On a May 2016 interview with The New York Times, Sebastian Junger was asked what books he most recommended for others to read on the subject of war. He suggested Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Dalton
Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Finally, he pointed to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, noting that “[Hemingway’s] recommendation ‘If we no longer have religion after the war then I think there must be some form of civic penance organized that all may be cleansed from the killing or else we will never have a true and human basis for living’ may be the single most insightful thing I have ever read about the consequences of war.”
I agree. I also believe we can now add Tribe to that list of required reading. Junger’s book carries the reader through a wild, penetrating, and difficult journey toward belonging. He delivers the reader not to the end of a story but to the beginning of a discussion about what happens to those who serve—after they come home. It is a very tough conversation that pertains to every American and indeed every community in the world that sends its people to war. Such a post-deployment debate is taking place, but it has been deeply fragmented and has lacked a proper framework. Junger provides such a framework in Tribe.
I began reading Tribe thinking about the sacrifices made by so many of the Marines and sailors I have known and my own experiences deploying to combat, coming home, and going back out again. I read each chapter twice, not because the writing was hard to follow (Junger’s style is explosive and his prose direct), but because it invoked so many thoughts and emotions.
Tribe challenges the reader to revisit the merits of true community. Junger’s message—that to regain the lost tribal connection may be the key to human psychological survival—extends beyond the veterans of war. He reminds us that every warrior is linked inextricably to his or her society, for better and for worse. For this reason alone, it is important for veterans and civilians to read this book.
To truly appreciate Tribe, one should know something of Junger himself. Many know he is author of The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (W. W. Norton & Co., 1997) and A Death in Belmont (Norton, 2006). His contributions to war reporting are important not solely because he was present as a witness, but because he did not want to be anywhere else. Paradoxical, and yet that is also how most of us who were doing the fighting felt. Few people can communicate such a puzzling impression so consistently and humbly. This is just one of the innumerable puzzling experiences a warrior endures.
While it is unfortunate that most generations live through a war, not all produce writers brave enough to endure the experience alongside them and talented enough to make that experience not seem, in retrospect, a total waste. World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War each inspired literature and reportage of riveting authenticity. Our generation’s best reporting and literary voice is Sebastian Junger. His writing succeeds because it is authentic. He is the real deal.
Through five chapters he takes the reader from his own beginnings, from college to traveling the world as a war reporter. On his travels Junger sampled the isolation and ordeals of a returning veteran long before his own country was at war. He uses these experiences to address a fundamental issue: that not all who go to war are wounded, but all are changed. The change is complex, he emphasizes. It has positive and negative consequences, rendered more difficult because “modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, [and] anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate.” He adds: “As awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up.” And yet he unconditionally acknowledges that same transformation comes from a place that also “inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.”
Junger addresses post-traumatic stress disorder head on. He writes, it is “a disorder of recovery and that if the treatment focuses only on identifying symptoms, it will pathologize and alienate vets. But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing.” He explains the underlying difficulties (and tensions) in a society that lacks the empathy to bring its warriors back into its “ecosystem,” and more important, he emphasizes the central irony: that what matters most is that “veterans need to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield.” And so where Tribe ends, a genuine discussion must and can now begin. As a society, we could really use it.
Asked by The New York Times interviewer what moved him most in a work of literature, Junger remarked, “human capacity for courage and generosity.” This is precisely what is needed now: the courage to march ahead and the generosity to support and remind each other—by example and as a tribe—that it is never too late to come home.
Flagship: The Cruiser HMAS Australia II and the Pacific War on Japan
Some naval histories follow well-worn tracks and contribute little that is new or engaging. Mike Carlton’s Flagship is not one of them. This is a timely book that will fill a void in the public’s understanding of the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) war at sea during World War II. The RAN deployed to war in the Pacific in December 1941 to stem the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia and Australia’s northern waters. What is less well known is that the RAN’s cruisers and destroyers fought alongside the U.S. Navy, and later the powerful British Pacific Fleet, right through the Pacific campaign from 1942 to 1945. By January 1943, with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the RAN had secured the sea lanes against Japan, which intended to restrict Australia’s access to the world as a part of its plan to maintain dominance in the southwest Pacific.
We are approaching the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, when the Japanese advance was first halted. Flagship recounts how Rear Admiral John Crace led his RAN and U.S. Navy squadrons to block the Jomard Passage to the Japanese. Despite being under air attack, Crace and his men fought and survived, deterring the Japanese High Command from attempting to carry out their plan for a seaborne invasion of the virtually defenseless Port Moresby.
Flagship also covers the tragic night battle at Savo Island off Guadalcanal, the bombardment of New Guinea beaches as the Allies went north, and the vast sea battles off the Philippines at Leyte Gulf, Surigao Strait, and Lingayen Gulf, when the Japanese surface fleet ceased to exist as a fighting fleet. Between 1942 and 1945, RAN and U.S. Navy ships sustained Allied armies fighting on shore. They rained naval gunfire on Japanese coastal strongpoints and softened up resistance, which saved thousands of Allied soldiers and Marines as they disembarked from landing craft. Flagship powerfully brings these engagements to life and reminds readers of the price the RAN paid in lives and ships.
Many naval historians have done sterling work on the RAN, but much of it is long out of print. Few authors have have worked on such a wide canvas or produced such a rattling good read. This is no dry account of maritime campaigns, but a narrative full of fascinating detail and grounded in excellent research aided by the professional historians at the Sea Power Centre–Australia, where the RAN has its historical archives.
Flagship also is a social history of a particular human experience. Carlton takes readers into the cruisers’ mess decks and gunrooms, and through letters and diaries tells the stories of young men who lived there, often for years, while their ships carried them into danger and back out again. Here are the lives of those who returned to Australia, and those who were killed in action and buried at sea by grieving shipmates, often on the same day.
Carlton addresses the roles played by Americans in the Allied High Command in Australia and by the Australian Naval Board in decisions about where and when the RAN went into action. Key Allied commanders and their political masters made choices that determined the outcome of the Australian contribution to the Pacific war.
The book covers manifest failures that led to disaster at the night battle of Savo Island and the loss of HMAS Canberra, and it recounts the sad truth that it was a badly aimed and hastily fired U.S. Navy torpedo that first crippled the Australian cruiser. This has been widely accepted and documented since 1994, when it was fully explained by RAN officers who were there and much later in life gained access to the U.S. Navy’s archives.
Here too is the account of HMAS Canberra’s surviving crew, who recovered from the loss of their captain, ship, and shipmates and returned to battle in HMAS Shropshire, a Royal Navy cruiser Winston Churchill gave to the RAN. In the spirit of the Australian maxim “Never say die,” her gun crews avenged their 84 dead Canberra shipmates by attacking the Japanese battleline at Surigao Strait, earning high praise from Americans for the speed and accuracy of their 8-inch salvos.
This well-illustrated, substantial book tells their story, and many others, with the accuracy and generosity its subject richly deserves. It pays tribute to the sailors and officers who still lie in Ironbottom Sound, off Savo Island, with their lost cruiser, Canberra.
The Campaign That Turned the Tide
By James D. Hornfischer
Throughout these trembling years since 1945, the year that shaped our age most, the challenge for any author looking to write about World War II has been to find books that need writing, history that needs telling with new layers of detail, or in an entirely original story frame.
After covering the Guadalcanal naval campaign in Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam, 2012), I cast about for a book idea that offered expansive, interesting territory in terms of geography, people, and the operational art; fresh, ambitious themes; and massive combat action that was hugely consequential.
As soon as I discovered that no single volume had yet covered the entirety of the Marianas campaign and what those operations in the summer of 1944 led to, I knew I had something worth developing.
My vision for The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944–1945 (Random House, 2016) was to write a campaign history-plus. I would cover the diverse air, land, and sea dimensions of Operation Forager, underscoring it as a fulcrum for its singular, war-ending purpose: the stunning and decisive double atomic blow against Japan. The U.S. Navy never has staged a more important or strategically valuable military expedition, and none in a generation had greater political consequence.
The plans that powered the great central Pacific drive pointing to the Marianas were U.S. Navy intellectual property. The Orange Plan had been drawn up and wargamed to within an amtrac’s cleat since the 1930s. In the story of its wartime execution, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance is the hero. As commander of the 5th Fleet, he directed the assault on the Mariana Islands. D-Day on Saipan is remembered, if at all, as “the other D-Day.” When four U.S. Marine regiments hit the beach at Saipan, just nine days after the Allied landings in Normandy, the stage was set for the Navy to win its most important single campaign in its history and for Spruance to prove the finest operational naval commander of his or any generation.
While seeing to the success of Vice Admiral Kelly Turner’s amphibious operations, Spruance declined the opportunity offered him by the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet to blunder out of position and along the way proceeded to win history’s greatest carrier battle, holding Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s mighty carriers close by the islands.
What American troops learned at Saipan cast a pall over the United States’ plans to finish the war in the Pacific. The discovery that not only Japanese soldiers but civilians, too, were willing to take their own lives reverberated from the front lines of the 4th Marine Division all the way to the White House. It produced grim recognition of the nature of the Japanese enemy and of what U.S. troops could expect in an invasion of Japan.
Admiral Ernest King and Admiral Chester Nimitz toured Saipan in mid July. Escorted by a picked squad of Marine riflemen, they saw for themselves the bodies of Japanese women and children lolling in the sea, pushed forward by the surf, rolling into hard coral. Ten days later, at a strategy conference in Honolulu, Nimitz shared his impressions of Saipan with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President was impressed. Afterward he wrote to MacArthur, “You have been doing a really magnificent job against what were great difficulties, given us by climate and by certain human animals.” Five weeks later, after King met with FDR in session with the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Quebec, an Allied press communiqué approved by the White House announced, “In a very short space of time they reached decisions on all points, both with regard to the completion of the war in Europe, now approaching its final stages, and the destruction of the barbarians of the Pacific.” This shocking rhetoric of high officialdom served to activate the U.S. military’s commitment to waging total war against Imperial Japan.
Without General Henry “Hap” Arnold and his new B-29 Superfortress very heavy bombers, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. But for the revelation of Japanese civilian conduct there, the taste for an invasion of Japan might not have soured so quickly and those islands might not have been used to unleash hell against Japan’s cities to such horrific effect. Without the arrival in early 1945 on Tinian of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., commander of the 509th Composite Group, the war would surely have lasted into 1946. It was the needs of the Army’s strategic air power evangelists, then, that placed Raymond Spruance in position to make his name.
By the time the 5th Fleet completed the conquest of Guam in August 1944, Task Force 58, the U.S. carrier force, was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best lethal use of Grumman’s F6F-3 Hellcat. Operating from the 15 fast carriers that were put into commission in 1943, they gave the U.S. carrier task force commander the ability to concentrate or disperse as circumstances required. Instead of hitting and running, using their mobility to stage surprise, Hellcats could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.
Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping that washed into the Pacific after Guadalcanal. In 1943, more than 21,000 new amphibs of all sizes were launched. In 1944, that number surpassed 37,000. This was the “fleet at flood tide” of my title.
Even so, Spruance, like King and Nimitz, opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But week after week of staging carrier strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds and in the home islands themselves were perfectly exhausting work. Though Spruance often described war as an intellectual puzzle, the grind turned his heart hard. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That is a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.
It should never be forgotten that in Spruance’s chest beat a fighter’s heart. At Truk in February 1944, he had defied protocol while taking command of a fast battleship squadron to hunt enemy cripples. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) and New Mexico (BB-40), were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, Spruance disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That is a style of leadership that is seldom credited to the “cautious” Spruance. By the time Admiral William F. Halsey relieved him as fleet commander at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.
In view of all the ink spilled about Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, the time has come to give him his due. Spruance was gifted with a strategic sense and was a master of operational planning. On his watch, naval operations became strategic in scale and war winning. The fall of the Marianas precipitated the fall of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s militarist regime. Spruance retained a troubled Kelly Turner in command, enabling the latter to realize his potential as the leading practitioner of what King would call “the outstanding development of the war”—amphibious warfare.
As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the bloody season in the Marianas. As Nimitz himself noted, the end stage of the greatest sea war in history began there, at its strategic fulcrum. Neither the horror of Iwo Jima nor Okinawa ever obviated the structural reality of this geography.
Those who object to the use of the atomic bombs on moral grounds have never seemed to fully credit either the tragic necessity of that project or its specific success. The final significance of the Los Alamos program was to turn Emperor Hirohito’s heart. It forced him to break the tragic deadlock among his war council that kept a hard-won peace from blooming.
Tibbets was always unsentimental about his part in this. Replying to those who considered waging total war against civilians an affront to morals, the pilot would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” Spruance also was a realist, though in a more intellectual way—cool, if not cold. But his circumspect, aloof bearing never should keep us from seeing his warrior soul.
Though Halsey would receive a fifth star for his contribution as a theater commander in the South Pacific at a perilous time, it was Spruance whom Nimitz tapped as the last CINCPAC of 1945. It was Spruance who produced the Navy’s last report on its Pacific victory. On the evidence of his performance over multiple ocean battlefields, Spruance should forever be remembered as the greatest operational naval commander of World War II.