Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Max Hastings' Nemesis

Just finished reading a second Max Hastings book -- this time focusing on the battle for Japan during the last years of World War II. And though I understand there's criticism out there about Hastings' assumptions and some nit-picking about how he cites sources, once again I come away from Hastings' book in wonderment at it all.

If anyone, and I mean anyone, tries to tell you that war is a good and a pretty thing, have them read this book. Hastings doesn't shy away from revealing the horrors of war. That's maybe a common thing from modern WWII scholars, but Hastings picks his events carefully, I think, to maximize their effect as he ties them in historically with other events and happenings. The events he describes are not there for the sake of gory description, but rather to drive home his point that while the bad guys may do terrible things, the good guys aren't necessarily stopped from doing bad things either. Ironically, he sums up something Adolf Hitler said about totalitarianism: "The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it."

I've long had an interest in reading WWII history. I grew up with stories from my Dad, who saw World War II as a civilian in the Netherlands. That means, of course, I've concentrated on the European theater. Hastings' Nemesis is the first major work I've read that concentrates on the Pacific theater. He's definitely piqued my interest. Not because I want to read about Mac Arthur, or to revel in the exploits of the U.S. Navy -- though the Navy's accomplishments are legion -- but because Hastings touches on several aspects of Americanism that I find fascinating.

First -- and I see this in myself especially -- we tend to want to see the good in people. Take Chaing Kai-shek, for example. Not necessarily the nicest guy in the world. But because he was nationalist rather than Communist, we as a nation embraced him with open arms. When that happens, we like to think of "our guy" wearing a white hat, when, in reality, whenever we may be in his presence, we really ought to be holding our noses, because the white hat is pretty tainted.

Second, Hastings brings out the American psyche in wartime: Thinking that overwhelming technological superiority is going to win it for us. He writes:
The outcome of the Pacific conflict persuaded some Americans that they could win wars with relatively small human cost, by the application of their country's boundless technological ingenuity and industrial recources. The lesson appeared to be that, if the US possessed based from which it warships and aircraft dcould strike at the land of an enemy, victories could be gained by the exenditure of mere treasure, and relatively little blood.
We've seen time and again how this doesn't work -- we seem to forget about the human element, howthe "liberatees" will regard the "liberators," not realizing that they won't regard us all as wearing the white hat. Just food for thought there, I suppose.

Hastings writes a fine balance of praise and scorn for the nations involved in the conflict. Especially interesting is his treatment of the hand-wringing over using nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He does not belittle the suffering of those who died in those horrific attacks -- nor do I -- but he does illustrate them in the context of everything else -- including atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict -- to show how they fit into the general picture. He also makes this interesting and pertinent assertion:
Not only does the use of the atomic bombs seem to have been justified in the circumstances prevailing in August 1945, but I am among those convinced that the demonstration of nuclear horror, and the global revulsion which it provoked, has contributed decisively towards preserving the world since. If the effects of nuclear attack had not been demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is overwhelmingly likely that in the Cold War era, an American or Russian leader would have convinced himself that the use of atomic weapons could be justified.
I agree with that assertion. What was a demonstration in 1945 would have been mass slaughter on a global scale even five or ten years later.

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