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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 08:51 12/20/2007
Book Review #83: December 3, 2007

"Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45" by Max Hastings

Reviewed by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Title: Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
Authors: Max Hastings
Language: English
Publisher: Harper Press
Date/Time: 2007
Pages: 673 pages including index, notes and bibliography
ISBN: ISBN-10: 0007219822 ISBN-13: 978-0007219827, 25


Sir Max Hastings, who was a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Evening Standard, is Britain's ablest war historian. This book which covers the death and destruction which accompanied the end of the war with Japan follows his account in Armageddon of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

This is not a dry description of battle strategy and tactics but a lively account of the various campaigns from Burma to Okinawa which led up to Japan's defeat. The author includes many 'human interest' stories which show what the battles were like to the participants on both the allied and Japanese sides. Heroism, cowardice, suffering, appalling injuries and cruel deaths all have their places in this often heart rending and moving book.

Hastings is frank about the defects and flawed personalities of many the politicians, admirals and generals involved. One of the few to emerge as both a good general and as a fine human being is General Slim who led British forces to victory in Burma. On the American side he praises in particular Admiral Nimitz. The flaws in the characters of both Mountbatten and MacArthur are exposed. I was well aware of the egotism and arrogance of MacArthur, but I had not realised that in the Philippines in March 1942 he accepted a gift of $500,000 from the Philippine treasury. Hastings says of him: "MacArthur displayed a taste for fantasy quite unsuited to a field commander, together with ambition close to megalomania."

MacArthur had no liking for the British and did not want British participation in the defeat of Japan. His views coincided with those of many other American leaders. The Americans would do nothing to assist the British, French or Dutch to recover their former possessions in South East Asia, tended to be contemptuous of the British fighting in Burma and expect the British simply to do as the Americans told them. Sir Esler Dening, as political adviser to Mountbatten towards the end of the war, once observed acidly: "I often think that we might on important occasions remind ourselves that we are not yet the 49th of the United States."

Hastings does not flinch from describing in some detail the atrocities which Japanese forces perpetrated in occupied areas of China and the contempt which Japanese soldiers so often showed the Chinese. These make the Nanking incident seem a preliminary to the horrors to come. But other occupied territories suffered equal cruelties. The people of Manila, for example, were barbarously treated by the Japanese when American forces retook the city. The Japanese maltreatment of prisoners of war is well known but some additional gruesome details are included in Hastings' account. But alas cruelty begets cruelty. After Japanese soldiers immolated themselves, if possible with one or more of their captors, it can hardly be surprising that allied forces took few prisoners. No pity was shown by General Curtis LeMay who planned and executed the US fire and high explosive bombing raids on Japanese cities which caused more death and destruction than the two atomic bombs. Hastings gives graphic accounts of how Japanese families suffered as a result of these raids and is careful to record instances of Japanese kindness as well as cruelty. He has pity for the young men who were brainwashed into the kamikaze suicide attacks. He notes that while these did cause serious casualties in the American fleet they made no difference to the outcome of the war.

Hastings gives graphic and absorbing accounts of battles such as those for Leyte, Iwojima and Okinawa. He tells us of the suicidal mission of the mammoth Japanese battleship Yamato. His account of the campaign in Burma brings out the horrors and the loneliness of the struggle. (It is a pity that he makes no mention of Louis Allen's epic account of the Burma campaign in Burma: The Longest War1941-45.)

Hastings is illuminating in his account of the failures and inadequacies of Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupiers. He is highly critical of Chiang Kai Shek and the nationalists, but he also reminds us that the Chinese Communists were more interested in winning power in China than in fighting the Japanese. His account of the Soviet part in the final defeat of Japan sheds light not only on the American attitude towards Soviet involvement but also on the fighting in Manchuria and the loot which the Soviets garnered.

Many readers will inevitably be engrossed by what Hastings has to say about the rationale for the dropping of the atomic bombs and their impact on the thinking of Japanese leaders. Hastings concludes: "Considering the plight of civilians and captives, dying in thousands daily under Japanese occupation, together with the casualties which would have been incurred had the Soviets been provoked into maintaining their advance across mainland China, almost any scenario suggests the far more people of many nationalities would have died in the course of even a few more weeks of war than were killed by the atomic bombs."

The lack of realism and appreciation of intelligence among Japanese military, naval and civilian leaders about what was possible for Japan in mid-1945 seems incredible to us today. It was not, of course, unknown in allied circles to doubt intelligence; MacArthur was often prone to believe only what he wanted to believe. But the Japanese leaders were far more inclined to wishful thinking and ignoring facts. Slim said that "while Japanese commanders were physically brave men, many were also moral cowards." Certainly the way in which for weeks and months after it should have been clear to any intelligent man that Japan was defeated and that the longer Japan waited the greater Japan and the rest of the world would suffer, Japan's leaders dithered and delayed, unable to take the courageous decision to accept defeat. The allied insistence on unconditional surrender was understandable but probably unwise. In fact the Potsdam declaration did contain words which clarified if they did not modify the meaning of unconditional surrender.

This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the tragedies of the war against Japan. It also ought to be read by Japanese historical revisionists who like Japan's war leaders refuse to face unpalatable facts.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society, UK)

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