Book Review: Hirohito's War

Hirohito's War:hirohito's warThe Pacific War 1941-1945by Francis PikeBloomsbury, 2015“The outbreak of general war in the Pacific in 1941 cannot be properly understood without reference to the general historical background,” historian Dan van der Vat wrote at the beginning of his ripping good 1991 book The Pacific Campaign, “but Japan's early history need not detain us here.” His book was 400 pages long, so such restraint no doubt elicited sighs of relief from his readers. The events of World War II take plenty long enough to narrate as it is; throw in the history of Japan and we'll, so to speak, be here all day.Those reader will very likely blanche a bit in horror at the mere sight of Francis Pike's new book Hirohito's War: The Pacific War 1941-1945, now out in a 1000-page hardcover from Bloomsbury. What detains van der Vat for only 8 pages Pike expands to 130, and the remainder of Hirohito's War is built along similar proportions. Pike is clearly intent on writing the definitive history of the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War, and he's motivated in part by a belief that the field of WWII studies needs such a volume:

In spite of the vast and growing literature of the Pacific War, there has been no recent comprehensive one-volume history of the conflict. Indeed since 1945, there have only been three: The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 [1970] by John Toland, The Pacific War 1941-1945 [1981] by John Costello, and Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan [1985] by Ronald Spector.

This is authorial territory-staking whimsy at its most enjoyable, of course; van der Vat's is one of a solid two dozen works that are left out of Pike's trio, no doubt under the justification of that slippery word “comprehensive,” which in a context like this can be used to exclude far more than it includes. Certainly Pike himself is leaving no doubt that his own book is “comprehensive”: it starts with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and doesn't even reach the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – the actual starting-point of Hirohito's War – until nearly page 200. There's comprehensive, and there's comprehensive; this looks suspiciously like bloat.And it's not the only one of the book's sins. In fact, for a major work by a serious historian, it's got more little bugs than a college undergrad dorm room. Not only is the book a good 400 pages longer than it objectively needs to be, but the text itself is rife with distracting peculiarities, one of the most enigmatic and annoying of which we've already seen in that quoted passage: proper nouns are sometimes italicized throughout, as if this were The Great Warre of Heero-hito, Sev'rally Rendered by Sir Walter Raleigh. On Page 319, to take one of innumerable examples, “Germany,” “Italy,” “Japan,” “First Washington Conference” and “Vichy Government” aren't italicized, but “Pearl Harbor,” “Atlantic Charter” and just the “Nazi” part of “Nazi Germany” are. It almost has the spastic, needy new-puppy feel of intertextual hyperlinks, but the italicized words aren't linked to anything in the electronic version of the book, and even if they were, that would hardly be a reason for italicizing them in the print version.Another sin, far more mortal than venial for the WWII history buffs who are surely this book's target audience, is the complete lack of maps or illustrations in the printed book. It's just a thousand-page Mongolian plateau of unbroken prose. Which would be bad enough, but in Hirohito's War it gets worse: the wanderer through that plateau is forever seeing mirages of maps, just out of reach. Take the aforementioned Page 319, the first page of a chapter called “Limits of Empire: Doolittle and New Military Strategies.” Directly after the chapter title, we get this: “[Maps: 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.4, 11.5, 11.6, 11.7]” and we're told that the maps themselves can be found on Pike's website. And so they can, in nice big detail, but so what? The maps should be in the book the reader is actually reading. Any thousand-page work of history that sends you to your iPhone every three pages is a thousand-page work of history that deserves to lose you.The stinging irony is that behind this latticework screen of annoyances is a great and sometimes stunning work of history. Pike has consulted an enormous array of sources (although his bibliography is likewise – and likewise annoyingly – on his website) on every corner of a vast and complicated conflict. Virtually every battle and skirmish is not only treated but treated expertly, and the dozens of outsized personalities in the drama on both sides are given riveting treatment – if brutal treatment, as in the case of Pike's well-justified bete noire, General Douglas MacArthur, here, for instance, being excoriated for his bombast over the catastrophic US defeat at Bataan:

When news of the defeat at Bataan arrived, MacArthur turned immediately from ordering his troops to fight to the last man, to covering up the reasons for the American Army's greatest military defeat in its history. On 9 April, MacArthur told a press conference, “No army has done so much with so little, and nothing became it more than its last hours of trial and agony.” The truth was somewhat different. In no small part the army had 'so little' because of MacArthur's irresponsible neglect of War Plan RAINBOW-5 (ORANGE). As for the 'last hours' mentioned at his press conference, they were characterized by an undignified flight in complete chaos. This was not the heroic last stand that he had demanded.

The book is also animated from first to last by a scholarly even-handedness that's more assured than any previous book on the subject, although all the more invigoratingly argument-starting for that:

It is largely in hindsight that people assume that the dropping of the atom bomb was a difficult decision to make. Indeed having studied the ghastly consequences of napalm bombing in the Great Tokyo Air Raid, which killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, it is hard to argue that the atom bomb was any worse. As US Civil War Union General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “War is Hell,” and the grim deaths suffered by many millions of soldiers, sailors and civilians alike during the course of the Pacific War, which this book has described in detail, were qualitatively and sometimes quantitively no different than those at Hiroshima.

But even while the reader is grappling with the deeper contentions in a passage like that, there are those weird little convulsions – Civil War, Pacific War – pulling the narrative up short. It's all the more maddening because if those oddities weren't everywhere like kudzu, if the book had been firmly in the hands of an editor who'd stripped it of idiosyncratic italics, carved 400 pages off its gargantuan length, and included both maps and sources, Hirohito's War would be on the shortlist of every history book-award the industry has to bestow. Instead, its considerable riches will be discovered only by the very, very patient.