Fogs of War
War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Douglas J. Feith. Harper. 674 pages; black-and-white photographs; index; $27.95.
Reviewed by Derek Leebaert
Douglas Feith served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001 until summer 2005. This role placed him at the center of decisions that lie behind America’s current di-lemma in the war on terrorism, one that includes unsustainable troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody recently testified. The purpose of Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, is to explain the reasoning behind those judgments, the achievements that followed, as well as the causes of the mistakes now familiar. Afghanistan is secondary to this account, as it has been in practice to the U.S. military effort since America began gearing up for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Few men in history, Feith explains, “had a record of aggression to match” Saddam Hussein’s. By 2003, a U.N. “containment” strategy of economic sanctions and weapon inspections was failing; backed by Congress, the Clinton administration had already determined the tyrant had to be ousted; a CIA “coup option” had proved disastrous after the Gulf War; Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) “programs” and had used chemical weapons horrifically against Iran and his own subjects; he was firing virtually daily at U.S. and British aircraft patrolling Iraq’s allied-mandated no-fly zone; and he maintained ties to foreign terrorists, including “anti-Israel suicide bombers.” All took on a new appearance and greater urgency after 9/11, Feith makes clear, as U.S. officials “searched their souls” for answers.
Weighing this evidence against America’s newly recognized vulnerabilities, a reluctant President—trying to devise every sensible way to resolve the problem short of war—finally concluded it was too dangerous to wait for Saddam to make the next move. To his mind, there was no doubt Saddam intended to “dominate the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East.” Once that inevitable thrust occurred, at a time and place of the dictator’s choosing, Baathist Iraq would be equipped with even better “conventional and WMD capabilities, along with the prohibited long-range missiles (or, possibly, terrorist alliances) to deliver them”—including nuclear devices and smallpox pathogens. In that event, an outraged American people (and “the same members of Congress who now criticize President Bush for going to war”) would then rightly condemn their President for having allowed Saddam to remain in power.
Feith’s dutifully sourced chronological narrative portrays coolly analytical deliberations among the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, intense interagency debate and immensely complex decisions alongside the most intricate calculations of risk. At the helm was Donald Rumsfeld, described by Feith as a defense secretary of “courageous and skeptical intellect.” From his office there issued a “blizzard” of “drop-everything-and-get-me-an-answer-immediately” memos that “on a typical day could be two dozen; some days it topped one hundred.” Rumsfeld’s deputy was Paul Wolfowitz, a “national security expert.” Both men were advised by a Defense Policy Board of authoritative consultants chaired by Richard Perle, “an impresario of intellectual cross-pollination” and “the hub of an extensive network of successful people.” All were committed to designing a strategy that would prevent another terrorist attack on the United States and that, along the way, might “promote democratic institutions in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.” Feith’s is a persuasive testimony about good faith in high office.
None of these officials believed war in Iraq would be easy, Feith insists. In October 2002, for instance, Rumsfeld himself drew up a grimly comprehensive list of possible calamities in the event of military action: war could entail more harm and greater costs than expected; reconstruction might take not two years but eight to 10; U.S. intervention might boost terrorist recruiting. No one, Feith reports, was driven by the notion that Saddam actually possessed WMD stockpiles; programs and intentions were dangerous enough. If Saddam did not actually have operational ties to al Qaeda, he surely enjoyed them with other troublemakers, such as extremist factions of the Palestinian resistance. Nor did anyone hold a compelling belief in promoting democracy. The Pentagon leadership cadre had colder eyes, we are told: Their purpose was to eliminate the core threat posed by Saddam’s expansive ambitions before it was too late.
This account has two key contradictions. First, if there was such prudently dispassionate decision making, why did these men and their compatriots in the White House all talk in an utterly different idiom to an American public somehow foolishly convinced that Saddam had culpability for 9/11, that “mushroom clouds” were imminent and that the Iraqi adventure would be swift and sharp—lasting “six days, six weeks,” at worst “six months,” as Rumsfeld assured U.S. troops a month before charging in?
Second, if there was such farsighted national security expertise and managerial competence, why did it lead to a tidal wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East; the Army spread thin; an enormous strengthening of a more potent rival, Iran; and, according to the principal deputy director of National Intelligence in May 2008, a regenerated al Qaeda that remains the leading terrorist threat worldwide? There is much talk of “strategy” in these 674 pages: Feith counseled the secretary on “defense strategy”; Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle were themselves each “strategists” of distinction. But it is difficult to see any of this activity as “strategy”—no bridges were built over the gap between policy and tactics, and no one here was alert to the longer term and wider deployment of our resources.
Feith ignores the first contradiction, that between the chin-stroking reflection he describes and the dogmatizing now well-known. None of Rumsfeld’s certitudes are mentioned. As a striking example of selective memory, there is no reference to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, nor to his February 2003 estimate that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required for postwar Iraq, let alone to his public rebuke by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, who concluded he was “far” and “wildly” off the mark. “Baloney,” the secretary added, when asked whether Iraq’s price tag could reach $300 billion, in yet another categorical assertion overlooked in War and Decision. Had Rumsfeld, with his idiosyncratic management style, done more to warn of potential calamity than creating a deft bureaucratic paper trail? We don’t know. All the unconnected dots signal to the reader that Feith’s contribution to history is a peculiar one.
As for the disappointments that followed invasion, Feith produces loads of explanations. Other than one small matter—recalling that “the insurgency was not anticipated”—no mistake had anything to do with the cerebral, savvy decision makers in the Pentagon, nor with the closely aligned Vice President who insisted it would all be “like the American Army going through the streets of Paris.” Instead, we encounter what has become the common lament of the men who were unequivocal for emergency action: The administration’s carefully considered policies were executed abysmally once Saddam’s statue was toppled in central Baghdad’s Firdos Square. But this is no assumption of responsibility. Blame is distributed everywhere except on Feith and his E-ring colleagues: to disloyalty and ineptitude at the State Department and CIA, to blundering at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the person of Gen. Tommy Franks, then to the foibles of Paul Bremer who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority, and finally to the “sloppy and tendentious journalism” of the American press. What results is a book unique in its degree of recrimination for a serious post-World War II American political memoir.
First in Feith’s hierarchy of failure is Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell is criticized throughout the book as unimaginative, as failing to grasp the essential issues of the Middle East. Feith also claims that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was undercutting the national interest. Feith says that Powell and Armitage were prone to “fret about the risk” of war. Feith notes that State Department personnel prefer taking diplomacy as far as possible. Perhaps there is another explanation why neither embraced “the conceptual, intellectually ambitious, strategic talk” that, Feith tells us, “Rumsfeld brought into policy debates.”
Unlike the civilian cadre at DoD or the wise men on the Defense Policy Board or the President and Vice President, Powell and Armitage (who had completed three combat tours with the riverine/advisory forces in Vietnam) had each known combat. They possessed the fighting man’s perspective, as did Gen. Shinseki. Soldiers know that a war of this sort—not just conquest of a third-rate opponent in the field, but a war that required breaking and rebuilding a populous and ethnically complex oil-rich Arab state—would likely take a lot longer, be far messier and more disillusioning than it might seem at the start to less experienced men.
Second at fault, according to Feith, is the CIA and its “vague and ambiguous” director, George Tenet, described by Feith as only marginally less shaky than Powell. Feith insists that Tenet never directly challenged the administration’s premises for war, though Tenet sees fit to imply today that he was a dissenter throughout. (Tenet has his own memoir with allegedly “invented quotation” about Mr. Feith.) Beyond the tit for tat, Feith makes a solid if unoriginal case for the CIA’s shortcomings. Whether or not the agency was correct in distrusting the sinuous exile Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress whom Feith and Perle believed vital to Iraq’s political transition, the CIA stumbled over WMD and pretended—as Feith demonstrates well—that it possessed more information sources in Iraq than it actually had. But CIA failings are not news, and Feith, Perle and Wolfowitz (said to be labeled “an enemy” at Langley) knew its record. So did Powell and Armitage. Why, then, were Tenet’s own slam-dunk certainties and his organization’s conclusions decisively able to influence the Bush war cabinet? That, too, is unexplained.
Third faulted by Feith is Gen. Franks, a CENTCOM commander always in need of being pushed by Rumsfeld toward “more creativity and action,” malleable to a host of malign State and CIA influences and against adding a free Iraqi force of expatriates to his war plans as urged by Feith and Perle. Franks’ own memoir has its unpleasantness about Feith, and here the general is repaid in kind. But more significant is Feith’s casual observation as to how Franks came into line: After doubts among policymakers as to whether or not he “kept his job,” we are reassured that the combatant commander soon thereafter began to offer “eager cooperation on almost any matter Rumsfeld signified as important.”
Fourth in Feith’s litany of blame is Paul Bremer, who also writes unflatteringly about Feith in a memoir and now, in War and Decision, is reviled for having foolishly “aligned himself with the views prevailing at State and CIA,” for having “objected philosophically” to DoD plans for Iraq’s political reconstruction and ultimately for personally bringing about America’s “self-inflicted wound” of a protracted occupation. Bremer knew nothing about Iraq, nor much about the Middle East, as the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head acknowledges in his own book (not that any of the Pentagon appointees did either). Feith builds on the admission to create another case of disloyalty and ineptitude.
Finally, the usual suspects in the press are singled out—the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and television networks—with journalists named individually for hasty conclusions, incivility and, shockingly, for refusing to admit their mistakes. Feith is additionally astonished that the press readily served as a conduit for State and CIA leaks in the bureaucratic battling with DoD—leaking apparently never having emanated from senior Pentagon officials except, as Feith charges, from Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who “stated her case antagonistically” while at “loggerheads” with him over the difference between Defense Department news and psy-ops propaganda.
The finger-pointing can be snide: Bremer is said never to have read parts of his own memoir; other writers “think that reading The New Yorker is research.” It is a tone that obscures several of Feith’s valuable corrections to the record, such as refuting the common belief that fully prepared State Department plans for creating a free, prosperous Iraq were torpedoed by Pentagon policymakers. Submerged as well by all the score settling is a cogent argument: The correct U.S. role may well have been to provide assistance to a new sovereign Iraqi government promptly after the conquest, as America was doing in Afghanistan, rather than having U.S. officials set themselves up as rulers of Iraq for the 14 months of the CPA and getting America itself blamed for the accumulating disasters. In any event, apparently no one anywhere (at least on our side), Feith claims, was bothering with contingency planning.
Feith writes with authority about warfare along the Potomac. We are taken deep into the minutiae of government, the functioning of the national security apparatus, the arbitrary appointments process of well-connected men and women who arrive in lofty office. As for confusions along the Tigris and Euphrates, Feith is less helpful. War and Decision shares the deficiencies of all the memoirs by Iraq war architects, and thereby opens the window a bit wider to reveal where America went wrong.
For example, decisions were made with minimal understanding of history, and, in his own use of history, Feith is equally oblivious to differences of time, place and people. He points to how, after 1945, America swiftly helped to reconstruct Europe and to redeem Nazi Germany and militarist Japan. (Each, it might be added, was a disciplined warrior nation, without religious or ethnic faction, that had known how to submit to overwhelming force without tearing itself apart in anarchic carnage.) To that end, Feith suggests, a similar feat could surely be pulled off in the heart of the Middle East. Reaching back further, he reminds us of such “success stories” as Britain’s naval suppression of piracy and of the slave trade in centuries past—as if a world of musketry and months-long voyages at sea is an operational guide to an interconnected world with six billion people and 24-hour CNN and Al Jazeera. His views on history are presented in the light of gross similarities, rather than in light of telling, dangerously particular differences—but with a sincerity that, when briefing a President or dueling in National Security Council staff meetings, just might make these sorts of arguments persuasive, as long as the audience is equally blinkered.
In a further misunderstanding of history, Feith draws repeatedly on the Cold War principle of “containment” to describe the porous, clumsy means by which the United States and the U.N. confronted Saddam in the 1990s. But he gets the concept wrong and doesn’t comprehend why it proved effective in far more dangerous showdowns with the truly world-class evildoers of the Soviet empire. Sanctions alone are not containment, though they may be a start. Pressures that are no more than paper, such as “oil for food,” are not containment. Containment as exercised against Moscow triumphed because America buttressed the nations on which the Soviet Union tried to encroach; Americans won the hearts and minds of people on the periphery, namely Europe and Japan. And, when Washington finally got serious about sanctions during the early Reagan years, they were imposed rigorously: European companies were shut out of U.S. markets for attempting to thwart the President’s embargo on oil and gas pipeline equipment and drilling technologies. Sanctions ultimately worked, but only as one formidable element of a comprehensive strategy that included practical steps to delegitimize an often reckless adversary that could have inflicted more devastation in a single bad afternoon than all the world’s terrorists could do in all their lifetimes.
Feith clearly recognizes that winning minds (with hearts hopefully to follow) in the battle of ideas is vital to success in the current struggle. It can stem recruiting of young people by massacre-makers eager to inflict another atrocity. A powerful theme of this book is that the United States has failed in the ideological aspect of the war on terror. Resources and message have been inadequate; no office in the U.S. government has been well suited to push back against al Qaeda propaganda. But Feith is compelled to go further. “Jealous as Powell and Armitage always were of their department’s ‘turf,’” he insists, neither man “saw the philosophical dimension of the war as particularly important.” Gratuitously, in his eyes, the two of them chose to forego the important mission that State should have led.
American ideals of democracy and all-around decency, however, need to be conveyed unambiguously. Minds are unlikely to be won by the floundering policies illuminated in War and Decision and the startling ignorance among top officials employed to work the issues. (“I think the ethnic differences … are there but they’re exaggerated,” Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz avowed about Iraq in a Pentagon transcript two weeks before invasion.) Feith bears responsibility for unending reversals in that battle of ideas in at least two significant ways.
One involves the new rules about interrogation techniques that went against long-standing U.S. military practice as presented in Field Manual 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Collector Operations. Feith was a key architect of these as well, yet he devotes numerous pages to describing how he championed legal arguments promoting respect for the Geneva Conventions and recommending “humane treatment for all detainees.” The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, for instance, is once again condemned as the actions of a few bad eggs completely uninfluenced by broader policies of the administration. Feith cites his personal reassurance on the rule of law to Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, whose impassioned arguments to apply the Geneva structure to Taliban and al Qaeda detainees (as urged by the military lawyers in the office of the judge advocate general) were to be stymied. All sounds reasonable, except that Geneva, as Feith interpreted it, did not apply to al Qaeda fighters because they were not part of a state; Geneva did apply to the Taliban, but by Geneva’s own terms Taliban fighters weren’t entitled to POW status. (They had not worn uniforms.) The intended result was to create a legal black hole: Geneva’s constraints on interrogation could not be invoked by anyone at Guantanamo. The principled legal arguments emphasized in War and Decision turn out to be a fig leaf.
For a country long known to lead the world on human rights, a dismal result includes the nauseating and very publicly available interrogation log of Mohamed al Kahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker of the 9/11 conspiracy. Leaked to the press three years ago, it is available worldwide and is part of the mosaic of evidence that undercuts America’s valuable tradition—in all engagements since World War II—of giving all prisoners the status that they would be entitled to under the Conventions, in other words, humane treatment. As Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, U.S. Army retired, former commander of Coalition forces in Iraq, notes in his new memoir, the administration’s decisions about Geneva in which Feith was instrumental “constituted a watershed event in U.S. military history,” providing the policy guidance that “set America on a path toward torture.”
The second way that the country has worked against itself in trying to capture opinion in Muslim lands was for the administration to eschew any serious mediating role in the Middle East’s most septic conflict. We learn that “Powell said the biggest thing the United States could do to counter ideological support for terrorism was to push diplomatically to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and counter the appearance of U.S. bias toward Israel.” Feith dismisses this conclusion as characteristically naïve and the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians as tertiary to more pressing U.S. concerns. He dodges the problem of perceived bias other than to note blandly America’s interest in Israel’s security. Nothing is included about his longtime and very public endorsement—whether in or out of government—of expanding Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or Rumsfeld’s jocular 2002 press conference remarks, as the second Palestinian uprising flamed, about “settlements in various parts of the so-called occupied area.” These opinions are starkly at odds with established U.S. policy, highlighted most recently by President Bush’s April 2008 announcement as he prepared to return to belated negotiations: “A Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration: a viable state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese.” But time has been lost, a prime obstacle to a peace deal (the growing settlements) has been strengthened and Washington is again regarded by the belligerents as talking and behaving inconsistently.
The achievement that shines through this foggy memoir is the fact that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack. To Feith, this is due to the administration’s vigorous, focused offensive to fight terrorism worldwide—at the core of which has been the unavoidable war to remove Saddam Hussein and his psychopath sons. It is a success built on the foundation laid by Rumsfeld and his aides at the dawn of this long war, in tandem with a White House able to rapidly turn concept into action. Other explanations are not considered, such as Washington finally paying attention to the bare basics of internal security (for example, cross-referencing visas and sharing data among the intelligence services), nor is the possibility entertained that al Qaeda’s scope, if not its savagery, has been overblown. No thought is given to the elementary trade-offs of costs and benefits fundamental to strategy. Seven months into the Iraq War, Rumsfeld asked Feith a poignant question: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring … more terrorists every day than the madrasses and the radical clerics are recruiting?” It, too, goes unanswered.
But that was then and this is now. War and Decision obliges readers to consider what a “national security expert” and politically appointed “strategists” might actually be. Again the nation has encountered “the best and brightest,” the iconic term placed on the country’s national security decision makers of a generation ago, such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser Mc-George Bundy, who had all the answers to all of the questions about Vietnam. In War and Decision, we have a true to life, though unintended, portrait of men and women also not knowing what they did not know, who appear to have been in the grip of that most dangerous of illusions—that they have no illusions at all.
DEREK LEEBAERT teaches foreign policy at Georgetown University and is a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Army Historical Foundation. His books include To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda and The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Shapes Our World.
‘Retributive Justice’ in the Tide of War
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. Max Hastings. Alfred A. Knopf. 619 pages; maps; black-and-white photographs; index; $35.
Reviwed by Col. Stanley L. Falk
The final year of World War II in the Pacific and east Asia was the most violent and bloody period of that entire far-ranging conflict. The months from mid-1944 to August 1945 witnessed costly physical struggles in the Marianas, Palaus and Philippines; on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa; the huge New Guinea landmass; and the great battlefields of China, Burma and Manchuria. There was almost constant fighting on land, sea and in the air: If combat ended in one area, or had yet to begin, this was balanced by intense clashes in another. Those punishing engagements brought a shocking increase in casualties and general destruction.
Deadly aerial warfare was a steady companion to fighting on the ground. The great air-sea battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf and the dreaded kamikaze suicide attacks added further to the carnage. Air and submarine operations took an increasing toll on shipping, blockading Japan’s home islands and threatening to starve its citizens. Deaths among military and civilian prisoners of the Japanese continued apace. And overshadowing all this fighting and dying was the massive American strategic bombing offensive, blasting and burning to the ground some 60 Japanese cities, killing more than 200,000 civilians and finally delivering the powerful atomic strikes that ended the war.
Retribution is a broad, sweeping examination of that tumultuous year of war. It is not a straightforward detailing of everything that happened, but rather an impressionistic view: full of facts, figures, personalities and fascinating anecdotes but eschewing comprehensive coverage of the course of each military campaign. Author Sir Max Hastings, as he explains, sought “to portray a massive and terrible human experience … rather than to revisit the detailed narrative[s]” compiled by others. Hastings “focuses upon how and why things were done, what it was like to do them, and what manner of men and women did them.” In this endeavor, he succeeds very well.
Hastings chose the title Retribution to reflect his belief that Japan’s fate was “retributive justice” for starting the war and for the pain and suffering it inflicted on its victims. His indictment of Japanese war crimes and atrocities underscores this conclusion.
Hastings is a London-based former foreign correspondent, editor and TV documentary presenter. He has witnessed and reported on conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Falklands. The author of 18 books on military history and current events, he offers Retribution as a “counterpart” to Armageddon, his earlier volume on the final year of the war against Germany.
Hastings has done impressive research in archival collections and published histories and has used interviews—many of which he conducted himself—with veterans in those countries that fought the war. His writing is clear, dramatic and fast moving. His narrative and analysis are absorbing, often critical but also compassionate, with interesting insights and observations. Good maps and a useful appended chronology complement the text. Retribution, however, is not without minor errors and oversimplifications and, despite extensive endnotes, sources for much of the material are not indicated. This may bother the specialist, but the general reader will be pleased, informed and entertained by this master storyteller.
Hastings’ account focuses on the individuals who planned, directed and fought the war. He examines the roles and personalities of “one of the most extraordinary galaxies of leaders, military and political, the world has ever seen.” He is critical of most of them, especially Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose many faults and weaknesses, according to Hastings, far outweighed his “theatrical powers” and charisma. Hastings does have a few kind words for Gen. Joseph Stilwell and Adm. Chester Nimitz, but the one person for whom he has undiluted praise is then-Lt. Gen. William Slim, commander of the British 14th Army, which inflicted a decisive defeat on the Japanese in Burma.
Most of the people Hastings introduces are enlisted men and junior officers. Their testimonies—from personal interviews, oral histories, letters and memoirs—lay bare the experiences, emotions and reactions of those caught up in the tide of war. They constitute the heart and theme of Retribution and bring immediacy to its narrative.
A small American infantry patrol blundered into a Japanese position. One of the men recalled listening to the enemy “jabbering” and realizing that they were hearing “some pretty scared Japanese boys looking for reassurance that they were not alone.” Elsewhere, at the same time, a Japanese lieutenant noted that his soldiers had “become very weak, and only half … are physically fit … the majority are suffering from fever.”
At sea, a sailor was engulfed in flames after a kamikaze attack, but when his shipmate rushed to pull him out of the fire, “part of his arm came off.” A Marine on Iwo Jima was asked by a corpsman “to hold a man’s protruding intestines,” which he treated with sulfa powder and “then pushed them back into his abdomen.” After a naval battle, a sailor likened “seeing dead Japanese in the water” to “making love to a beautiful girl.”
During an unpopular and dangerous “mopping up” operation, an Australian infantryman wrote home that “living on your nerves in mud and rain, sleeping in holes in the ground wears a fellow down.” Another later remembered the “terrible sadness and compassion” of seeing another soldier break down under the strain, “holding his hands and guiding him” to safety.
A Russian sapper recalled attacking in the midst of a torrential rain in Manchuria: “It was the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen … the lightning caused us to lose our night vision, our sense of direction—and lit us up for the enemy.” Elsewhere, a young Manchurian woman witnessed widespread looting and rape by invading Russian soldiers. “My parents hid me for weeks … I was never allowed out of the house,” she said.
A woman caught in the horror of the great Tokyo fire raid recounted later how she had “watched people die before my eyes. I saw people burning.” She described those burned and shriveled by the flames as looking “like dead leaves.”
Weaving such personal stories and recollections into his absorbing narrative, Hastings examines the course of the war across the Pacific and east Asia. There is much that is unfamiliar to American readers in his descriptions of events in Burma, China, Manchuria and the bypassed areas of the south and southwest Pacific. Burma, for example, was largely a British show, really a “sideshow,” as Hastings terms it, to other, more critical campaigns, and there were serious British-American differences on what, if anything, should be attempted there. China, too, was less important in determining the outcome of the war, other than tying down large numbers of Japanese troops—which, by the final year of that conflict, could not have been redeployed elsewhere anyway. Hastings’ critique of the roles and activities of Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, along with that of Mao Tse-tung, is both interesting and instructive. In like manner, Hastings introduces new information about Mao’s relations with the Soviets and their support and nonsupport of his operations.
The difficult role of Australian forces in the war has not been widely appreciated or understood in the United States. This was largely because MacArthur kept unpublicized their key operations in the early years and then, in the final year, assigned them to unimportant, yet hazardous, rear-area mopping-up operations, generally without notice by the American press. Hastings describes the difficult impact of this situation on Australian troop morale and, at home, on the Australian political scene. Given the essential Australian military contributions in other theaters, writes Hastings, “it was a tragedy that in their own hemisphere the wartime experience was poisoned by domestic strife and battlefield frustration.”
A key chapter in Retribution describes the horrifying, brutal fates of those military personnel and civilians unfortunate enough to fall into Japanese captivity. It is on these “extraordinary refinements of inhumanity” by the Japanese toward “those thrown upon their mercy” that Hastings’ belief in retributive justice is essentially based. It is also why he supports, not without some criticism, the strategic bombing campaign against Japan and why he believes that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was essential to stopping the war when it did and sparing the lives of thousands of others, including Japanese. “The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway,” writes Hastings, “has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence.”
Retribution is thus a fascinating look at the human dimensions of the war against Japan, presented in colorful and absorbing prose that accentuates Hastings’ strong opinions on many of its aspects and his impressive interpretation of the key factors that shaped its course and outcome.
COL. STANLEY L. FALK, AUS Ret., Ph.D., is a military historian and author of five books on World War II in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.