Book Reviews

28 março, 2008

179) A batalha do Japao: especialmente selvagem

Death in the Pacific
By EVAN THOMAS
The New York Times Review of Books, March 30, 2008

RETRIBUTION: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
By Max Hastings.
Alfred A. Knopf, 615 pp. $35.

In the war against Japan, American naval commanders faced what might be called the prison ship problem. Submarines had little way of knowing which Japanese transport ships were carrying prisoners of war. In any case, “the U.S. Navy adopted a ruthless view,” Max Hastings writes. “Destruction of the enemy must take priority over any attempt to safeguard P.O.W. lives.” As a result, some 10,000 Allied prisoners were doomed (including more than twice as many Americans as have perished in Iraq). And if the Americans didn’t kill the P.O.W.’s, then the Japanese did. Aboard the tramp steamer Shinyo Maru, the Japanese guard commander told the prisoners that if the ship was attacked, he would slaughter them all. As promised, when it was torpedoed in September 1944, the Japanese guards machine-gunned the prisoners trying to abandon ship. About 20 men escaped into the sea and were rescued by another Japanese ship. When their identities were learned, they were executed.

War, while sometimes necessary, is rarely ennobling. The war in the Pacific seems to have been particularly degrading. The Japanese massacred and tortured American soldiers and horribly abused civilians; the United States bombed and burned their cities. In his masterly account of the climax of the conflict against Japan, “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45,” Hastings suggests a kind of perversion of the golden rule. Combatants who brutalize their enemy will be brutalized in return, or, in Hastings’s rather delicate phrasing, “It has been suggested ... that few belligerents in any conflict are so high-minded as to offer to an enemy higher standards of treatment than that enemy extends to them.”

Other authors, especially John Dower, have shown that race added a nasty edge to the Pacific war. Hastings memorably quotes the way the British general Sir William Slim captured the mood of the time: the Japanese soldier, Slim said, “is the most formidable fighting insect in history.” The Americans’ racial hatred was no less harsh. Returning to Hawaii from combat on Iwo Jima, some marines paraded in front of Japanese-Americans, waving a Japanese skull and taunting, “There’s your uncle on the pole.”

But Hastings rejects moral equivalency. Defending the use of the atom bomb, he essentially argues that by the cruel logic of war, the Japanese beckoned fate. “War is inherently inhumane,” he writes, “but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy.” Sadism by the Japanese was not occasional but institutional. Prisoners of war and civilian internees were starved, bayoneted, beheaded, raped and, in some cases, vivisected.

The Japanese were careless even with the lives of their own troops. The Japanese Navy, unlike the American Navy, had no search and rescue for downed fliers, and so lost hundreds of experienced aviators. Militarists twisted the ancient samurai code of Bushido into a sick cult of death. The Japanese were supposed to wish for death over surrender, and as the war went on, the Americans accommodated them. After Japanese prisoners tried to sabotage American submarines, the subs stopped picking them up, and soon most United States ships refused to rescue Japanese in the water, except to pick up an occasional “intelligence sample.” Since surrender was considered shameful, any Americans who had given themselves up were deemed to have lost their honor and thus “forfeited fundamental human respect.”

In 1942, the Japanese prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, was told nothing of the Japanese Navy’s defeat at Midway until weeks after the event. “Faced with embarrassment,” Hastings writes, “Japanese often resort to silence — mokusatsu.” By the summer of 1944, the Japanese were beaten but refused to accept defeat. When the first kamikazes flew that October, Japanese pilots vied for the honor of killing themselves (though their enthusiasm waned over time). Such ritualized suicide chilled the Americans. “I could imagine myself in the heat of battle where I would perhaps instinctively take some sudden action that would almost surely result in death,” wrote Ben Bradlee, a young officer on a destroyer (and later the executive editor of The Washington Post). “I could not imagine waking up some morning at 5 a.m., going to some church to pray and knowing that in a few hours I would crash my plane into a ship on purpose.”

Japan’s madness brought out American ruthlessness. At Dugway Proving Ground in Utah in 1943, the Americans built a small Japanese village, complete with straw tatami mats, to prove how easily and quickly it could be burned. “The panic side of the Japanese is amazing,” William McGovern, an intelligence analyst in the Office of Strategic Services, told a Washington planning meeting in September 1944. Fire “is one of the great things they are terrified at from childhood.” The policy of Gen. Curtis LeMay of the 20th Bomber Command was simple: “Bomb and burn ’em till they quit.” On the night of March 9, 1945, the B-29 pilot Robert Ramer recorded in his diary: “Suddenly, way off at about 2 o’clock, I saw a glow on the horizon like the sun rising or maybe the moon. The whole city of Tokyo was below us stretching from wingtip to wingtip, ablaze in one enormous fire with yet more fountains of flame pouring down from the B-29s. The black smoke billowed up thousands of feet, causing powerful thermal currents that buffeted our plane severely, bringing with it the horrible smell of burning flesh.” Around 100,000 people died; a million were rendered homeless.

LeMay has gone down in history as a Dr. Strangelove figure who advocated bombing North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” But Hastings notes that the responsibility for methodically incinerating Japan more properly lies with civilian commanders from Roosevelt and Churchill on down, including the genteel secretary of war Henry Stimson, who fretted over slaughtering civilians but did not stop it. “The material damage inflicted ... by LeMay’s offensive was almost irrelevant,” Hastings notes, “because blockade and raw-material starvation had already brought the economy to the brink of collapse.” The fire bombings’ real purpose was terror, to break the Japanese will to resist. That took some doing; two atom bombs in August were barely enough. Die-hard militarists tried to stage a coup rather than permit the emperor to surrender. Hastings convincingly argues that the atom bombs were necessary, though he regrets that the Americans did not first offer warning.

Hastings is a military historian in the grand tradition, belonging on the shelf alongside John Keegan, Alistair Horne and Rick Atkinson. He is equally adept at analyzing the broad sweep of strategy and creating thrilling set pieces that put the reader in the cockpit of a fighter plane or the conning tower of a submarine. But he is best on the human cost of war. He describes an American soldier’s bewilderment on reading the diary found on a dead Japanese soldier during the bloody battle of Manila. The Japanese soldier “wrote of his love for his family, eulogized the beauty of a sunset — then described how he participated in a massacre of Filipinos during which he clubbed a baby against a tree.” Americans were shocked by the Japanese massacre of civilians in Manila. After a month of constant bombardment, the United States Army left much of the city in rubble.

Evan Thomas, an editor at large at Newsweek, is the author of “Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945.”

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