Tears in the Darkness
Reviewer: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 18 Jul 2011
Full Title: Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath
In the opening months of the Pacific War, the Japanese forces seemed to be unstoppable. On the mere opening days of the offensive, Japan crushed key Allied defenses at battlefields across the distances of thousands of miles, and then the ground invasion came. Among the invasion sites was the main island of Luzon in the Philippine Islands, where Ben Steele of the United States Army Air Corps was serving. As the American and Filipino forces were defeated and captured Steele endured the Bataan Death March, transit via a hell ship, and a forced labor camp. Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman was a biography of Steele, and in extension the stories of figures important in the events of his war time experience.
Interestingly, my thoughts on this book were nearly polar opposites.
On one hand, the authors did a great job with the telling of the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands; from the perspective of the enlisted men of both sides, nonetheless. Unlike most authors who told of the simple story of gallant but yet hopeless American and Filipino defense and the invincibility of the Japanese soldier in the early phases of the war, the authors made note of the American material superiority (in both quality and quantity) and several Japanese soldiers' recollection of having to conquer their fear of death and finding courage. Furthermore, their mention of the sufferings of war in Asia having begun in 1931 was refreshing. The telling of the experiences in Japanese captivity, which was the bulk of the book, was harrowing. While terms like "Bataan Death March" and "Hell Ships" had long since become faceless, Michael Norman and Elizabeth Norman successfully re-associated names to the sufferings, reminding us that thousands of individual human beings suffered and died in the most inhumane circumstances. While the authors told of the horrors of hunger, disease, beatings, and men simply giving up their wills to live, they also told the glimpses of hope for human kind, through the Americans prisoners who selflessly gave up their own chances of survival so that others might live, and through the Japanese guards who risked severe punishment to sneak food and medicine to the prisoners. Within this book about the darkest corners of the human conscience, the authors also successfully provided the light of our greatest capacity.
On the other hand, the authors' presentation of the opposing generals, Douglas MacArthur and Masaharu Homma, left me wonder whether they had set out on a project in history or a project in politics. To be fair, having grown up in Asia, brought up in the age of the Cold War by those who fought against Japanese oppression, my respect for MacArthur had been ingrained deep within me, but nevertheless I understand the general had character flaws, megalomania and many other criticisms included. Given that, I still must say that I was rather disgusted by the outright personal attacks on MacArthur by the authors, some of which was not even consistent nor well supported, such as the accusation of MacArthur spreading false hope of reinforcements to his troops in early 1942 even though the authors shortly after noted it was Franklin Roosevelt who dispatched such information to MacArthur's command. Taking the soldiers' frustrated "Dugout Doug" rant as a matter of fact, against the man who bravely led men from the front in WW1 and personally flew over the front in the Korean War, did not provide credit for them as historians either. On the matter of General Homma, the authors maintained his absolute innocence in the atrocities. Michael and Elizabeth Normans positioned him nearly as a saint, victimized by the Americans and their unconstitutional ex post facto law. Their arguments that Homma's conscience was completely clear and he bore zero responsibility were rather peculiar, especially that it was written in the age (the book was published in 2009) where the Yamashita Standard had long since been codified in the Geneva Convention (since 1949). I suppose I expected this to come in the closing chapters even early in the book as I noted that the "tears of darkness", a phrase that became the title of the book, were actually written as shed by Homma which was interesting in itself on a book that was supposed to be about how an American survived atrocities dealt by his Japanese captors.
I reviewed the book in its audio book format. Michael Prichard had been, for a little bit now, my favorite narrator of audio books, and although I continued to be picky about Japanese pronunciation, something Prichard did not quite grasp, I found his reading to be superb as I expected. His singing of the American soldiers' parody of Battle Hymn of the Republic and the songs typically sang by "Tokyo Rose" broadcasters, for example, reflected that he had done his research in finding out the tunes to the lyrics so that he could provide the listeners the additional dimension audio books offer when compared to the printed format.
A biography was, by definition, not truly a work of history. That said, Tears in the Darkness was mostly a biography of Ben Steele and those around him during the captive years thus could not truly be considered a work of history anyway. Nevertheless, while the authors wrote a most powerful account of human survival in the story of Ben Steele, I felt they did a disfavor to the study of WW2 in their opinionated presentation of MacArthur, Homma, and perhaps even modern military law. Yes, I would still highly recommend Tears in the Darkness for its well written account of the series of atrocities committed in the Philippine Islands and in Japan, but I would warn readers to prepare themselves to separate the interweaving fact and opinion in this book.
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