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Book Review: Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings

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While men were dying or struggling on battlefields or on the seas for sheer survival, the inflated egos of some top brass American generals became even more bloated in the Pacific war against Japan. Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 reveals that it became General Douglass MacArthur’s overwhelming intent to free the Philippines rather than wage war against mainland Japan.

This latter route was suggested by other Pacific generals who believed that once the lifeline to the outlying Japanese troops was destroyed, there would be no need to island hop — a costly move in both materials and human lives. MacArthur had been chased out of the Philippines. His “I will return” statement became his obsession; indeed, he must return to liberate the Philippine Islands in order to maintain his ego as the Great General.

It appeared that even President Roosevelt was overwhelmed by the mystique of General MacArthur. According to Retribution, when Roosevelt, and Nimitz, met in Hawaii with MacArthur, the crux of their dialogue was between Roosevelt and MacArthur who returned to his command triumphant he had sold his idea of launching war into the Philippines.

According to Retribution, the Japanese began to realize the futility of extending their line of conquest any farther. Where the United States had an overwhelming advantage in raw materials to produce weapons of war, the Japanese had a shrinking disadvantage due to the effective blockade of her ports. Evidence shows that supplying their established line of offense/defense, so distant from the mainland, had become a realized impossibility. Yet, any talk of compromise or retreat was impossible for the Yamaha warrior. He either wins in battle or dies.

Japanese fighters were terrifying and savage in their hurried conquests. From early childhood, Japanese youth were brainwashed to believe they were the greatest race, a nation so superior that all bushido fighters would want only to give their lives for the fatherland. They would endure hardship, sickness, starvation — any pain or agony to achieve the status of a warrior who had fought the enemy — any non-Japanese people. They would follow orders in mokusatsu – silence.

In a very real sense, a single life, or thousands for that matter, was only worthwhile as long as a warrior could be the aggressor in battle on land or at sea; any position less than that was shameful. Surrender was never an option; death — whether imposed by the enemy or by a warrior’s own hand — was the honorable way to die. “See you at the Yasukuni Shrine,” was oft said among warriors as they embarked in battle. Yasukuni was a shrine for fallen Japanese heroes.

As a result, throughout World War II, the Japanese combatant appeared eager to die, “the most formidable fighting insect in history.” This was the praiseworthy end to life. Allied soldiers, on the other hand, believed life was so precious that even the life of a single man should never be wasted. So on all Eastern battlefronts there were literally two opposing philosophical forces—preservation of life at all costs versus a desire to die to reach Yasukuni. It is no wonder that early in the war, Japanese warriors quickly overran peoples trying to escape the savagery of kamikaze warrior zeal.

How could the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war be in any way humane? Prisoners were treated as a subhuman species who had surrendered to survive without honor. With barely enough to live, prisoners were forced into slave labor wherever possible. The railroad ties of the Burma Railroad were tantamount to the number of lives lost by prisoners struggling to build it.

No real match for the industrialized Allied nations, the Japanese had counted on two winning strategies to take place.
1) Allied forces would become so involved battling Hitler’s Nazi forces in the West that they could not engage a second war to stop Japan’s Eastern conquests.
2) Once a second war commenced, the Japanese would make it so viciously costly in lives lost or mutilated, and supplies destroyed, that the American public would have no stomach for it.
In both instances, the Japanese were catastrophically wrong.

Retribution ends with author Max Hastings’ claim that modern Japan is “guilty of a collective rejection of historical fact.” Although the ideology existed that the Japanese people were superior to any other humans on the planet, it is unacceptable today to continue to believe such attractive superiority with ceremonial remembrances that ennoble and glorify the notorious killers of that savage wartime generation.

Like the Nazis, Hastings claims the Japanese will remain outcasts in the eyes of countless people worldwide until, as a nation, it openly admits to new generations of children it deserved the Retribution inflicted by the Allies because of an abhorrent inhuman past war philosophy.

WWII will forever fascinate me because I was too young to fight for my country. I often wonder if I would have had the courage to perform my duty as an Allied Warrior. As a result, Retribution fascinated me more than just a small amount. Since it is written so descriptively well from factual data collected by Max Hastings, finishing the book was an emotional experience for me. When I think of all the men and women who gave their lives, and their bodies — and in many cases, body parts — to stop the heinous crimes committed by the Japanese in Orient, I can only bow to them and say “Thank You!”

This book receives my highest recommendation to readers of any age who dare to see first-hand what a twisted ideology can do to dehumanize people. Looking back at my own youth during those years and my nightly fear that although Japan was thousands of miles away I might still be bombed, probably seems like a fairytale. Retribution will show today’s youth how dangerous and realistic that fairytale was.

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