This elegant, meticulously researched book is so important because it unites American military and strategic history with a rich understanding of the British side of the alliance and, even more impressive, of the political and strategic concerns of the Pacific dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Sarantakes provides compelling commentary on the summit meetings among Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and their chiefs of staff, during which they discussed British Commonwealth participation in the ultimate defeat of Japan. His narrative also incorporates the views of subordinate commanders such as General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral of the Fleet, 1st Earl Mountbatten, and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and keeps the reader informed of the military action in the Pacific.
The book sets out to answer three fundamental questions. First, why did Britain wish to participate in the defeat of Japan (although, as is made clear, Churchill was far less keen to do this than his chiefs of staff) ? Second, why did the Commonwealth nations, which had already sacrificed more than most countries of proportionate size, and with public opinion clamoring for demobilization, wish to contribute divisions to the assault on Japan ? And third, why did America agree to accept military units from these nations, especially when in most cases they would displace American ones that had greater firepower ?
The answers lie in the fact that Britain and the Commonwealth had vital interests in the Pacific and, for political reasons, were loathe to allow America to take all the credit for defeating Japan. To have done so - and this was the U.S administration's concern, too - would have been to turn American public opinion against Britain for not having pitched in, inflaming an already well-developed suspicion that Britain was only interested in getting its colonies back.
Furthermore, institutions such as the Royal Navy, a leading exponent of British involvement in the Pacific, realized the significance of becoming involved not only for prestige, but also to gain invaluable experience in a new type of naval warfare and to give Britain a voice in shaping postwar policy in the region. For the dominions, the answer was similar and closer to home. Participating in winning the Pacific war wasn't primarily about assisting the British Empire (though this, and its developing relations with an overbearing America, was certainly part of it) - it was mainly because the dominions were themselves Pacific nations and so needed to be involved in defeating Japan.
For America, the answer lay in its need of allies. Whatever the machinations of people such as Admiral Ernest King and the quite understandable military desire to have nothing to do with foreign forces that might prove a hindrance, political and military alliances were vital. Looking forward without the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the atomic bombs, the American public was bound to like the idea that its forces wouldn't be alone in confronting the deadly defenses of the Japanese homeland. Similarly, American servicemen facing the prospect of significant losses welcomed the support of Australian or British personnel. Throughout the war, the British Commonwealth had played a junior but vital role in fighting Japan, primarily in South Asia. Now, with the war in Europe ending and the assault on the Japanese home islands in sight, it was time to switch the weight of their effort to the Pacific, place their resources under American command, and take the incredible alliance between the British Commonwealth and America into a new postwar era.
The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern
Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. 272 pp. $25.
Reviewed by James Carey
This book is a collection of essays on a range of subjects designated by the subtitle, War and History, Ancient and Modern. Some of the essays were published previously and now appear in the collection in an expanded form. This is not up to the level of Hanson's best books, such as The Other Greeks, The Western Way of War, Carnage and Culture, and A War like No Other, all very fine works indeed. One problem is that The Father of Us All is a pastiche without a unifying theme, other than war itself.
Although it turns out that the best essays are at the end the book, the earlier ones don't build toward them. A more serious problem is that when treating contemporary issues, Hanson too often seems to be preaching to the choir - a conservative choir. They are hardly calculated to convert those who do not share the author's political convictions. And that's a pity, since his convictions are sound, and he is capable of arguing tightly for them.
In spite of the looseness of the book's organization and the uneven quality of the essays, Hanson makes a number of important points in a style eminently readable, spirited, and often eloquent. He rightly identifies the root cause of the American public's impatience with wars that don't proceed smoothly and end quickly: contemporary Americans and their elected officials have, by and large, little understanding of history in general, and little understanding of military history in particular. He notes that our generals and admirals have always made mistakes in the conduct of military operations, but he argues that they have also learned, and continue to learn, enough from their errors to make the adjustments necessary to achieve ultimate victory. This pattern has been the norm in the course of American military history. It appears to be playing itself out in Iraq and may do so in Afghanistan as well, if we do not become so frustrated with inevitable setbacks that we settle for something short of victory.
Regarding the invasion of Iraq, Hanson reminds us of the inconvenient truth that Saddam Hussein practiced genocide on a large scale against his fellow Iraqi Shiites and the Kurds. That fact alone should count, in the minds of doves no less than hawks, as a sufficient justification for toppling the Ba'athist regime and attempting to replace it with something less tyrannical and more humane.
Hanson points out that our interest in promoting constitutional government in Middle Eastern countries originates not only in an idealistic fondness for democracy, but in the sober conviction that democratic regimes are less likely to pose a threat to international peace than are autocratic ones. He attributes the mess in the Middle East to poverty, tribalism, endemic anger at modernity, envy of the West, and what he, like too many others, misnames "fundamentalism," the implication being that, were our present adversaries only to taste the blessings of political and religious liberty and economic prosperity, they would be easily won over to Western so-called "values." This misperception, shared by liberals and neo-conservatives alike, can be quickly disabused by a consideration of the reasoned and chilling case that Sayyid Qutb makes for Islamic Jihad and its goal of bringing the entire world under Shari'a law, by whatever means and at whatever cost it takes to do so.
Hanson has respect for the American military. He knows that it is our military, with "boots on the ground," that is involved not just in the rhetoric but in the actual task, grinding, laborious and dangerous, of winning hearts and minds, nation-building, and peacekeeping, while at the same time fighting an enemy determined to use our moral principles as a weapon against us. At times Hanson seems to be suggesting that these principles need to be modified, but he does not offer concrete suggestions as to how this might be done.
The Father of Us All contains some dubious assertions. Hanson speaks of 9/11 as the first major attack on the American homeland, overlooking the British attacks during the War of 1812. He calls Ulysses S. Grant "our greatest general" in the Civil War, without reference to the generalships of Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in achieving spectacular victories against much larger and better-equipped forces. Hanson refers to the "unnecessary surrender of Wake Island" at the beginning of our war with Japan, leaving the impression that the Marines there should have put up a stiffer resistance than they did, when their resistance was admirable in every respect.
He writes that Plato's Republic was the beginning of "never-never speculations" about utopias, though a close reading of that book reveals that it is as anti-utopian a work as has ever been written. Socrates argues that perfect political justice is simply not possible, not even in the ideal city that he constructs "in speech." And Socrates is just as convinced as Hanson is that wars will always be with us.
Like many classicists, Hanson dismisses the "philosophical pretentions" of Xenophon. But anyone who considers the studies of Xenophon undertaken by Leo Strauss and more recently by Christopher Bruell will quickly see that Xenophon was a philosopher of rare penetration and humanity, the superficial simplicity of his texts notwithstanding. That said, we must be grateful to Hanson for sharing with us his most important insight, which he surely gained from, or had reinforced by, his study of Thucydides - an insight much at odds with our postmodern delusions and dreams. Human nature is constant. Our great peril, now more than ever, lies "not in accepting that the innate nature of war lies in the dark hearts of us all, but rather in denying it."
Islands of Hell: The U.S. Marines in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945
Eric Hammel. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2010. 300 pp. Intro. Maps. Illus. Bib. Index. $50.
Reviewed by Hal Buell
The island-hopping campaign of World War II in the Pacific has, until recently, been under-represented by historians of the world's greatest conflict. Nostalgia seems to drive interest more to Europe, the seedbed of American culture, whereas the tongue-twisting names, the unrecognizable dots on seldom-used maps, and the mysterious histories of the Pacific's faraway places make it harder to connect with those events.
Historian and author Eric Hammel, however, has produced a long list of books on the Pacific theater of operations, most, but not all, focused on U.S. Marine Corps battles. His attention is deserved; more than 100,000 Americans perished there, and double that were wounded during the brutal Pacific campaign. Islands of Hell concentrates on the Marines during the final months of the war from June 1944, to the invasion and takeover of Okinawa.
He examines six assaults in words and pictures: Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Each chapter establishes the strategic purpose of the invasion, followed by a running narrative that chronicles Marine units as they battle their way from the invasion beach to the final conquest of each island. There is ample detail for the military buff but not so much as to discourage the lay reader. Maps also are provided, a general Pacific Ocean map and individual maps for each battle.
Hammel addresses several special points of interest. He covers the need for airfields and the Marine infantry's hard-bitten struggle to win them from the Japanese, who also realized their importance. Once airfields were in American hands, bombers could strike Tokyo. Also, Guam was a special prize for the Marines. It had been the first American territory to fall to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He does a good job with the Iwo Jima battle scenes, as he should. It was one of the Marine's bloodiest encounters and the single battle in which American casualties were greater than those of the Japanese. He examines the debates over whether Peleliu really should have been invaded in reasonable detail. And he covers the Okinawa battles by dividing them into three sections.
Hammel gives proper credit to the air and naval conflicts that were also part of the Pacific campaign, but his affection for the Marine Corps comes through in the narrative passages. This book is definitely about the Marines.
The format of Islands of Hell is similar to the author's previous volumes - a coffee-table book, containing hundreds of pictures buttressed by text and comprehensive captions. As with those other books, it is the pictures that provide special dimension. Photographs come from the files of the National Archives and Records Administration, various Marine Corps files, and the archives of Leatherneck magazine. They reveal the machines of war and the warriors who manned them. The reader sees the changing terrains that aided the Japanese fortifications. Hammel's captions are as vital to the book as the running narrative. With the photos, they provide detailed insight into the way the war was fought.
A number of effective picture portfolios are assembled and titled "Scenes from a Battle." They capture individual Marines slogging and slugging it out against a relentless enemy.
An aggressive design would have shown off the pictures better. Many of the photographs, some of them repetitive, result in a checkerboard design. Greater use of full-page and double-page layouts of single pictures would enhance the reader's experience. Fewer pictures would result, but sometimes less is more.
Readers of the present volume should also consider two of Hammel's previous books, both published by Zenith Press: Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle (paperback reissue, 2010) and Pacific Warriors: The U.S. Marines in World War II (2005).