Critique Vol. XIV, No. 1 (May 2008)
Retribution/Nemesis: The Battle For Japan, 1944-45
by Max Hastings
Reviewed by Thomas S. Wilkins

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (London: HarperCollins, 2007; Hardcover. Pp. 598.) is written by bestselling British author Sir Max Hastings.Hastings is no stranger to the battlefield having famously reported direct from the war zone during the 1982 Falklands War and published a book on that conflict, as well as books on D-Day, and the Korean War. Retribution (re-titled from the original 'Nemesis' for the American market) is the companion volume to Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45.

Interest in the Pacific War 1941-45 (or Daitoa Senso -'Greater East Asia War' 1937-45, as it is known in Japan) has recently undergone something of a resurgence.With the Clint Eastwood-directed films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima making an impact in the United States, and blockbusters such as Men of the Yamato (Otoko-tachi no Yamato) in Japan, a new public awareness of this theatre of the Second World War is growing.This is also apparent is the visceral animosity still felt by Japan's Chinese and Korean victims and their descendants, as a result of the depredations they suffered during this period. The issue is often catapulted into the headlines whenever the subject of the Yasukuni Shrine is raised. Given the enduring legacies left by this bloody and brutal conflict waged across Asia and the Pacific, renewed scholarship on the subject is timely.

Japan's Pacific Twilight
Like Armageddon , its equally apocalyptically titled predecessor, Retribution is framed in a world of Gotterdaemmerung . The books objective, in Hastings' words, 'is to portray a massive and terrible human experience, set within a chronological framework, rather than to revisit the detailed narrative of campaigns that have been described by many authors, and which anyway could not be contained within a single volume' (p. xix).Beyond this remit, the core thesis throughout this book is the recurrent theme of 'Nemesis' (or 'retributive justice').The author contends that the devastation visited on Japan and its people were deserved requital for the pointless and inhumane excesses of the Japanese armed forces in both victory and defeat.Hastings challenges readers to 'judge for themselves, whether the fate which befell Japan in 1945 merits [the description of 'retributive justice'], as I believe it does' (p. xix). Yet this is no polemicist sermon.Hastings is at pains throughout not to demonize the enemy 'other' but to render him just as human as their Western foes.The author's conscious objectivity - despite his natural disposition and ultimate conclusions - is a remarkable strength, notably lacking in many other books on this subject (with the cardinal exception of Ienaga Saburo's The Pacific War: 1931-45 .).He candidly admits however that his 'determination to view Japanese wartime conduct objectively' and completely eschew the nationalist sentiments of previous British/American accounts proved hard to sustain 'in the face of the evidence of systematic Japanese barbarism' against fellow Asians and Western Allies alike (p. 596).

The book covers all the key events and major controversies of the war including the Rape of Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, the American reconquest of the Philippines, the strategic bombing campaign, Okinawa, and the Manhattan Project.Attention is also given to topics such as Japanese biological warfare experiments (Unit 731), the Kempetai (secret police), strategic dilemmas, and the oral testimony of civilian and militaryparticipants in the conflict - Allied, Japanese, or those of other Asian nationalities. As the author guides us through these topics he clearly and objectively examines the evidence and orthodox arguments, and always offers fresh perspectives.The 'composite' structure of the book, divided first and foremost thematically, then chronologically, is a winning formula, and the comprehensiveness of the volume is quite astounding.Furthermore, there is a virtually seamless shifting of perspective between the high command, the tactical level, and civilian affairs.

In this review essay, first I will offer comment on the 'retribution' thesis, then draw attention to some of the major highlights of this volume - particularly the contributions of Britain, China, and the USSR to Allied victory in 1945, that are often understated elsewhere in the literature.

The 'Nemesis' Thesis
Hastings systematically builds a case for 'retribution', dismissing pleas for mitigation on the part of Japan or Western apologists for its wartime conduct (p. 3).He argues that the initiation and institutionalization of barbaric treatment of civilians and POWs, and Japan's fanaticism on the battlefield had perfectly logical consequences.First, the Allies were provoked into sometimes responding in kind, and second, it removed any moral barriers to the application of maximum and indiscriminate use of force to defeat Japan, for example through firebombing, and ultimately, the atomic bomb.He notes that 'in an imperfect world, it seems unrealistic to expect any combatant in a war will grant adversaries conspicuously better treatment than his own people receive at his hands' (p. 6) and that 'the consequence of so-called fanaticism on the battlefield....was that Allied commanders favored the use of extreme methods to defeat them' (p. 7).In the process he transcends John Dower's War Without Mercy thesis of racially motivated animus - though there is no denying the racist predispositions of many Allied and Japanese soldiers.Rather, according to Hastings, 'Allied hatred of, contempt for, and finally savagery toward their Pacific foes were surely inspired less by racial alienation than by their wartime conduct' (p. 7).Hastings also considers the dénouement of the Pacific War through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a corollary of the above, though this is not sufficient explanation in itself for the attack.Rather, a combination of factors, such as the obduracy of the Japanese leadership, cultural miscomprehensions, American domestic politics, and a desire to avoid massive Allied (and Japanese) casualties in the projected invasion of the home islands, all contributed to the decision to employ the A-Bomb.In addition, Hastings identifies a 'technological determinism' and institutional momentum behind it.An impulse to use all the weapons available to finish the war, a desire to see a return on the hugely expensive Manhattan Project investment, and quite simply the failure of anyone in the US system, either the President or high command, to ever reexamine, let alone countermand, the decision once it had been taken, made August 6 and August 9 inevitable.

The above arguments are also reinforced by an examination of the seemingly wanton disregard for their own population evinced by the Japanese leadership. Not only did they completely underestimate their opponents(the famous warning by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto notwithstanding), but they had absolutely no clear strategic blueprint for victory in 1944, other than to inflict as much 'pain' as possible upon the enemy in order to gain better peace terms. Their grand strategy was fundamentally flawed given limited Japanese capabilities and their entire war effort was conducted with a woeful ineptitude, not to mention (self)-deceit.For example, the Japanese military was afflicted with inter-service rivalry that made even the US Army and Navy look the picture of harmony by comparison.Huge formations were tied up in occupation duties garrisoning captured territory (especially Manchukuo), logistics were willfully neglected because it was viewed as unworthy of the Bushido-warrior code, their new 'Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere' ran unprofitably, and inter-Axis cooperation with the Germans was practically non-existent.In these circumstances Japanese prospects were so bleak that Hastings concludes that 'German victory was the sole eventuality which might have saved Japan from the consequences of assaulting powers vastly superior to itself in military and industrial potential' (p. 5).Not even extreme expedients such as the Kamikaze / Tokkotai Special Attack Corps or gyokusai (fanatical resistance expected of every soldier) could stem the Allied offensive.In fact such expedients were actually counterproductive, serving only to increase the resolution and ferocity of their Allied opponents. That they failed to realize this in 1944/5 meant that 'around two million Japanese people paid the price for their rulers' blindness, a sacrifice which availed the country nothing' (p. 18).

Fighting With Allies
One of the great accomplishments of Retribution is the restoration of other 'actors' in the Pacific drama to the mainstream narrative, one that far too often has left the impression that this was an exclusively American-Japanese contest. Hastings stresses that the defeat of Japan was a combined effort.Though the battle in the Pacific was dominated by the United States, the wider Asian conflict was not exclusively fought or won by Americans alone.

The most effective Allied combatant in the Asia Pacific after the Americans was the British Empire .The British, Indians, Australians and New Zealanders had a combined manpower of approximately 2.5 million (the Dutch were out of the fight in 1942).Their most prolific contributions were the British-Indian 14 th Army's annihilation of Japanese forces in the Burma theater in 1944-5 and the almost completely forgotten British Pacific Fleet's operations.The exploits of the former are now well documented elsewhere, but the latter is especially intriguing.'Home-ported' in Sydney, the British Pacific Fleet was composed of 71 major surface combatants including 17 aircraft carriers, plus over 100 auxiliary and support vessels drawn from all over the empire.It contributed 25% of allied naval air strength in support of the American amphibious landing campaigns (Okinawa) and strikes at Japanese strategic infrastructure in its captured colonies (Sumatra).In addition, the chapter on Australia's role in the Pacific War makes for salutary reading.After the crushing Imperial defeat at Singapore in 1942, Canberra effectively shifted its allegiance in the Pacific to Washington.After engaging in protracted fighting in New Guinea, where the 'Diggers' earned laurels worthy of their comrades in North Africa, 'Australia seemed almost to vanish from the war after 1943'(p. xxi).Hastings blames this on a reluctance of Macarthur to sanction a major role in 'America's war', thus relegating them to the strategic backwater of the Southwest Pacific, and more controversially, by asserting that internal dissention in the rank and file diminished Australian Army combat effectiveness (see below).

The second, though vastly less effective ally was China , to which two chapters are dedicated.Paradoxically, in many ways China bore the brunt of Japanese aggression, and had done so since the 'Second Sino-Japanese War' began in 1931.The human and economic devastation of China wrought by the Japanese completely dwarfs Anglo-American losses.Hastings estimates that China suffered fifteen million dead, a figure only exceeded by the USSR. With the most productive part of China occupied by the Japanese Kwantung (Guandong) Army and cut off from supplies through the Burma Road, the Guomindang (Nationalist) government of Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi) clung perilously to survival in its makeshift capital in the interior, Chongqing (known then as Chungking).Not that the Nationalists exactly exerted themselves in fighting the Japanese.Nominally outnumbering the Guandong Army 350 to 25 divisions, the Chongqing government, immobilized by domestic political constraints and corruption, was simply content to absorb American 'lend-lease' largesse and wait out Japan's defeat in the Pacific.This was hardly surprising since 'their puny efforts to resist the invader brought upon them death and destruction out of all proportion to any military accomplishment' (p. 219).Therefore Chiang Kai-Shek shrewdly husbanded his resources for the inevitable showdown with Mao Zedong's Communists, based in Shaanxi province to the north. American insistence on perceiving the Chinese as a first-class power and major combatant in the war (their passive role in tying down 1.25 million Japanese forces aside), and on perceiving 'generalissimo' Chiang as a democrat , is perplexing in its credulity.It was one thing to talk up China's role for the sake of Chiang's 'face', but quite another to actually believe it was true - Churchill called it "an absolute farce!" (p. 218).Overall Hastings' account of China's travails is particularly valuable, since he interviewed some of the few remaining survivors of the second Sino-Japanese War.Indeed there is no credible account of this conflict by a native Chinese historian since the country has 'no tradition of objective historical research. Absurd claims are thus made even by academics, unsupported by evidence' (pp. xxii-xxiii).Ultimately, he concludes that 'The Chinese people paid a terrible price for participation in the Second World War while contributing almost nothing to Allied victory' (p. 240).

Stalin's Soviet Union only became an ally in the Asia-Pacific conflict at the eleventh hour. On 9 August 1945 the Japanese Ambassador to Moscow, who had been stonewalled in his attempts to solicit Soviet assistance in mediation with the Americans, was called into Foreign Minister Molotov's office and curtly informed that the two countries were at war. According to Hastings, the invasion of Manchukuo was ostensibly to honor Stalin's promise at the Yalta conference to enter the war to assist the Western Allies, but was in reality a flagrant grasp for plunder and territory. The veterans of the (European) Eastern Front proceeded to tear through the weakened remnants of the Kwantung Army.Having demolished them in short order and continuing to fight after the official Japanese surrender - the Soviet troops then embarked upon 'an orgy of rape and destruction' against their own Chinese 'ally'! (p. 547).Their bloodlust sated, the Red Army then proceeded to remove every scrap of machinery from the territory and ship it back to the USSR as 'reparations', irrespective of whether the owners were Japanese or Chinese.They turned over captured surplus arms to the Chinese Communists.They also occupied Northern Korea, thus fomenting the division of the peninsula, and annexed Sakhalin Island and the Kurile chain, (still a point of contention in Russo-Japanese relations), though they were thwarted in ambitions to occupy Hokkaido by firm American protestations.

There are many other fascinating issues raised by Hastings' magnificent volume.The book will also acquaint the reader with the chronic administrative inefficiency of the Japanese occupation forces, resulting in famine in Vietnam; the vast scale of their brutality toward their 'liberated' Asian brothers, who were worked to death alongside allied POWs on the engineering folly of the Burma-Thailand 'railway of death'; the quite unnecessary 'Martyrdom' of Manila in December 1944; and the revival of the opium trade by the Japanese, Nationalists and Communists in order to fund their respective war chests. It is also worth mentioning the often overlooked role of American submarine warfare in decimating Japan's merchant fleet. While perhaps viewed as less glorious that the great surface naval battles like Leyte Gulf, the submariner's contribution to Japan's downfall was no less significant.One acknowledged omission here is a detailing of the various collaborative activities and liberation struggles of indigenous Asian peoples under Japanese control, a topic recently examined at length in Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper's Forgotten Armies.

Though readers are at liberty to disagree with Retribution 's thesis, it is hard to find fault with the content or presentation of the book.Two minor issues; first, despite the author's claim that the inclusion of a - presumably vast - bibliography is merely a 'peacock's display', its absence is disappointing to those either new to the subject or those looking to build further upon their knowledge (or seeking to verify Hastings' sources).Second, critics have argued that the author may have overstated the disaffection in the Australian Army in the final period of the war. His bold assertion that the Australian Army was relegated to a 'frankly humiliating role in 1944-45' (p. xxi), is rebuffed by Australian War Memorial historian Karl James who responds: "There were some who were exhausted after years of fighting, but there was nothing like [what] Hastings is suggesting" (cited in The Age ).

Retribution is a meticulously researched but accessible contribution to the historiography on the Pacific War/Greater East Asia War, that fully merits a place on the bookshelf of anyone - scholar or layperson - professing an interest in this vast and multi-faceted conflagration.The main thesis and conclusions are likely to polarize readers, but will certainly refresh their knowledge of the respective arguments.If one is tempted to believe that Hastings conclusions are indeed Western-centric, it is incumbent upon more Japanese historians to undertake serious and candid research to argue their point, rather than continuing to issue contemptuously unscholarly denials of any wrongdoing in their short-lived Asian empire.

Thomas S. Wilkins, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in International Security and Military History at the University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim.

Further Reading/Select Bibliography
Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 , (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006).
John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II , (London: Penguin, 1999).
John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War , (New York: Pantheon, 1987).
Richard B. Frank, Downfall , (New York: Random House, 1999).
Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 , (New York: Knopf, 2004).
Edwin Hoyt, Japan's War: The Great Pacific Conflict , (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001).
Saburo Ienaga, Pacific War, 1931-1945 , (New York: Pantheon, 1979).
Eric Lomax, The Railway Man , (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).
Peter C. Smith, Task Force 57: The British Pacific Fleet, 1944-45 , (Manchester, UK: Crecy Publishing, 2001).
Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan , (New York: Vintage, 1985).
Christopher Thorne, Allies of a kind: The United States, Britain and the War Against Japan , (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979).
John Toland, Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 , (New York: The Modern Library, 2003).
Frank Walker, 'Mutinous Jibe Angers Veterans', The Age , 2 December, 2007.

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