Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Rising Sun - John Toland

For me, the Pacific theatre of World War Two holds a special fascination. Not only because of  certain peculiar strategic issues, but also because of the perceived cultural factors which contributed to the outbreak of hostilities and to how the campaign was conducted.
The period, and the Japanese empire of that time in general, are comprehensively chronicled in John Toland's epic "The Rising Sun". Here the story is told primarily, but not exclusively, from the Japanese perspective. For some unfathomable reason, I had imagined that this book commenced with the Pearl Harbour episode, but in fact the opening chapters are an illuminating and gripping look at the factors which triggered the conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, and the rebellion (s) by Army officers. 
People often assume that the Japanese conquests were motivated solely by blind nationalism and rapacious economic greed, but these pages stress that, at least in the beginning, the position was more complex. Japan suffered grievously in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and there was also revulsion about political corruption. It is often forgotten that some in the military and elsewhere saw Manchuria as a "new Jerusalem", where socialist ideas could be implemented, and then possibly transplanted to the homeland itself.
The book also amply illustrates how Japan's clock was set ticking once the oil embargo was imposed in the summer of 1941, and how the mixed messages emanating from both sides helped to breed mistrust. Were Japanese officials simply trapped by encroaching economic woes and also by fear of a revolt by sections of the Army, and did the Americans do all that they could have done?
There is an extended description of Pearl Harbour, largely from the point of view of individuals. The unpreparedness of the Allies in the face of the Japanese onslaught is sobering to be reminded of. The horrors of the Philippines campaign are afforded stark attention, with unflinching detail of the hardships inflicted on Allied troops, and the agonizing over the decision to surrender. The author does mention that some Japanese officers repudiated the harsh methods employed by their colleagues.
The sections dealing with the Battle of Midway really bring across what a psychological turning point this event was, because of the dent which was delivered to Japanese confidence, and the knowledge that the material advantage of the US and its allies was now likely to prove decisive.  The harsh reality was that perceived spiritual virtues would largely be powerless to sway things.
Throughout "The Rising Sun", Toland looks at the broader question of Asian self-determination, and Japan's efforts to harness these energies.  The condescending attitude of many in the West to the Asian peoples is also clear, and one is left wondering whether the Japanese might have had more success if they had adopted a different attitude to the populace in the territories which they occupied. As with the proclaimed socialistic sentiment, it is a moot point whether the rhetoric about fighting colonialism was a ploy to seduce and entice the people of Asia. Perhaps some were more sincere than others in adhering to these views.
In addition to the documenting of the military events, and the first-hand accounts, there is some fascinating coverage of the big wartime conferences attended by the major leaders, and some amusing anecdotes concerning the dialogue between Stalin and Churchill in particular.
The thing which never ceases to amaze, and depress, me when reading military histories is the petty wrangling between commanders, and the egotism on show. It seems absurd and bizarre that professional self-interest and vanity were allowed to interfere with the overriding objectives, but that is human nature, I guess. Perhaps such things are less easy to understand from the vantage point of seven decades later. How many lives were lost because of compromise decisions, effected to smooth over ruffled feathers?
It was interesting to read, towards the end of the story, examples of Japanese soldiers questioning the ethos which guided the nation and its military, and the self-sacrifice which was expected. This belies the conventional "wisdom", and is in keeping with the tendency of this book to pose some awkward questions about both sides who were engaged in the struggle.
Needless to say, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given due prominence. The stories from the cities are harrowing, and should trouble the conscience of anyone who blithely and complacently states unquestioningly that the attacks were necessary or unavoidable.
I must admit that reading this book again has affected me quite deeply, in its portrayal of the futility and cruelty of war, and the intransigence and callousness of  some of those who wield power.  A thought-provoking and rewarding read.

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