Max Hastings’ analysis in a bombshell


NEMESIS: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, by Max Hastings. HarperPress, 2007, £25, 699 pp., (cloth). (U.S. release is titled RETRIBUTION: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. Knopf, 2008, $35)

At Frankfurt airport, the insecurity police screening hand baggage discovered something in my bag that alarmed them. Gingerly they opened the bag, swabbed the object with bomb-sensitive tape and took the tape to a detector machine. The machine gave the all-clear. It was not a bomb. It was only a book.

It is not easy to have much confidence in airport security when its officials find themselves nervous over a book, but the suspicious item (bought in the sterile area at London’s City Airport) is, in fact, something of a bombshell.

Max Hastings’ “Nemesis,” the book in question, is massive — in scope and in imagination as well as in pages. It covers the big battles, with maps illustrating the lines of attack at key stages, across the huge arena from Imphal in the west to the vast Pacific Ocean in the east and south.

But there is a lot more. Hastings seeks to get into the minds of the policymakers in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow, London and China as they struggled through the fog of war. Besides plundering the official archives, he has talked to survivors on all fronts and front lines, including American marines, Chinese peasants, “comfort women,” prisoners of war, kamikaze pilots, Japan’s firebombing victims, Soviet troops rushed into battle in the final week to steal booty for Stalin, and Japanese interned in Siberia.

These reveal the horrors of war and include the atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese soldiers beyond the call of duty.

Hastings is quick and confident in his judgments, sometimes cocksure. He has withering comments about almost every leader on every side, especially about Douglas MacArthur, better actor than general, and his British thespian colleague Admiral Louis Mountbatten. He is scathing about the failures of the various branches of the U.S. armed forces to subjugate their own wish for glory to the national war interest. Personal ambition was the most powerful searchlight through the fog.

Almost the only military figure who emerges with his reputation intact is Bill Slim, the head of the British 14th Army and reconqueror of Burma, a good general and a great human being, but whose valor was a deadly sideshow, as too were those “bloody handkerchiefs” of battles for Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

Hastings has little sympathy for Japan, claiming that in the last phase of the war: “two million Japanese people paid the price for their rulers’ blindness, a sacrifice that availed their country nothing. After years in which Japan’s armies had roamed Asia at will, killing on a Homeric scale, retribution was at hand.”

That quote illustrates Hastings’ considered judgment about Japan’s behavior during the Pacific War (from 1931 or 1937 onward), widely shared throughout the West and in China and Korea. He rejects the idea of any moral equivalence between the Allies and Japan in their inhumanity to fellow humans, either at individual or state level, claiming that the war-weary Allies merely wanted to end the struggle and were not systematic abusers of human rights.

Terrible retribution was visited on Japan. Witness Curtis LeMay, mastermind of the firebombing of Japanese cities, who, though he supported the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was chagrined that they would take credit from his own efforts to bomb Japan into the ground. LeMay admitted matter-of-factly that civilians suffered in the attacks on supposedly military targets, but: “The entire population got into the act to make those airplanes or munitions of war . . . men, women and children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town. Had to be done.”

Hastings claims that the firebombing of Japan’s cities and the atomic bombs should be seen in the context of the difficult decisions facing U.S. leaders when only “peddlers of fantasies” believed that beaten Japan would surrender before Hiroshima.

The conclusion of Hastings’ book is unsatisfactory. It’s as if he suddenly became tired. He deals with the war crimes trials perfunctorily and applauds the flawed trials and death sentences against generals Tomoyuki Yamashita and Masaharu Homma, claiming that the generals had to pay for Japan’s “culture of massacre.”

But the war trials were abandoned when the United States felt it needed Japan’s support in the new Cold War. Class A criminals like Nobusuke Kishi were let free without having their day in court and were able to go on to hold highest political office, and a new generation of Japanese leaders was able to claim “victor’s justice” and wriggle away from understanding what brought about the slaughter of probably 30 million people, only 10 percent of them Japanese.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor of publications for the World Bank.