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'Retribution'

Max Hastings: Retribution
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
(Max Hastings)

Max Hastings is British, and it shows in his relentless distaste for the American fighting man and his leaders. (Calling Chennault "this considerable charlatan," is in my opinion one of the stupidest World War Two assessments I have ever read.) Personally, I prefer Richard Frank's Downfall as a history of the war's end in the Pacific. That said, Hastings has a considerable gift for locating, interviewing, and quoting the men and women caught up in these events, and his book is worth reading on that account alone. Here are my notes from a first reading:

"I agree wholeheartedly with American scholars Richard Frank and Robert Newman tht underpinning most post-war analysis of the eastern war is a delusion that the nuclear climax represented the bloodiest possible outcome. On the contrary, alternative scenarios suggest that if the conflict had continued for even a few weeks longer, more people of all nations--and especially Japan--would have lost their lives than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The myth that Japan was ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence." (p.xix)

"Western audiences have been told much since 1945 about Japanese wartime inhumanity to British, Americans, and Australians that fell into their hands. This pales into absolute insignificance beside the scale of their mistreatment of Asians." (p.5-6)

"The Japanese fought on, because no consensus could be mobilized to do anything else.... Japanese strategy in the last phase of the war rested not upon seeking victory, but upon making each Allied advance so costly that America's people ... would deem it preferable to offer Japan acceptable terms rather than to endure a bloody struggle for the home islands." (p.42)

"It is an important truth about war that soldiers on shore, and pilots aloft, almost always have some personal choice about whether to be brave. By contrast, sailors crewing a warship are prisoners of the sole will of their captain." (p.154)

"Between October 1944 and August 1945, 3,913 kamikaze pilots are known to have died ... in a campaign that peaked with 1,162 attacks in April. Around one in seven suicidalists hit a ship, and most inflicted major damage." (p.171)

"The Japanese annexation of Manchuria, and their progressive advance into China thereafter, involved rapacity and brutality on a scale which shocked the world, and inflicted untold misery on those in their path. (p.193)

Chennault was "a wildly over-promoted adventurer" (p.204) and a "considerable charlatan" (p.282)

"In considering the later U.S. firebombing of Japan and decision to bomb Hiroshima, it is useful to recall that by the spring of 1945 the American nation knew what the Japanese had done in Manila. The killing of innocents clearly represented not the chance of war, nor unauthorized action by wanton enemy soldiers, but an ethic of massacre at one with events in Nanjing in 1937, and with similar deeds across Asia. In the face of evidence from so many different times, places, units and circumstances, it became imossible for Japan's leaders credibly to deny systematic inhumanity as gross as that of the Nazis." (p.236)

"22 percent of all American sailors who experienced submarine operations perished--375 officers and 3,131 enlisted men--the highest loss rate of any branch of the wartime U.S. armed forces." (p.269)

He regards Australians as sourly as he does Americans: "The last year of the war proved the most inglorious of Australia's history as a fighting nation.... A trauma overtook the nation which divided its people, demoralizaed its forces and cast a lasting shadow over its memory of the Second World War." (p.356-57) (Sure was lucky we had those stalwart Brits to bail us out!)

"Many captured American airmen were beheaded, not only in the last days of the war, but even in the period immediately following the Japanese surrender.
    "Any society that can indulge such actions, whether or not as alleged acts of retribution, has lost its moral compass. Much Japanese behavior reflected the bitterness of former victors about finding their own military fortunes in eclipse, becoming the bombed instead of the bombers. More than sixty years later, there still seems no acceptable excuse. The Japanese, having started the war, waged it with such savagery towards the innocent and impotent that it is easy to understand the rage which filled Allied hearts in 1945, when it was all revealed.... War is inherently inhumane, but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy." (p.368)

Okinawa: "The kamikazes sunk 27 ships and damaged 164, while [Japanese] bombers sank 1 and damaged 63. A fifth of all kamikazes were estimated to have hit a ship--almost ten times the success rate of conventional attacks. If suicide operations reflected Japanese desperation, it could not be claimed that they were ineffectual. For the sacrifie of a few hundred half-trained pilots, vastly more damage was inflicted upon the U.S. Navy than the Japanese surface fleet had accomplished since Pearl Harbor." (p.393)

Among the dead pilots was Kunio Nakatani of San Francisco. After the war, his mother wrote a surviving comrade: "Nothing gives me greater joy than to know that Kunio fought to the very end ... and that he attained a death of which, as a Japanese, he need not be ashamed." (p.399, italics added. Presumably Kunio's mom was among those who in 1988 received a Congressional apology and $20,000 compensation because they'd been moved inland and interned on the mistaken belief that they might be less than patriotic.)

"When driven by hunger to eat their own dead, Japanese soldiers favoured flesh cut from the thighs. An account from Biak Island described 'many corpses lying round ... with portions removed with a knife.' A Japanese prisoner from the 108th Airfield Construction Unit described seeing three fresh civilian corpses ... 'and flesh was removed from thighs.... There were many occasions when [he] encountered Jap troops offering meat in exchange for potatoes.'" (p.427)

US invasion of Kyushu, scheduled for November 1945: "This would be the largest opposed landing in history, with fourteen divisions afloat and twenty-eight carriers deployed in support." (p.428) "All the elements used to such effect on Okinawa would be deployed manifold on Kyushu: fixed defences, kamikaze aircraft, suicide boats, 'oka' rocket-propelled suicide bombs, suicide anti-tank units. The Japanese army's newly issued Field Manual for the Decisive Battle in the Homeland called for absolute ruthlessness in slaughtering any Japanese ... who impeded the defence or was used as a shield by the invaders. There would be no retreats. Casualties were to be abandoned. Those whose weapons and ammunition were spent should fight with bare hands. Here was a commitment to create not merely an army of suicidalists, but an entire nation." (p.439)

Peace terms: "Even the most dovish ... wanted terms that were not remotely negotiable, including the preservation of Japanese hegemony in Korea and Manchuria, freedom from Allied military occupation, and the right for Japan to conduct any war crimes trials of its citizens. As late as May 1945, the emperor clung to a belief that a victory was attainable on Okinawa.... On 9 June, he urged the Japanese people to 'smash the inordinate ambitions of the enemy nations.'" (p.444)

Atomic bomb: "Technological determinism is an outstanding feature of great wars. At a moment when armadas of Allied bombers had been destroying the cities of Germany and Japan for three years, killing civilians in hundreds of thousands, the notion of withholding a vastly more impressive means of fulfilling the same purpose scarcely occurred to those directing the Allied war effort." (p.449)

"It seems irrelevant to debate the merits of rival guesstimates for Olympic's U.S. casualties--63,000, 193,000, a million. What was not in doubt was that invading Japan would involve a large loss of American lives, which nobody wished to accept.... [The atomic bomb] now promised a summary termination of Japan's defiance, and perhaps also pre-emption of the Soviet onslaught." (p.457)

"Those who criticize America's alleged failure to reach out to the enemy in the last weeks of July 1945, to save the Japanese from themselves, seem to neglect a simple point. If Tokyo wanted to end the war, the only credible means of doing so was by an approach to Washington, through some neutral agency less hopelessly compromised than the Soviet Union.... Post-war critics of U.S. conduct in the weeks before Hiroshima seem to demand from America's leadership moral and political generosity so far in advance of that displayed by their Japanese counterparts as to be fantastic, in the sixth year of a global war. Their essential thesis is that America should have spared its enemies from the human consequences of their own rulers' blind folly; that those in Washington should have displayed a concern for the Japanese people much more enlightened than that of the Tokyo government." (p.462)