Monday, 15 February 2010

'Nemesis' by Max Hastings

This is a history book about the 1944-45 defeat of Japan. It is a pair with his book about the end of the war in the European theatre called ‘Armageddon’, which I am now keen to read.

It is a chunky book, exhaustively researched, chock full of personal anecdotes from diaries, letters and interviews. This makes the book vivid, and different from a conventional academic account.

Hastings is a veritable Virgil, leading us through the hell of those two years. The awfulness of the deeds done on both sides are not shunned, and this gives the book a grim fascination. How much worse can it get?

His choice of how much space to devote to each episode is slightly quirky, yet seems right. For instance, he deals with the events of dropping the two atomic bombs in only a few paragraphs, and includes no personal accounts of those episodes. However, he devotes many pages to discussing the decision-making (or lack of) that went on prior to dropping these new weapons. He exhaustively rehearses all the pro and con arguments about using the atom bombs, and gives his own forthright opinion – basically, necessary. Also he had previously spent many pages describing in detail the fire-bombing of Japanese cities that preceded (and followed) the atom bombs, from both American and Japanese points of view. The horror of any kind of mass bombing is fully depicted by several Japanese accounts from Tokyo.

It is very informative, and I learned much: the detail of the Burma campaign, the detail of the Leyte campaign, the actions of the Chinese armies and politicians, the obstructiveness and selfishness of Australian port workers, the totally ineffectual role of the Royal Navy in assisting the Americans in the Pacific, the horrible actions of the Japanese on the Philippines the final Russian invasion of Manchuria and so forth.

Hastings particularly has it in for General MacArthur. He assassinates his character, only saying at the end that he redeemed himself by his rule of Japan after the war. Hastings describes his massive ego, self-promotion and frequent military mistakes. He clearly thinks MacArthur was a liability in war and cost many lives, not just American but also Philippine.

Hastings brings moral judgement to every episode, and sees a futility in most of the military events. He judges the most effective part of winning the war to have been the submarine service sinking Japanese ships and blockading the home islands.

John Vernon

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