Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 14 Feb 2011
By 1944, the Japanese front lines in the Pacific were starting to crumble. Within the following year, American forces would invade Japanese WW2 conquests and pre-war Japanese territory alike, the British not only dulled the Japanese offensive into India but also struck deep into Burma, while the Soviet Union plotted to turn on Japan with which it had a non-aggression pact written and signed. Increasingly, the suffering of the citizens of the Japanese home islands went from material shortages to fires delivered from above. Max Hastings attempted to tell the story of the final two years of the war with Retribution, with it spanning a wide breadth, covering everything from military campaign overviews to the experiences of civilians.
Retribution was a large volume. The audio book edition that I had reviewed was 22 CDs in length, and a search on the web revealed that the hard cover edition was over 600 pages long. Although the sheer breadth covered prevented the author from diving into the details of any single event despite the size of the book, it was by no means a mere primer. Interviews conducted personified the war which might otherwise be impersonal; atrocities committed by Japanese and Soviet troops, for example, might be anonymous statistics if it was not for Hastings actually attaching names of those who were raped and murdered and those who survived only to relive the trauma in their nightmares. Being objective was one of the author's goals on this project, as he stated toward the end of the book, and he achieved it to a certain degree. While in hindsight he questioned the necessities of the Philippine campaign, the area bombing of Japanese cities, and the post-war trials against such generals as Homma and Yamashita, he also made sure to present the frame of mind of the decision makers during the 1944-1945 period, explaining why those decisions were rational given the information and circumstances. He also made sure to include the contributions of the British Royal Navy and the Australian Army, both of which played but a minor role in the war against Japan but did not deserve to be overlooked by history. He devoted entire chapters on the war fought by Nationalist China and how the war led to the rise of Communist China immediately after the war. Last but not least, his narration, while no Manchester, was nevertheless superb.
One of his several analyses involved a review of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan and the use of the atomic weapons. He justly presented both sides of the story, describing the devastating affect on Japanese morale, but at the same time questioning the actual need for such devastation as by 1945 Japan had been so thoroughly strangled that the Japanese people and industries were already on a certain course for starvation.
My only complaint about Hastings' work was his constant personal attack on MacArthur. He set out on this project with a goal of being objective when researching and writing, but yet when describing MacArthur, in addition to doing a good job presenting his analysis on MacArthur's shortcomings, he also used a great number of negative adjectives to describe the Supreme Commander. That gross inclusion of his personal opinion tainted his fine presentation of MacArthur.
The audio format of Retribution was read by Simon Vance. He did a most wonderful job reading the book; his pace and volume were both right on target. The pronunciation of certain Japanese words, however, irked me. Kyushu, for example, was repeatedly misread as "kai-you-shoe" (the correct reading should be sound closer to "cue-shoe"). The other misread name of a place was the city of Fukuoka (location of one of many prisoners of war camps, which I believed Vance read as "fu-kuo-ka" rather than the correct "fuku-oka", ie. separating the syllables at the wrong places. As usual, these did not take away from the value of the book, but it did bother me. As I had previously commented in earlier reviews of audio books with this same problem, could this not be avoided had the audio book production company simply paid a small fee to hire a consultant for one or two hours to coach the reader on how to read the few foreign words that appeared in the book?
Retribution was not a perfect book, some issues were pointed about above, while I also spotted a very small number of factual errors. Nevertheless, I believe Hastings still had done a great job and I would still recommend this well-written general history.
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