Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A bit of nastiness

Max Hasting's Armageddon is a bleak, but brilliant history of the last years of the European Theater of World War 2. He has followed up that book with Retribution, a book about the last years of the Pacific Theater. Just as in the first volume, Hastings emphasizes the utter brutality and waste of war as well as providing frank criticism of the failures of leadership.

His biggest target is MacArthur who he blames for many mistakes, perhaps most of all the invasion of the Philippines. This invasion led to thousands of deaths of Americans and Japanese and an orgy of Japanese violence in Manila that conjures images of Nanjing. Hastings very clearly identifies Japanese barbarism, in fact it is a key focus of his book, but argues that the atrocities would not have occurred if the US had not launched the strategically unnecessary invasion of the archipelago. MacArthur's vanity cost the US (and the Filipinos) dearly, as it would again in Korea.

I quite liked how Hastings was willing to say some policies were simply wrong. As an example, he identifies the use of P-51 Mustangs as escorts for B-29s as a mistake. While they had served a purpose over Germany, they did not over Japan. The B-29s could largely protect themselves against Japanese fighters. The P-51s added little and their patrols cost the lives of many pilots through accidents. So many military historians would water down the criticism with a few "on the other hands," Hastings is pleasingly unequivocal.

He also provides a much more expansive view of the Pacific War than you get from many historians. Yes, there is Leyte and yes there is the bombing campaigns, but there is also coverage of China, Burma, the submarine campaign, and even the story of the Australians. The Australians, who figured heavily in the Solomons disappear from most histories in the later years. Hastings explains why.

His strong point of view has raised the hackles of many reviewers. He does come down, mostly on the positive side regarding the use of nuclear weapons. See Kai Bird's Washington Post review on the Powells page for a strong criticism on Hastings's position. I think Bird overstates the case that Hastings's central theme is that the atomic bombings were "justified and necessary." Instead I would argue his theme is that the particular war was brutal, a brutality largely driven by the Japanese strategic culture, and that the special nature of the bombs was not evident among all the other horrors. The vast majority of the book makes no mention of the bomb, so if you must avoid the topic, you can. Simply skip Chapter 19 (out of 21) , helpfully titled "The Bombs."


Citizen Reader said...

I've got to start reading this guy. I just read something about MacArthur's clearing out of the "Bonus Army" protesters in Washington D.C., where WWI veterans were camping to ask for their war bonuses early, during the Great Depression, and how he took some heat for that decision. I've got to read more about that somewhere too. I just don't know about MacArthur--so, although WWII history is not my thang, I've got to get this book. Thanks for the review.

Tripp said...

I think you will find it well written and engaging! A word of warning though: The first chapter is the least engaging, or so I thought. The chapters are close to autonomous, so feel free to jump around if it makes sense to you.