hellcat. Japanese pilots could not communicate in the air, and they had no air-sea rescue service because pilots were regarded as expendable.

What the japanese did have going for them was their readiness to die in large numbers. Both the Germans and Japanese had a cult of death, but on this point the Japanese outdid them. A whole regiment marching in perfect order into a lake to drown themselves rather than surrender is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. “In this respect, their military code served Japan’s rulers well,” writes Hastings. “Without Bushido’s terrible sanctions of dishonor, in 1944–45 a host of Japanese would otherwise have given themselves up, rather than perish to prolong futile resistance. Refusal to face the logic of surrender was perhaps the most potent weapon Japanese forces possessed.”  

As to the moral issues involved, in his previous book Warriors Hastings had explored the valor and bravery of, among others, men who had won the Victoria Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor. In Retribution, he quotes a British Royal Navy study: “Logically, suicide attack in any of the forms, air or sea, practiced by the Japanese, differed only in kind from the last ditch defense enjoined upon  the British after Dunkirk, and only in degree from such missions as the [Royal Air Force 1943] air attack on the Moehne dam.”

However, Hastings makes a clear distinction between individuals “who voluntarily in the heat of battle adopt a course of action that makes death probable, and a government policy that makes it inevitable,” and rightly notes that “it is the psychology of an enemy capable of institutionalizing such attacks that bewilders and repels the western mind.”  

The Japanese soldier’s urge to self destruct and to take his enemies with him in the act explains the Allied reluctance to take prisoners, except for intelligence purposes. If the Japanese soldier surrendered, it was often only a ruse, only to explode into action when his captors turned their backs. Safer, then, just to kill him. By August 1944, there were only 1,990 Japanese in American prisoner-of-war camps, while Germans prisoners were arriving by the shipload.

Addressing later accusations that Western behavior thus matched that of the Japanese, Hastings dismisses any notions of moral equivalence. “It is hard to see why an Allied soldier should have risked a grenade from a Japanese soldier who, even when he made gestures of surrender, rejected the Western code whereby a prisoner contracted to receive humane treatment in return for forewarning further homicidal intent.”

In one telling incident recounted in the book, a Japanese sailor whose ship has been sunk off the Nicobar Islands is found in the netting on the side of the Allied destroyer hms Saumarez, which was picking up the survivors, furiously banging a shell against the hull. When the shell refuses to explode, he dives back into the sea “like an Olympic swimmer,” to die in solitude. After similar incidents — in which Japanese sailors, after being rescued by U.S. submarines, attempted to sabotage them — such rescues were “prudently” given up, notes Hastings, especially since submarines are particularly vulnerable to sabotage.

Certainly, there were also acts of savagery on the part of Allied soldiers. The boiling of Japanese skulls for use as souvenir ashtrays was standard practice, and Fraser, in his memoirs, recalls the killing of Japanese prisoners in a hospital by their Sikh guards, an incident that today would count as a war crime but back then went unreported, just regarded as tough luck.

But it should be emphasized that Allied hatred of the Japanese was less racially motivated, Hastings argues, than caused by the behavior of Japanese soldiers, for whom mercy and compassion were unknown qualities. As Frazer notes, “get yourself to the sharp end, against an enemy like the Japanese, encounter a similar incident, and let me know how you get on.”

Armies of totalitarian dictatorships, not hostage to public opinion, can absorb punishment on a scale that democracies cannot: Keeping casualties down in World War II was a constant Western preoccupation: Thus, we did not want to fight on our enemies’ terms but on ours. That meant relying, to as large an extent as possible, on our advanced technology to do our killing for us, an attitude summed up in Armageddon by George Patton, who, as Hastings notes, is normally known as an enthusiastic proponent of l’audace, toujours l’audace: “Americans as a race are the most adept in the use of machinery of any people on earth, and . . . the most adept in the construction of machines on a mass production basis. It costs about 40,000 dollars for a man to get killed. If we can keep him from being killed by few extra dollars, it is a cheap expenditure.”

Fighting on our terms in the Pacific meant relying as far as possible on the navy and the air force: Unlike in Europe, there was no desire to take on the main enemy armies. Of the Allied commanders, MacArthur’s earlier amphibious landings had won him much praise: His strategy of island hopping, bypassing isolated contingencies and letting them wither on the vine, exemplified using America’s strengths to its advantage, choosing the where and the when of the fight, and keeping casualties relatively low.

But Hastings slams MacArthur for allowing himself, in the Philippines, to be dragged into fighting the Japanese on Japanese terms. On Luzon, he deliberately underestimated the number of Japanese troops. His obsession with retaking Manila became a private crusade, making him abandon the oblique strategy in favor of a direct frontal assault, resulting in the city being smashed and in the needless squandering of soldiers’ lives. Unlike the troops in Europe, MacArthur’s soldiers had no experience of urban street fighting.

Moreover, in the view of Ernest King, MacArthur’s advance in the South-West Pacific Area was irrelevant to America’s strategic requirements and was solely motivated by MacArthur’s “messianic” desire to recover the Philippines. As Hastings reminds us, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall was not keen on the idea either, but MacArthur’s stature was such that he prevailed. According to Hastings, MacArthur’s behavior was no worse than the war’s two other prima donnas, Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, but he had a much longer leash. He really should have been fired, but one does not fire the general who has come to symbolize the war in the Pacific. The real hero in the Pacific was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Hastings quotes with approval Admiral Jocko Clark’s assessment: “Nimitz was the one great leader in the Pacific who had no blemish on his shield or dent in his armor.”

In the late stage of the war, the Japanese could no longer hope for victory; their strategy became one of making battles as costly as possible for the Allies, in order to dissuade them from the idea of invading Japan. According to Hastings, this was the rational argument behind the seemingly insane order to keep Japanese garrisons fighting long after the ability to move or supply them had been lost. By fighting outside the limits of conventional war, the Japanese hoped to impose such a blood price on the Americans that the U.S. would seek negotiations.

A systematic suicide campaign is the logical end of bushido, notes Hastings. In the last phase of the war in Europe, Hitler put his faith in wonder weapons and the fanaticism of the Hitler Youth; in the Pacific, the Japanese final gasp — Kamikaze attacks — started with the battle of Leyte Gulf. At that point, because of their lack of resources, the Japanese no longer produced proper pilots. With an average of only 40 hours of flying time, they were no match for American pilots, who had logged at least 300 hours. Navigational training had been dropped entirely. Instead they were just told to follow their leaders.

On the up side for the Japanese planners, Hastings notes, the Kamikaze strategy meant improved accuracy and a doubling of the range of the planes (which didn’t need to refuel), and quickly the techniques were refined, with the planes attacking in packs. The result was an overall success rate of one in seven hitting a ship, and at Okinawa, where rookie pilots, trained only to fly a course to target, took part, a third of them hit a ship, amounting to almost ten times the success rate of a conventional attack: 120 ships were hit, 29 of them sunk. In keeping with the rituals of the theater of death, the planes were polished to a high gloss, as befits a flying coffin, and spectators were not supposed to chat during takeoff.

It is against this background that Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s firebombing of Japan — the raid on Tokyo on March 9, 1945, alone killed 100,000 and made a million homeless — and the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be understood. Both decisions have been wrongly characterized as racially motivated military ferocity that would not have been leveled against the Germans. Hastings dismisses these notions. The firebombing of Japan did not differ from what was done to the Germans. Despite being officially committed to “precision” bombing in Germany, American commanders knew that owing to the state of the technology of the time, their attacks were as destructive to the civilian population as the British area attacks. This was just not admitted publicly.

The same applies to the claims that the atomic bomb would not have been dropped on Germany.  Hastings points out that there is little reason to doubt that the bomb would have been used against the Germans had it been available in time. In 1945, the Americans tended to see the atomic weapon as just another strong bomb, one greater in efficiency but not one different in kind.

Equally misplaced is the standard criticism that dropping the bomb was unnecessary because the Japanese were about to surrender, and that the weapon’s use was actually intended to be a warning to the Russians — the first shot of the Cold War. According to Hastings, this “attaches to Truman’s decision an unmerited malignity.” Iwo Jima and Okinawa had given a foretaste of what was in store for Allied soldiers in an invasion of the Japanese main islands. Hastings quotes the message given to the Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima by their leaders: “Each man should think of his foxhole as his own grave, fighting to the last to inflict maximum damage upon the enemy.”

With estimated casualties of  a quarter of a million men were an invasion of the main islands to occur, with some estimates going as high as a million, and envisaging a whole nation of suicidalists, as spelled out in the Field Manual for the Decisive Battle in the Homeland, Truman’s top priority was persuading the Japanese to quit fighting. Shutting out the Russians, who had committed themselves to launch 60 divisions against Japan within three months after ve Day, was just an added benefit.

That the Japanese were ready to surrender is a myth, one long discredited but stubbornly persistent, Hastings notes. As an example of Japanese obduracy, he quotes the Japanese War Minister Korechite Anami: “Japan is not losing the war, since we have not lost any homeland territory. I object to conducting negotiations on the assumption that we are defeated.” The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were what it took to finally wring from Emperor Hirohito’s lips the admission that “the war had developed, not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” which surely ranks as the understatement of the century.

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