The original British title of this much-praised book was Nemesis. The subtlety of the title change is important. Retribution emphasizes Allied (essentially American) revenge; Nemesis emphasizes the Japanese responsibility for their own suffering. Max Hastings demonstrates repeatedly the failures of the Japanese government and military leaders to plan properly for such a great conflict. It was one thing to occupy Manchuria and the coasts of China, something else to take on the greatest industrial power in the world, and yet something else to awaken the American giant by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Those misjudgments head a long list of mistakes made by the Japanese militarists. They failed to use submarines against American supply lines, they neglected preparation for the American submarine campaign, and they did not build sufficient tankers to bring oil to Japan or escort vessels to protect the tankers that survived. What was in their minds? Most of all, a belief that will was the essential ingredient to victory and that the racially and socially superior Japanese people would always prevail over the inferior races facing them.

Even today’s understanding of the war reflects the Germany-first emphasis of Allied planning, then the dramatic naval battles of the central Pacific. Pearl Harbor eclipses the Japanese preoccupation with natural resources and the fascistic militarism that lay behind Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, its invasion of China, and its lust for the French, British, and Dutch colonial riches. The Japanese advances of 1941-1944 swiftly humiliated British and American armies and naviesthen everything went wrong.

The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was not Asia for Asians, but Asia for the Japanese. Arrogance and lack of planning by the new occupiers made their predecessors look relatively good; to support their armies and supply the home islands, the Japanese brought not liberation but starvation and fear. Then, as the Allied counteroffensive began, desperation set in. Few Japanese would (or dared to) admit it, but by 1944 it was obvious that the war was going badly.

On the home front, Japanese civilians were short of food, heating oil, raw materials, and even soap. Bombs were falling on new cities each day; most important, firebomb raids were incinerating tens of thousands per raid. Nevertheless, there was no peace movement and no talk of surrender or even of peace talks.

Both the American and Japanese military planners made major blunders. Neither applied the lessons of the U-boat successes until late in the war, when American submarines practically annihilated Japan’s merchant marine, and the Japanese wasted their own vessels in vain attempts to supply isolated island garrisons. While Americans went to great lengths to rescue downed pilots, Japanese let theirs drown. American blunders were distractions, prolonging the war, but Japanese miscalculations were disastrous. The Japanese economy could not match that of their enemies, while the Americans could fight simultaneously two wars on opposite sides of the globe and win.

The Japanese expected to prevailif not in set battles, then by exhausting the Westerners. The Japanese knew that their soldiers and sailors would sacrifice everything for victory, or, if not victory, then for honor, while their opponents would not. The Westerners would surely conclude that a compromise peace was better than suffering more casualties, and that the compromise peace would leave Japan with most of its conquests.

The result was a series of dreary and now-almost-forgotten campaigns: Burma, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Most of those campaigns were unnecessary, because the Americans could have bypassed the isolated garrisons, but the combination of pride, the desire for revenge, the need to use the forces available, and ambition drove the Americans forward. The foremost personality of these destructive but indecisive campaigns was Douglas MacArthur, the most visible public hero of the era and the general most despised by military historians. In the background was Winston Churchill, whose slim hopes to preserve the British Empire seemed to depend on making some contribution to the war, but whose efforts were largely spurned by the Americans.

When American forces landed on the Philippines,...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)