Friday, April 20, 2012

Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-45

The Pacific theater of World War II just doesn't get as much attention as the European side. Many of us know the details of the Normandy landings, the D-Day invasion. We know the excesses and twisted nature of Hitler and the Nazis, their creation of concentration camps, subjugation and extermination of the Jews. We have a strong cultural memory of indefatigable Churchill holding Britain against the enemy as if by willpower alone, the Battle of Britain, American's lend-lease agreement and our entry into the war.

But, for some reason, we don't ever go into much detail about the Allies' war with Japan. We may remember the names of some of the toughest battles: Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Iwo Jima. But not many of us can explain why those battles were significant or even what happened in them. Our knowledge of the war centers simply on two events: the ambush at Pearl Harbor and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a peculiar hole in our general history books. In reading Retribution, I sought to fill that hole in my own knowledge about the Pacific war.

Island Hopping

The Pacific war was frankly terrifying, and the author (Max Hastings) does an incredible job in bringing that horror to the reader. Hastings' writing style makes for addicting reading; he flip flops between discussion of grand strategy and detailing personal stories of the soldiers and leaders directly involved in the conflict, making sure to treat all sides equally. I found that his talks of the interactions between nations and why each spot was or was not strategically important to be enthralling; through this explanation it is easy to follow the progression of the war as each region is conquered or passed over. On the other side of things, the primary sources and stories he manages to find really bring you into the action. Everything is given a personal weight akin to what you'd find in a novel. You yearn for each man or woman to get through the war safely. You find yourself rooting for members of both sides, even to your surprise. It is a long history but every moment of it keeps your rapt attention.

The author's point of view does bleed through in numerous spots, however. It is up to you to decide whether or not this is a failure, or if it is an unavoidable facet of authors writing on history. I found myself observing multiple times areas where Hastings seems anti-Japanese to the point of near-racism. He dismisses their years of scholarly analysis on the war. He views their method of dealing with such an awful past to be reprehensible (modern Japanese governments have had a habit of trying to avoid talk of this era of their history). He, on multiple occasions, excuses American excesses and atrocities by basically saying that “the Japanese did worse, so anything the Americans did was okay by comparison”. There are certainly truths behind these assertions, but the vehemence with which he attended to them made me raise an eyebrow and view the claims with increasing skepticism.

Despite all of this, the author was incredible in portraying an era and area of history I know relatively little about in a way that was both quite understandable and often gripping. I will definitely go on to read other histories by the author, but I wanted to also point out that Hastings isn't without quirks or faults.


A number of things I learned from this book shocked me. For example, did you know that the Japanese were terrible at war compared to the Americans? Oh, I know that America had an advantage in numbers and technology. I mean that Japan was truly awful at waging war. Their army and navy regularly were at odds with each other and, on multiple occasions, actually allowed members of the other branch to die in battle rather than mount a rescue. I can remember a few stories where the Japanese navy decided that it would be a waste of resources to supply this island or that (despite the fact that they were essentially allowing their own side to starve and die). For example, in the battle for Iwo Jima, the army decided to set up defenses in the hills and the navy decided to fortify the flatlands before it. Instead of working together, it was more like two separate loosely allied sides fought the same enemy. Hastings tells of Japanese army men watching as their navy brethren fought and died against the Americans without making any effort to help.

On top of this, the Japanese military had so much influence that it made many truly stupid decisions. You would assume that an army man would know that his supplies are pretty crucial to winning a war but, despite this, Japanese leaders made next to no effort to protect their own convoys from American wolfpacks (submarine groups) or bombers. Consequently, they lost countless food, munitions, and weapons shipments, crippling their ability to wage war far sooner than necessary. In addition to this, the military paid no attention to the fact that, when they dug in, they were able to provide incredibly nasty opposition to invading American forces. Instead, they harped on about their warrior spirit and ordered numerous charges that got hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers killed for no good reason.

Samurai Ideals Taken to the Extreme

This enormous emphasis on Japanese warrior spirit (bushido) explains both why Japan lost and why they proved such a tenacious enemy. Before I read this book, I had the impression that the Japanese forces of World War II were near equal to our own, the only difference being the immense discrepancy of resources. In truth, it is incredible that the Japanese lasted as long as they did, as their incompetence in the war is hard to exaggerate. Their bushido created an insane amount of morale (in that the average Japanese soldier was culturally indoctrinated that surrender to the enemy was worse than death) but bushido also prompted them to treat anyone who wasn't a soldier as inferior and less than human. In this, we can see eerie parallels to the atrocities and justifications of Nazism and fascism in general. But, in the case of the Japanese, this prompted them to treat their merchant population and suppliers as cowards, the lives of their citizens as unimportant, and negotiation or surrender as a sacrifice of national honor and a betrayal of all of one's ancestors.

Consequently, the average Japanese soldier fought like a lion but was perpetually on the brink of starvation, armed with sub-par weaponry, equipped with minimal ammunition, and encouraged to suicide attack as many of the enemy they could, by grenades, bayonet charges or, eventually, using their own planes as weapons. This was no way to win a war. The Japanese rationalized it by hoping that the insanely bloody battles this resulted in would scare the Allies into giving the Japanese more amenable surrender terms. But, because the Allies were already committed to total war (along with the fact that such nasty attacks only pissed them off even more), the Japanese merely dug their own grave. It is worth noting, though, that the Japanese warrior spirit was so ingrained in their society and upper echelons of leadership that, even after both atomic bombs had been dropped, most of the Japanese leaders didn't want to surrender. Even after the Emperor insisted upon it, this surrender was almost averted by a military coup at the palace.


All in all, this book gave me a lot to think about and I learned a great deal about the Pacific war in reading it. Though this review focused primarily on the Japanese side of things, it is worth noting that there's a great deal in the book about the Allies as well. Through this, I learned of the conflict between China and Japan that one tends to hear very little about, the differences and clashes between the Communist and Nationalist Chinese, and the British attempts to reclaim their old imperialist ventures from the Japanese, and the consequent American opposition to the idea. The epic involvement of the Indian Gurkhas is covered, as well as the questionable involvement of the Australians in the Pacific conflict. Soviet irredentism and imperialism, detailed arguments for and against the launching of the nukes... This book covers a lot and does it well. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

As a final note, I wanted to reiterate a point that Hastings makes in his conclusion. He points out that the American experience in Japan inaccurately inflated our culture's impression of what our military should be capable of. He states that Japan was an enemy uniquely vulnerable to our combination of overwhelming naval and aerial power, and that our commitment to total war as well as Japanese incompetency made us outrageously successful against them (discounting the difficulty in evicting stubborn Japanese from their island gains). Hastings argues that this has led the American public to assume that every war that the U.S. is involved in should be akin to this or else isn't worth fighting, which is why public opinion has soured so quickly with just about every war since. I found this definite food for thought; it is arguable that, because of World War II, America has found it hard to justify or understand limited wars that are more subject to differences in public thought. Our history makes us crave wars (when they must occur) where there is clear “good and evil” and where just about everyone is unified in bringing down the enemy, or else. This helped me see how World War II is viewed with such peculiar nostalgia, and the seeming romanticism with which we can seem to view it, that time period, and the people who lived in it.


  1. Hey Ian, hope all is well. Just happened to stumble upon this today while slacking off--err, writing a paper, I mean! You do a nice job of summarizing the book and laying out your arguments clearly and compellingly. Looks like you are ready for grad school!
    Indeed, the Pacific war is one that has been abandoned by historians in recent years. The most compelling accounts I have read, Akira Iriye's Power and Culture, and John Dower's War Without Mercy, are both quite dated, and both focus on U.S. and Japanese diplomatic/military and intellectual discourses as opposed to the actual conduct of the war on the ground. Retribution, I assume, improves on/synthesizes the many war narratives that have been written. A good, more recent book that does compile (readable!) scholarly debates on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is Michael Hogan's Hiroshima: History and Memory. Niall Ferguson's The War of the World is a conservative historian's take on both theaters--I think he's focused more on Europe, but I'm sure he does cover the Asian war as well.
    I wonder, did Hastings use Japanese primary sources in forming his judgments about the bushido, etc.? I have some colleagues who are learning/have learned Japanese, Chinese, etc. through FLAS scholarships to go over and study there in the next few years. It's not the easiest thing to do, obviously, to learn a new language, but this would have been a big lacuna (a word we love to use in history--i.e. a hole) in his methodology to not get into the Japanese archives and Japanese war diaries. While the story is "Retribution", implying, correctly, that it is U.S.-centric, there was an Other that we were obtaining retribution from. I assume Hastings knew that in his research--but I would be interested to know from you if he did go into the archives in Tokyo at least.

  2. That is a valid point, I think, how we do not learn much about the Pacific theater conflicts. In a haphazard way I believe I can name the major movements of the war in Europe, but even coming to comprehend a war on many small islands is difficult. Only last week I heard a short interview with one of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March, an event that I had no clear idea of before. The whole war in the Pacific seems like something both sides would like to forget, between the death march, internment camps, Pearl Harbor, atom bombs, and a general stirring of intense racial feelings tied into patriotism. The book sounds interesting!

    You mentioned it briefly, and I was wondering: did you came away with any changed thoughts on whether the use of the atomic bomb was a necessary or justified expedient to bringing about the end of the war?

  3. Hey guys. Thanks for reading the review and I'm glad you both enjoyed it!

    Foss -

    It felt like Hastings used more primary sources for the Japanese than the Allies themselves, much of the time. This translates directly into my focus on the Japanese in this review; I don't know where he got each of the sources from, as I didn't peruse the endnotes, but he uses an enormous amount of direct quotations from people who were there and what they thought about what was going on at the time. Naturally, he found more quotes from the "average Joe" (civilians or grunt soldiers), but the experiences of generals he derives from their journals/diaries, which also was effective. At the end of the day I had no question about the accuracy of his history. My only potential beef was with the author's opinion bleeding through, as I mentioned in this review.

    Though you would think from the title that this book is U.S. centric, I felt that there was more detail and point-of-view from the Japanese than any other side (Brits, U.S., Soviet, or otherwise). It was probably named Retribution because of the author's belief that the Japanese bushido and their mistreatment of civilians/the enemy made them worthy of strict retribution.

  4. CarpeCyprinidas -

    My thoughts coming out of the book gave me this impression of the atomic bombings:

    Yes, we were justified in dropping them and, if given the chance to redo, would do it again. Here are my arguments for and against (which largely mirror the arguments of Hastings in the book).

    + At the time, one must keep in mind that policymakers viewed it as just "the next biggest bomb". We'd already been firebombing Japanese cities for months; Tokyo was already rubble by the time the atom bombs were ready (which, coincidentally, is why we didn't drop any on Tokyo). There was no indication that the atomic bomb was much of a different animal from the strategic bombings we were already capable of. It was just a bigger explosion. At the time, we didn't know about the radioactive aspect. All of this, I believe, excuses the leaders of the time from "visiting such a horror into this world".

    + The primary intention of dropping the bomb on them (twice) was to drive them to surrender. Japan's culture was such that this was necessary and, even after the bombs were dropped, it wasn't clear for a few days whether Japan was going to surrender at all. Even after surrender was prepared, a failed coup was launched. This means that, even after we dropped the bombs, Japan only BARELY surrendered! Without that impetus, they likely would have fought on until their own extinction, such was the influence and power of their military and the bushido.

    + By bombing Japan, we showed the Soviet Union that they needed to behave. The Soviets were prepared to try and conquer as much of Asia as they could while Japan was weak. They even drew up plans to snatch Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, even though America forbade it. It is hard to underestimate how much Stalin wanted to grab as much land as he could. If it weren't for the possible threat of the atomic bomb, Stalin could have literally absorbed Manchuria, China, Korea, and Vietnam into the Soviet Union. It is doubtful whether American public opinion would've allowed a war with Soviet Union after a World War's end.

    + The technology behind nukes would've been discovered by more powers than the U.S. in time, even if they weren't used. By using them on Japan in this instance, we also staved off a speculative future where, not knowing the destructive potential of nukes, a Cold War clash could have resulted in the U.S. and Soviet Union tossing them around like candies. Only through our use of them on Japan did we have the example of why they shouldn't be used again. I think it is better that we had comparatively small example rather than them being implemented ho-hum into our standard weapons procedures until a conflict prompted us to launch them willy nilly.

    - HOWEVER, it is worth noting that the Allies' choice of cities to nuke in World War II was grotesque and that, if given the opportunity to do over, we should've nuked cities that had already been bombed. I say this because we had left Hiroshima and Nagasaki virtually untouched. This led tens of thousands of Japanese to believe that we were allowing the cities to serve as safe havens from the cities that were actually being bombed. In truth, we left the cities untouched because we wanted a 'blank slate' with which to experiment the nukes on. This was awful, as we ended up nuking these places that all the civilians had fled to, magnifying the civilian casualties significantly.

    So, all in all, I think the use of the atomic bomb was necessary and justified. The only part that makes me sick is how they chose WHERE to bomb.

  5. "In truth, we left the cities untouched because we wanted a 'blank slate'"

    Good lord, I didn't know that. I didn't look into the island battles until I read Battlecry by Uris. I think I'll pick up Retribution when I'm at Powell's next. Nice review.

  6. Thanks, Joe. By the way, dibs on the first review of Caine's Law. ;)

    Which, in the off chance you weren't aware of it (as I'm 99% sure you are), is the latest sequel of that one book I lent you long ago, Heroes Die.