Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Remembering the 20th Century


As a child growing up in San Diego I once saw Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Lemay. He was the Grand Marshall of what may have been a 4th of July parade, or perhaps an event that was a tribute to his impending retirement. The occasion and date are uncertain to me, but the impression of the man remains vivid after all these years. I’m not sure it would be so if not for the sense of awe expressed by my father and others of the World War II generation as the great man rode by. He was standing alone in the back of a convertible, portly in his Air Force blues, and chomping on his ever present cigar as he stared straight ahead and paid no attention to the crowds that lined the route. He looked impatient with the whole ordeal.

Lemay was famous as the architect of the centerpiece of America’s Cold War defense, the Strategic Air Command, but his fame began with his leadership of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan in World War II. He built the fleet of B-29 bombers that carried out the incendiary bombing of Japan and was in command of the flights that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What most of us know about World War II in the Pacific theatre is how the war began with Pearl Harbor and how it ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb. We know very little of the context of either event or what came in between. The dropping of the atomic bombs, the enormity and shear horror of the event, seems to have removed it for current generations to a realm of abstraction wholly divorced from the conduct and exigencies of the war itself. Max Hastings had the idea of focusing on the last year of WWII in Europe and Japan in detail because he thought that the concluding chapters of these conflicts would have much to reveal about character and attitudes that were hallmarks of the conflicts in their entirety, that the ending events laid those things bare and brought them most sharply into focus. His previous much celebrated book on the ending of the conflict in Europe, Armageddon, is a companion to Retribution.

There are a number of distinguished achievements in Retribution. Hastings is a writer of compelling historical narrative. The recounting of events is clear and the analysis seems fair. He avoids the failings of “military history” that often get bogged down in the arcane details of command and tactics, in individual battles rather than the larger picture of campaigns and strategic objectives. The author has also worked into his narrative original research from first hand interviews with survivors that add a significant poignancy to his account. Hastings greatest accomplishment however is that he has risen above the partisan historical debate of what will probably be debated without end, the concluding events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the argument about whether or not dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was necessary to end the war, the suggestion that the decision had more to do with the United States trying to intimidate the Soviet Union in its post war march to hegemony in so many parts of the world than defeating Japan, and what has become a pervasive modern view that racism against the Japanese had much to do with the decision to drop the bomb on Japan, that such a choice would never have been made if the bomb had been available to end the war in Europe. It is Hastings singular achievement that when the reader comes to the closing chapters about the decision to drop the atomic bomb he does not feel that his narrative prelude has been fashioned to stack the deck in favor of one conclusiion or another. His account of the last year of the war is indeed startling, but it has the aura of objectivity and scholarly integrity. He indulges in few personal asides. The one that is perhaps most memorable is his reference to the “inadequate divinity” of the Emperor Hirohito.

Hastings examins the British war against the Japanese in the Burma theatre, the Japanese war and occupation in Manchuria, MacArthur’s battle for the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the fire bombing of Japanese cities. A compelling case was made not so long ago about the racism of both sides of the conflict in John Dower’s War Without Mercy, which explores in detail the iconography and propaganda of the Pacific war. Hastings it seems would not deny that, but his argument is that the implacable attitudes of the War in the Pacific grew more out of the conduct of the war itself than any preexisting racial attitudes. The Japanese treated prisoners and captive populations with a brutality that was not equaled in World War II. The enslavement and license taken with other Asian captive populations in Manchuria, Korea, and Indochina was predicated on a Japanese sense of racial superiority to these groups. The Americans were viewed by the Japanese as a mongrel race and the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in retrospect seems simply a miscalculation of the highest order, was founded on the Japanese view that Americans would be demoralized rather than rallied by the attack, that they had little will and stomach for a fight with an enemy that, as they saw themselves, possessed so bold and tenacious a spirit.

But in addition to the extraordinary lack of mercy that Japan showed to its enemies and captives, it culturally encoded a lack of mercy towards its own forces. To its enemies this was something that seemed an unsettling madness. This code of military conduct and honor is what resulted in the self immolation of the kamikaze squads and the expectation among the Japanese high command that Japanese soldiers would not surrender but would fight to the last man. This was, in practice, the code they invariably followed, whether it made strategic sense to do so or not. The Japanese leadership wanted to make it clear at Iwo Jima and Okinawa that the cost to Americans of confronting Japanese ground troops would be tremendous to Americans. There would be no surrender. The Japanese made this argument convincingly, but ironically it was in service of their own doom. They did not know about the atomic bomb. They made the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan a more compelling choice for the Americans than attempting to invade the Japanese home islands in a conventional assault that would have prolonged the war and resulted in tremendous casualties.

There was a sense of hubris among the Japanese leadership that seemed to result in miscalculations and delusions about the conduct of the war that are simply astonishing. It is arguable if this had a racial basis, but an enemy that showed its captives and itself no mercy was not likely to receive it from its enemy, whatever the racial predispositions of the enemy. That the Japanese took on a nation with so much more material wealth and industrial resources than itself was a terrible miscalculation. The United States was able to turn out an endless stream of technologically superior ships and airplanes and inflict losses from which the Japanese could not recover. And they were exactly the resources that could be used to most damage the Japanese. More than anything else, Japan’s fate was sealed by its island geography and the blockade of the U.S. Navy. Lemay’s B-29 bombing raids also helped destroy Japan’s war making ability, but there can be no doubt that they had as a major objective the killing of Japanese civilians. The conduct of the war in Europe had made the killing of civilians part of the strategy of modern war, and it is often forgotten that in March of 1945 the fire bombing of Tokyo alone killed over 100,000, more than were killed by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The incendiary bombing of Japan had killed over 200,000 civilians by the time the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb. It can plausibly argued that those who dropped it understood it less as a new kind of weapon than one that in enormously greater degree allowed them to continue with a strategy of war they had been pursuing all along. The vulnerability to blockade and the at-will destruction of its major cities was not enough to bring the Japanese high command to a rational view of its predicament. Just before Hiroshima they remained unwilling to accept the Allied demand for unconditional surrender and still felt they could negotiate an end to the war that would allow them to keep Manchuria and Formosa, something that was wildly unrealistic. Even after the bombing of Hiroshima the Japanese high command was unwilling to surrender. It took the bombing of Nagasaki, the agitation of a civilian peace party, and the cover provided by Hirohito’s insistence that the war be ended to get the Japanese military to agree to surrender.

There are good reasons for reading history beyond its supposed “lessons,” but perhaps Retribution contains at least a few of them of particular relevance to our times. Hastings agrees with Tolstoy’s notion that great events take on a life of their own. While we can understand the idea, it’s not a formulation with which we should be comfortable. The argument is that events can have a logic of their own, that they force actions and decisions that were not anticipated, that options become unexpectedly narrowed or broadened, that decisions that were previously unthinkable become choices of constraint or necessity, and that we are unable to control consequences of unleashing deadly forces. But when you give events a sentience of their own you are also absolving yourself of what ought to be one of the responsibilities that come with choosing to engage in a conflict. When you engage in a war, you chose to accept responsibility for not only what you think are the consequences you control but those that are inevitably unforeseen and that you may not be able to control at all. There ought to be no ambiguity or extenuation about this.

The other lesson is that in victory we tend to forget about the mistakes, needless deaths, the idiocy and waste that occur in the prosecution of a war. In the distant perspective of history, victory seems to redeem all, and we don’t often revisit these. It is to Hastings merit that he has had the courage to do so. It is perhaps the most bitter lesson of all about the nature of war, the realization that it involves us not only in paying the price for victory but always paying so much more than victory required in lives, in treasure, and honor.

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