Friday, June 29, 2012

What We're Reading: New History

Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor, by Bill Sloan

The battle for the Philippines was the first major engagement of American and Japanese ground forces in World War II, and it followed quickly after the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Historically, the American defense of the Philippines has been viewed as one of the great disasters of American military history. Neither the American army nor Philippine army forces were adequately prepared to face the onslaught of Japanese arms in the Far East. The Philippines were a U.S. protectorate at the time, and the responsibility of this failure must rest primarily with the United States. The lack of an adequate military force and supplies was compounded by the inability of the United States to remedy this circumstance in any timely fashion, and indeed it made the deliberate decision not to do so, adopting the “Europe First” strategy for winning the war in collaboration with its British ally.

MacArthur and his command in the Philippines were slow to respond to initial Japanese airstrikes on U.S. bases, further complicating the effectiveness of actions taken in defense of the archipelago. The defense plan for the Philippines called for American and Philippine forces to retire to the more geographically defensible Bataan peninsula across Manila Bay and the nearby island fortress of Corregidor at the mouth of the bay. The idea was that they would hold out there until relief reinforcements arrived. Reinforcements never arrived, and ultimately 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 disease-ridden, starving, and outgunned troops were forced to surrender. Corregidor was captured by the Japanese a month later.

Too often, what happened at Bataan has been treated as an embarrassment, or an ignominious route, and it is Sloan’s purpose in this book to make us aware of the tenacious stand and heroic actions of both the American and Philippine forces as they tried to hold out on Bataan and Corregidor against all odds. That stand is usually overshadowed by the greater notoriety of the aftermath of the defense of Bataan, the terrible Bataan Death March, in which wounded, diseased, and starving captives were marched a long distance to internment camps; stragglers were simply murdered along the way, and numerous atrocities were committed. The confinement and transport of prisoners to forced labor in Japan was also the occasion of abuse and death.

Sloan tries to give us a more complete picture of the resistance on Bataan, discussing not only the Death March but the battles that preceded it, the resistance and escape attempts at the camps, and the guerilla warfare in the years of the Japanese occupation (he does not discuss the American re-conquest of the Philippines). He effectively weaves into the general narrative of events the stories of numerous veterans, either from published accounts or first-hand interviews. Readers will find of particular interest here the account of the battle of Corregidor and also the harrowing account of the suffering of prisoners who were crammed into transport ships and bound for slave labor in Japan. (For a view of the Bataan Death March as seen through the experiences of one soldier, see Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman, previously reviewed on this blog. This account gains particular power by focusing on one man’s long ordeal.)

What is missing here--and will perhaps be frustrating to readers--is an overview of the strategic picture of the events on Bataan, specifically what was the purpose and motivation of resistance in a struggle that we are frequently told in hindsight was doomed and that leaders at the time had reason to understand was not going to save the Philippines. Were the bloodshed and losses necessary, and what reasoning at the time by the parties on both sides seemed to compel their choices to pursue the conflict in the way they did? We ask soldiers to sacrifice their lives for us, and part of the narrative about that request, the one that makes us perhaps feel a little less uncomfortable about having made it, is that they die for some purpose and for something we can call victory, for an outcome that we want to believe redeems the terrible cost. But the sad truth of war is that soldiers die sometimes for political rather than strategic military reasons, that their leaders may sacrifice them out of miscalculation or personal ambition, that they may fight in a losing cause. They may die for no good purpose at all. Our appreciation of those who serve and our empathy for what they sacrificed and suffered at our behest cannot depend on the vagaries of victory and defeat. That is not the measure of their heroism, and it cannot mitigate the honor they are due, not at Bataan and Corregidor or Vietnam or anywhere else we send soldiers into harm’s way. That is an argument that Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor makes clear and memorable, and it’s what makes it worth reading.

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