J.S.'s Reviews > Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

Retribution by Max Hastings
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Mar 08, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: wwii

British historian Max Hastings relates a story during his account of the battle in the Philippines that illustrates the frustration Japanese soldiers felt at seeing how much better equipped and supported Americans were than they. One Japanese soldier found American gum wrappers by a road and a wad of gum stuck to a weed. The soldier related: "Here we were, holding on for dear life, and these characters were chewing gum while they fought! I felt more sad than angry. The chewing gum tinfoil told me just how miserably we had been beaten." (pg 241)

That is a common theme throughout this detailed and thorough look at the war with Japan during 1944 and 45 - that Japan's chances to beat such an industrial giant were slim from the beginning. In spite of some early successes, Japanese leadership relied too heavily upon "fighting spirit" and fanaticism to achieve victories rather than supporting their armies and providing them with improving technologies. The warped Bushido code of honor achieved much but at a huge moral, psychological, and human cost. Japanese soldiers fought like tigers to maintain ground and honor but they also died in much greater numbers than did their enemies in nearly every battle. And in those last years of the war it was very much a lost cause and their leaders showed a callous disregard for their people.

Hastings also discusses the moral aspects of many incidents, and details the Japanese inhumanities toward enemy soldiers, prisoners, and civilians. War crimes were committed by all sides in the conflict, but Japanese murders, rapes, and other atrocities were institutionalized and systematic rather than occurring as more isolated and individual events, as was the case with other belligerents (excepting perhaps the Soviets). Hastings also discusses the morality of LeMay's fire bombing tactics, and includes horrific accounts by some Tokyo survivors. He covers in detail the morality of using atomic weapons (including numerous arguments against), and he makes a very strong argument that, particularly because of the duplicitous manner in which Japan started the conflict and the inhumane way they conducted it, Japan essentially forfeited any claims for humane treatment after defeat (it's a lot more convincing the way he explains it!). Basically, they got a just "retribution."

This is an amazing and compelling history, covering not only the Americans but also the British, Australians, Chinese, Soviets, etc. Hastings discusses how the European nations were seen unsympathetically as trying to maintain their Asian empires, and the Australians were viewed as less committed (and why) and usually given the task of "mopping up." To me these parts of the book weren't as interesting even though I'd always wondered what role they played. I also felt that the account of the invasion of Okinawa was somewhat inadequate given the impact it had on public perception and tolerance for the war. Nonetheless, a wonderful and highly recommended book for those interested in the subject.
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