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December 07, 2007

Max Hastings calls for Japanese repentance over World War II - but Jeremy Black finds few signs that the call will be heeded: Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 - Max Hastings

Posted by Jeremy Black

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
by Max Hastings
Pp. 702. London: HarperCollins, 2007
Hardback, 25

This is a very good book. It is good because it is far more balanced than most accounts of the war, because it captures the human dimension as well as policy, and because it is better than its predecessor Armageddon. The latter, on the last stages of the war in Europe was also a good book, but in it Hastings was overly prone to make comments on fighting determination and characteristics at a national scale that were ripe for qualification, not least his tendency to underrate the Americans and the British and to overrate German fighting proficiency.

The new work is particularly successful because of its determination to include the war in China. There were major operations there in 1944-5, not least a large-scale Japanese offensive. This has been one of the more obscure sections of the war, and Hastings is to be congratulated for discussing it and underlining its importance. Indeed, the continued prominence of the war in the public memory of both states is such that this is one of the more important aspects of the war as far as the modern world is concerned.

As Hastings makes clear more generally, this continued prominence owes much to the nature of Japanese warmaking. Having already entered a caveat about the concept of national characteristics, I have to be cautious, but Hastings makes his point that the systematic nature of Japanese brutality (for example that on Luzon which he discusses in some detail) was such that we are not simply considering rogue elements but rather an inherent characteristic.

This certainly provides an instructive moral counterpoint to the discussion of the American bombing of Japan, although the rationale for that of course was military and strategic. In particular, it was necessary to demonstrate that the Japanese turn to asymmetrical warfare in response to American preponderance would be self-destructive without inflicting any significant damage on the USA. Japan's treatment of captives and the conquered is also discussed by Hastings with a full revelation of the cruelty and depravity involved.

While addressing such issues between combatants, Hastings is also aware of the rivalries between allies, including those within the same country. Thus the bitter criticism voiced by the American army of the allegedly sacrificial tactics used by the American Marines is included in the grim discussion of Iwo Jima. The fighting there was certainly harsh, with the Japanese willing not only to commit suicide but also to kill compatriots who had surrendered and therefore lost honour. Hastings concludes this section by pointing out that:

if some historians judge that America's warlords erred in taking Iwo Jima, the commitment seemed natural in the context of the grand design for America's assault on the Japanese homeland.
This is a fair point, although of course island hopping and bypassing strongholds was essential to American strategy, not least in thwarting the Japanese hope of causing unacceptable casualties.

The conflict at sea receives full coverage and there is a particularly welcome, albeit short, chapter n the American submarine war on Japan. This includes an interesting reflection on the need to think strategically (pp. 301-2):

Only 4 per cent of American naval air sorties were directed against merchant shipping If American carriers had cruised south of Java and Sumatra, they might have achieved extraordinary results. That they did not do so reflected the preoccupation of Nimitz's commanders with engaging enemy warships and hitting the Japanese home islands some of its admirals should have studied economies as well as tactics.
Rancour, anticlimax, mopping up, domestic strife and battlefield frustration are the themes of Australian operations in the last stages of the war, and they did not compare to the British operations in Burma, which are ably discussed.

Throughout, the war is personalised, with able quotations from those involved: commanders, combatants and civilians. Hastings ends his impressive work with a call for Japanese repentance. The case is very well made but there are few signs that his call will be heeded.

Jeremy Black's books include World War Two: A Military History(Routledge, 2004).

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