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The Cruelest War


What does it mean when you read that at least fifteen million Chinese died during the war with Japan? Or that “around three-quarters of a million Filipinos, Japanese and Americans would pay with their lives” for General Douglas MacArthur’s dream of “liberating” the Philippines (then still a US colony)? Or that “in the course of the war 116,000 of 122,000 seamen serving Japan’s pre-war merchant fleet were killed or wounded, mostly by American submarines”? Or that “the 9 March 1945 American bomber attack on Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, and rendered a million homeless”?

These are terrifying figures. And there are many more World War II statistics, some, as every schoolchild knows, on an even more monstrous scale. But the problem with such figures is that they are just that, figures, which do not help us to imagine the suffering of individual human beings. In fact, they have the opposite effect; they create distance by abstraction.

The great merit of Max Hastings’s many books on war is his skill at bringing the numbers, as it were, down to earth. Through the imaginative power of his writing, we get an inkling (and we cannot expect more than that) of what it must have been like to slog one’s way up a cliff at Iwo Jima, or be firebombed in Tokyo, or be tortured in a Japanese POW camp, or be hit by a torpedo or a kamikaze plane full of explosives. One example, from Iwo Jima:

In a shellhole, a corpsman asked Private First Class Arthur Rodriguez to hold a man’s protruding intestines while he applied sulphur powder, then pushed them back into his abdomen. A nearby explosion caused body parts to rain down upon them. The young BAR man tried to focus his mind on his sweetheart, Sally, back home rather than upon the ghastly spectacle before him.

This, too, from Iwo Jima:

Corporal Red Doran, an Iowan BAR gunner from 3/9th Marines, lost his sight to blast. Evacuated, his bedmates had to endure the ghastly experience of hearing Doran join two other men in similar plight, singing “Three Blind Mice.”

There is much more of this, on all fronts. Although Hastings displays no sympathy whatever for the Japanese leaders who drove their country into a catastrophic war, his empathy for the common Japanese soldier, or civilian, is no less deeply felt than for the US Marine or British Tommy. The best way to get some idea of what these people experienced is to quote their own words. A Japanese major, Mitsuo Abe, during the retreat in Burma:

Among the stream of vehicles, men of all manner of units commingled, many of them wounded. Some had their arms in improvised slings…some were bandaged with towels or strips of shirt. Some had lost eyes, others cried aloud for their mangled limbs to be cut off, others again raved in malarial fever. There were those who pleaded with friends to make their wills, and younger soldiers moaning “Mother …mother.”

Soldiers have always suffered terribly in combat. What was new about the war in Asia, no less than in Europe, was the scale of civilian casualties. The Japanese moved through China like medieval conquistadores with machine guns, burning, looting, raping, and killing wherever they went. The infamous massacre in Nanjing, in the winter of 1937, falls outside the scope of this book, which is about the end of the Asian war, but the sacking of Manila does not. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation in February 1945, when faced with a huge US army about to engulf the capital city, Japanese navy troops decided to fight to the death and take a maximum number of Filipinos with them. It was literally an orgy of violence:

At night, Americans on the line were bemused to hear sounds of chanting and singing, shouts and laughter, as Japanese conducted final carouses. These were sometimes succeeded by grenade explosions, as soldiers killed either themselves or hapless Filipinos…. Twelve members of one family, the Rocha Beeches, were bayoneted and then burned alive, along with their nursemaid. A fifteen-year-old was raped in the street amid gunfire and screaming people. The Japanese responsible then rose and used his bayonet to open her body from groin to chest.

Just as this was going on in Manila, US Air Force General Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay, ably assisted by a young statistician named Robert McNamara, decided to “bomb and burn ‘em till they quit.” He was talking about the citizens of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and scores of other cities and towns, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once the B-29s had done their job on Japan, LeMay observed:

We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of 9–10 March than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

He was not being defensive, just stating the facts as he saw them.

It would be easy to condemn “Iron Ass,” who was not an attractive figure, for all this carnage. Quite rightly, however, Hastings puts the responsibility where it belongs:

If Churchill, Roosevelt or Truman, together with their respective chiefs of staff, perceived it as morally wrong to slaughter the civilian populations of Germany and Japan, then it was their function to decree otherwise, and if necessary to change the responsible commanders. They did not choose to do this.

For a man who never served in the armed forces himself, Hastings has an extraordinary understanding of men in uniform, from the common soldiers to the prima donnas who were assigned to lead them. Quite properly he is much more critical of the latter, though not blindly so. He has more time for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, “a natural diplomat, sober and controlled,” than for such showboats as General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, whose “boldness was in doubt seldom, his judgement and intellect often.” Although Hastings acknowledges MacArthur’s theatrical genius as a superior military PR man whose air of natural authority, mixed with doses of real idealism and indeed magnanimity, made him the perfect “Shogun” to take charge of the occupation of Japan once the fighting was over, he is scathing of MacArthur’s record as a fighting general.

MacArthur’s negligence had been at least partly responsible for the ease with which the Japanese conquered the Philippines in 1942. But his zeal in keeping his promise of “I shall return” was informed more by personal vanity than strategic insight. Nimitz realized that the Philippines could easily be bypassed on the way to the Japanese isles. But he didn’t feel strongly enough about this to thwart the will of MacArthur. And so, in the fall of 1944, the US Navy sailed into the greatest naval clash in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which it eventually won, with great loss of life, and, if Hastings is to be believed, to very little purpose.

A self-absorbed dreamer, MacArthur pretended that the real world conformed to his fantasies. And he surrounded himself with men who indulged them. Once US troops had landed on Leyte island, MacArthur convinced himself that the Philippines were already his. The rest would be like that proverbial piece of cake. When military intelligence officers advised him otherwise, and informed the general that there were still large numbers of Japanese who were quite prepared to stand their ground, MacArthur said “Bunk!” The long bloody slog that followed, through the muddy plains of Leyte, across the dense mountain ranges of Luzon, was grisly enough in combat:

Rained all night and still raining hard,” medical officer George Morrissey wrote on 20 November “…The ground is a deep gooey churned mixture of mud, urine, faecal matter, garbage. The floor of our aid station is three inches deep with caked mud.” He described the terror of his helpless patients when shooting came close. It became especially hard to treat men when mud-stained fragments of clothing were blown in their wounds.

Things could be even worse far away from the battle front, where many Japanese soldiers were left to starve, abandoned by their leaders once the Americans had moved on. One of the great novels of the Pacific War, Fires on the Plain,1 by Ooka Shohei, himself a veteran of that campaign, describes how the soldiers, crazed with hunger, ate their comrades’ corpses. They called them “monkeys.” Some of these “monkeys” were shot by their own hungry officers.2

The man formally in charge of Japan’s last stand in the Philippines, General Yamashita Tomoyuki, also known as “The Tiger of Malaya” for his victories over the British in 1942, knew it was a hopeless task. Hastings’s remarkably sympathetic portrait of this tough warrior is typical of his compassion for good soldiers. Yamashita was not a liberal, but he had been a military diplomat in Europe before the war, and had been in favor of neither the brutal campaigns in China nor the war with the Allied powers. Although he was perhaps “Japan’s ablest commander,” Yamashita was mostly given thankless tasks by less able, more brutal leaders. Even though he was far from Manila when the Japanese marines staged their murderous orgy, and had no control over the Imperial Japanese Navy, he was held responsible for what they did. After a hasty trial, criticized by two dissenting US Supreme Court judges,3 and an appeal for clemency to President Truman, MacArthur decided that Yamashita should hang.

What Hastings has in common with the more intelligent military men is a clear-eyed refusal to idealize war. He pays tribute to acts of heroism, and is touched by instances of gallantry by men from all over the world—Liverpool, Punjab, Texas, Baluchistan, Osaka, and California. But war, in his account, remains a ghastly, wasteful, savage business, and his anger at powerful men who wreck the lives of countless people, sometimes for nefarious, wrongheaded, absurd, or simply frivolous reasons, is palpable and surely just. He quotes a Japanese officer captured by the British:

Sometimes it is impossible to carry out very difficult orders, but even though the command recognise this, they will not admit their mistake until every man has died trying to carry them out.

We know what Hastings thinks of MacArthur. About Winston Churchill, he recalls one of his generals who tried to “keep alive a dream of empire which thoughtful men knew to be doomed.” Hastings comments:

Churchill badly wanted to retrieve Burma and Malaya, but was determined, he told the chiefs of staff in September 1944, “that the minimum of effort should be employed in this disease-ridden country.” Here was a prospect rich in pathos, tragedy or absurdity, according to viewpoint. As so often in wars, brave men were to do fine and hard things in pursuit of a national illusion.


If Retribution were nothing more than a description of the horrific end of Japan’s vainglorious attempt to rule the Asian continent, it would have served a purpose. Such terrible events as the sacking of Manila, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the Leyte campaign have been somewhat overshadowed by equally dreadful episodes in Europe and the Soviet Union. But Hastings is not content to be simply a teller of grim tales. There are some important questions running through his book, most of which he answers sensibly, in my view.

  1. 1

    First published in 1957, translated by Ivan Morris. Available from Tuttle Classics, 2001.

  2. 2

    This caused great bitterness among the survivors. A superb Japanese documentary film, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, directed by Hara Kazuo, features a veteran who is obsessed by the fact this his superior officers never took responsibility for just the kind of atrocities described in Fires on the Plain.

  3. 3

    US Supreme Court Justices Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge dissented from the Court’s majority opinion in denying Yamashita’s appeal.

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