My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In high school there are certain things that you learn about World War II. Years later, there are much fewer things that you remember. There was Hitler, D-Day, FDR, the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the battleship and carrier wars fought in the Pacific over little tiny islands in the middle of nowhere, and finally the first use of the atomic bomb by the US on two Japanese cities.
There were plenty of new perspectives to be gained on the war in the Pacific through James Bradley's book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage. Though the book focused on 8 specific pilots and gunners, as well as their background and families, their individual stories were presented in context--not just of the war, but of Japanese history, culture and mindset.
There were several theses Bradley skillfully presented in this book. Here are some bullet-pointed highlights:
• The Japanese and American cultures could not have been more opposite one another. In everything from the way they ate their meals, to the way they saw their place in the world, these were two very different "worlds" at war, neither able to truly empathize or understand one another.
• Previous to World War II, the primary dimensions for battle were land and sea. FDR pushed hard for the monies to invest in this new 3rd dimension, the air war. Indeed, it proved pivotal in both the Pacific and in Europe.
• Japan "learned" imperialism by observing the west. They believed they were doing the best thing for China by invading it in order to "culture" it with it's own brand of civilization. Japan as a country felt snubbed at the end of World War I when they were awarded very little territory and concluded that this was as much a racial decision against them as anything. They had been exercising the same ethnic cleansing they observed in the US as the anglo-saxon race obliterated the native tribes in the name of civility and religious conversion.
• Though there existed much honor in Japanese warriors of previous generations in the 18th century, the generation that fought World War II perverted the standards and practices handed down to them, and with a mixture of mythicism and power-hungry leaders, led the nation to believe that even in the face of hopelessness, they were as valuable in death (in war) as they were in life. Surrender was the ultimate act of cowardice and shame, even among the civilians, who, in the impending land war with the US army, would fight to the end with sharpened bamboo sticks.
• While condemning the bombing of civilians of England by Germany, the US apparently saw nothing inconsistent with bombing city after city in Japan indiscriminately. There was no urban planning in Japan. Wooden houses were built right next to large factories in Japanese cities. The Napalm burned both easily, and as a result, many Japanese civilians were killed or made homeless.
• The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not out-of-the-blue acts of desperation or experimentation that led to the surrender of Japan. The use of these weapons were actually the next logical step in the systematic bombing of many Japanese cities by B29s in an effort to delay a ground war and were used in the hopes of bringing a swift surrender. We are awed by the destruction of a single bomb, but the damage done was commensurate with what was already being done using many planes and many pipes of Napalm.
The temptation when reading a book that deals with such difficult subject matter is to confuse the quality of the book with its content. Some passages in this book were difficult to read. Anecdotes and interviews of Japanese soldiers that fought in many fronts: Iwo Jima, ChiChi Jima, New Guinea, the Philippines, and China were gruesome and disturbing. Stories of torture and cannibalism abound. Bradley uses these stories not gratuitously, but to reinforce the thesis previously mentioned about the Japanese warrior mindset at the time and also to proudly display the bravery of the American and Japanese soldiers in the face of certain death.
Yes, it is difficult to recommend a book with such material-like what a Stephen King book is like, except with real events-but the story is well-told, the research is thorough, and the book is well-cited. Reading this book brought the Pacific theater to life and gave me a renewed respect for the generation that fought in World War II.
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