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The Cruelest War

1.

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.

2.

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.

One of these questions is why combat on the Asian fronts was so extraordinarily savage. Why did US Marines liken their enemies to rodents who had to be exterminated? Why did Japanese behave so bestially in the countries they had conquered? Why were almost all Japanese cities torched and then, in the case of two of them, vaporized by atom bombs? Was it necessary? Can the brutality be explained by racism? And finally, Hastings wonders why the Japanese still insist on denying what they had unleashed. Well, he does not wonder, he takes it for granted that this is so.

The most eminent proponent of the idea that racism played a major part in the Asian war is John Dower, the historian of modern Japan. He argued that “to scores of millions of participants, the war was also a race war. It exposed raw prejudices, and was fueled by racial pride, arrogance, and rage on many sides.” In Asia, he wrote, “the Allied struggle against Japan exposed the racist underpinnings of the European and American colonial structure.”4 To be sure, German cities were also subjected to merciless area bombing, designed to break the morale of civilians, but the campaign to “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs” (Admiral “Bull” Halsey), in Dower’s view, had much to do with “the dehumanization of the Other.”

There is sufficient anecdotal evidence to bolster Dower’s case. Japanese propaganda was soaked in racist language, promoting the Japanese as the Asian master race. And it is not difficult to detect distinctly nasty attitudes toward the “yellow monkeys,” “Nips,” “yellow bastards,” etc., on the Allied side. Dower believes that hatred of the Japanese was far greater than hatred of the Germans. This was probably true in World War II. I’m not sure, however, that the animosity toward “the Huns” in World War I was much less venomous. At any rate, Hastings is more skeptical about the influence of racism on military decisions. He thinks it is

mistaken to argue that [the Allies] behaved ruthlessly towards the Japanese, once the tide of war turned, because they were Asians. The US pursued a historic love affair with other Asians, the people of China, a nation which it sought to make a great power.

Atrocities against Pacific foes, he says, “were surely inspired less by racial alienation than by their wartime conduct.”

I think he has a point. But even this point is not unrelated to racial attitudes. The cruel treatment of Western POWs, including civilians in Southeast Asia, caused extreme antagonism. There is little doubt that as long as you were not a Russian or a Jew, you would, by and large, have been better off as a POW of the Germans. Two examples, from the Burma railway:

At Hall Romney’s camp on the railway, a soldier who struck a Japanese was placed at attention in the sun outside the guardroom. Whenever he moved, he was kicked in the stomach until his screams rang through the compound. The man was then dragged onto a lorry and taken away by a guard detail equipped with rifles and spades…. An officer of the Gordons who protested against sick men being forced to work was taken into the jungle and tied to a tree, beneath which guards lit a fire and burnt him like some Christian martyr.

Such atrocities aside, many Europeans complained with special bitterness that they were made to bow to the Japanese, or, in a common phrase at the time, “treated like coolies.” The humiliation was felt with particular keenness by those who were accustomed to being paid deference by Asian colonial subjects before the Japanese invasion. After the war, many Japanese were tried as war criminals in such places as the Dutch East Indies for what they did to Westerners and not for what they did to Indonesians and other Asians, which was on the whole far worse.

Hastings is of the opinion that “the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy,” because “their culture encouraged, even demanded” it. If by culture he means the brutal military habits of the 1930s and 1940s, he would be right. But if anything more profound is meant, this is open to question. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Japanese officers were famously correct in their behavior toward POWs. Was this an aberration? Or is the famous Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, to blame for a strain of viciousness that supposedly runs through Japanese culture?

Probably not. Samurai, in feudal times, could be arrogant and aggressive, to be sure, but the samurai code prescribed self-discipline, not random violence. The savage behavior against civilians and POWs displayed in World War II had less to do with Bushido than with a modern military culture, where soldiers were treated brutally by their own superiors, very few of whom were from samurai families. Emperor-worshiping ultra-nationalism, justifying atrocities against all enemies, was largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, like Nazism. Hastings is convinced that Japan’s wartime ideology “was a mirror image, no less ugly, of the Nazi vision for Hitler’s empire.” Ugly it certainly was, but to call it a mirror image is to underrate the specific evil of the Nazi plan to exterminate an entire people on the basis of their birth. This was a level of depravity to which the Japanese, with all their cruelty, never descended.

On the atom bomb, however, Hastings makes much sense. It is commonly assumed that the decision to wipe out Hiroshima and Nagasaki was both racist and unnecessary. Hastings examines the evidence in the context of the times. First of all, he says, I think rightly, that “if an atomic bomb had been available a year earlier, it would have been dropped on Berlin.” In hindsight, one can speculate whether Japan might have surrendered without the bombs. It is possible that even in the event of an invasion, Japanese defenses could have quickly crumbled. And maybe the prospect of a Soviet invasion from the north would have concentrated the minds of Japan’s military leaders enough to give in. Perhaps a demonstration of the atomic bomb’s lethal force by dropping one of them over Tokyo Bay would have been sufficient. But President Truman and his government were not in the mood to take chances.

As Hastings points out, Truman was hampered by his inexperience. His actions were born partly out of “a desire to appear authoritative and decisive, though within himself he felt equipped to be neither.” The Soviet Union, turning against Japan at the last minute, was a menacing force, as it proved in Eastern Europe. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped, the Japanese war cabinet still couldn’t come to a unanimous decision to surrender, and military leaders vowed to fight until the last drop of blood had been shed. Only the intervention of the Emperor made a peace offer possible. Memories of the horrendous cost of invading Okinawa were still fresh enough to make the Americans very wary indeed of fighting the Japanese on their home turf. Japanese cities were being relentlessly destroyed by wave after wave of Curtis LeMay’s bombers anyway. And so, as Hastings writes, “from June [1945] onwards, only absolute Japanese submission could have saved Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He concludes that “it is possible to support Truman’s decision not to stop the dropping of the bomb, while regretting his failure to offer warning of its imminence.”

Were the US and its allies wrong to insist on Japan’s unconditional surrender? Should they have given in to Japanese demands that the Allies keep the Emperor on his throne, not disband the Japanese armed forces, and not occupy the Japanese homeland? Again, I believe that Hastings is right to claim that this was asking too much. Why should Japan have been given more favorable terms than Germany? And why should Japan have been allowed to preserve the very institutions that caused the ruin not only of millions of Chinese, Southeast Asians, Western civilians, and Allied troops, but of millions of Japanese too? As Hastings says:

Post-war critics of US conduct in the weeks before Hiroshima seem to demand from America’s leaders moral and political generosity so far in advance of that displayed by their Japanese counterparts as to be fantastic, in the sixth year of a global war.

In fact, once they occupied Japan, the Americans surprised the Japanese by the degree of their generosity. Even General Yamashita was deeply moved by the efforts of his American lawyers to defend him in a highly inadequate trial. And enough Japanese were furious about the conduct of their military leaders that the punishments meted out to them by Allied judges were seen as just deserts. The first decade after the war was marked in Japan by pacifism, a socialist tendency in education, and a remarkably open attitude toward Japan’s dark past (unlike in Germany, by the way). Ooka Shohei’s novel, mentioned earlier, was just one instance of bitter honesty. There were others, in cinema, literature, and textbooks. This began to change during the course of the cold war, when both American and Japanese conservatives opted to forget the past and concentrate on anticommunism. For a time, memories of the Nanking Massacre were more or less buried.

Even so, in the 1970s a huge debate erupted in Japan on the massacre itself, as well as other Japanese wartime atrocities, with right-wing nationalists pitted against liberal journalists and scholars. Honda Katsuichi, the star reporter for the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun, wrote a series of articles, later published as a best-seller, entitled Journey to China, describing the Nanking Massacre in great detail. In 1973, the historian Hora Tomio published A Collection of Materials in the Japan-China War, in two volumes. Both authors were attacked, but also widely read.

The debate came up again in the 1980s, and continues to this day. Hora, with other historians, established the Research Committee on the Nanjing Incident, and in 1986, he wrote Proof of the Great Nanjing Massacre.5 In the 1990s, it was a Japanese historian, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, who uncovered the evidence that the Imperial Japanese Army was directly responsible for setting up a system of sexual slavery.6 These are serious works of history. Much else has been written on the Japanese war by journalists and commentators with various political agendas. Even as liberals emphasize the bad Japanese record as a pacifist warning, right-wingers deny that the Japanese record is bad at all.

This looks like a debate on history. In fact, it is mostly about politics. Should Japan change its pacifist constitution? Should emperor worship be revived? Should textbooks encourage patriotic pride? Should Japanese bow to public opinion in China and Korea? And so forth. As a result, there are many Japanese books that deny historical crimes, and there are others that expose them. More has been written about the Nanking Massacre in Japan than anywhere else, from all points of view, some serious, some merely polemical. At the same time right-wing politicians, and their often aggressive supporters, continue to issue excuses and denials. Like everywhere else, blasts from the right have grown much louder in the wake of the collapse of the left.

Hastings, who is sensitive to the gray moral areas of warfare, is strangely tone-deaf about postwar politics. The “new Japan,” he writes, “proved distressingly reluctant to confront the historic guilt of the old. Its spirit of denial contrasted starkly with the penitence of post-war Germany.” He rightly points out that “wartime Japan was responsible for almost as many deaths in Asia as was Nazi Germany in Europe,” but he is quite wrong to think that “only a few modern Japanese acknowledge as much.” This, he claims, “sustains a chasm between their culture and ours.” And he declares with the same air of confidence that “to some degree in Japan, there is no tradition of objective historical research.” For a writer who cannot read Japanese historical research in the original language, such confidence might seem a little misplaced. It is often hard enough for Japanese scholars to fend off attacks in their own country, without the added difficulty of being ignored by writers abroad who should be supporting them.

  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.

  4. 4

    War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986), pp. 4–5.

  5. 5

    For more on the Japanese historical debates, see Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford University Press, 2006).

  6. 6

    See Yoshimi’s Comfort Women (Columbia University Press, 2002).

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