Max Hastings is a military historian. This book follows his study of Germany between 1944 and 1945, entitled Armageddon. It is a natural sequel to the earlier volume although, as Hastings points out, the war in the Far East had second-class status compared to the European scene and Hitler himself “had no wish for Asians to meddle in his Aryan war”. The title, “Retribution”, might suggest that the author has a (natural) bias in favour of the Allies, but in his account he tries to be scrupulously fair; there are disasters and failures on both sides and the price exacted by the Allies against Japan is shown to be a result both of Japan’s refusal to accept that they were losing the war and the barbarism it had displayed towards those it had conquered, civilian and military.

In his chosen field Hastings resists the glamour of war and any sense of military triumphalism. The loss of life is too great, some through accidents “inseparable from all military operations” but most through campaigns, such as the battle for Iwo Jima, about which he observes, “in every war sacrifices are routinely made out of all proportion to the significance of the objectives”. What concerns him is the portrayal of a “massive and terrible human experience”, how and why things were done, and by whom. He makes critical assessments of all the chief players, such as Churchill, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Chiang Kai-shek and the Emperor Hirohito, and of the military personnel who carried out the orders. He asks the question, “How many people are fitted to grapple with decisions of the magnitude imposed by global war?” and criticises the Allies as well as the Japanese. For Hastings, the only redemptive feature of war is the brotherhood which it forges: “comradeship… is the only force that makes [unendurable] circumstances durable.” This same point was made by the late British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, in a recent BBC archive broadcast: Eden, who won a Military Cross in the Great War, spoke movingly of the friendships he had forged in the trenches.

Central to Hastings’ argument is the outlook and behaviour of the Japanese. Quoting Major-General Douglas Gracey – “99% of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture” – he demonstrates the truth of this. Whereas American and British forces did not regard it as dishonourable to surrender when resistance was no longer sustainable, the Japanese forces were taught, “Do not survive in shame as a prisoner.” The Japanese followed the harsh code of bushido, invented by the medieval samurai, where compassion and surrender was seen as a weakness. Not for these men the Western ideal of “chivalry”, in which magnanimity towards a fallen enemy was seen as a sign of strength. Such uncompromising values also affected civilians: thousands of Japanese on Saipan, including women and children, chose to leap to their death from seashore cliffs rather than surrender to the Americans in July 1944.

Nowhere is this “demented” (Hastings’ word) outlook more proven in the act than the short, brutal lives of the kamikaze pilots. When Japan could no longer challenge the overwhelming superiority of the Allies in conventional terms it came up with this gruesome and effective means of warfare. The first suicide mission took place on 21 October 1944; between this date and August 1945, 3,913 kamikaze pilots were known to have died after inflicting much damage on the US navy. As Hastings says, there is a huge difference between individual acts of bravery that make death likely and the institutionalisation of a tactic that makes death inevitable. Westerners found the pilots’ behaviour incomprehensible. When peace was finally declared, the final batch of pilots, schooled to think they had two hours left to live, walked away from their planes weeping and disorientated.

Few belligerents in war “can boast unblemished records in the treatment of prisoners”, observes the author, yet the Japanese practised “extraordinary refinements of inhumanity.” From films such as The Bridge over the River Kwai we know of their treatment of POWs. Only 4 percent of British and US POWs died at German hands, whereas 27 percent of Allied prisoners lost their lives in Japanese captivity. Essentially the Japanese treated prisoners like the Germans treated Russians or Jews. Yet what is not known in the West, a point that the author emphasises several times, is that the Japanese treated the Asian populations they conquered in China, Manchuria and the Philippines with even greater cruelty than that they meted out to Westerners. In Manchuria, reminiscent of the concentration camps, they conducted secret vivisection experiments on live prisoners. Hastings estimates that over 5 million Asians died as a result of Japanese invasion; massacre, destruction, starvation and rape were the inevitable consequences of their presence.

As his study concentrates on the final year of the War, Hastings’ narrative is implicitly dominated by what finally ended it: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He provides a detailed, comprehensive and sober account of this horrifying conclusion, placing it in its wider context and concluding that the use of atomic weaponry “has contributed decisively towards preserving the world ever since” – precisely because it was so dreadful. The morality of the decision will always be argued; Hastings reminds us that more people died in the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US bomber attack on Tokyo of 9 March 1945 killed over 100,000 people. Discussing the personalities of General Curtis LeMay (whose B-29s had already bombed 58 Japanese cities and levelled many of them to rubble, killing 200,000 civilians, before the atom bombs were dropped) and Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, architect of the German bombings, he drily observes that “few successful warriors are sensitive men or congenial fireside companions.” Their very insensitivity is indispensable to fighting wars.

Yet final responsibility for their actions must lie with their leaders: Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman. They and their fighting men had been desensitised by years of war; a colossal weariness had built up to get it over with by any means as well as a corresponding impatience with the Japanese determination to fight to the last man. They did not know then of the effects of radiation sickness and saw the bombs simply as “mass multiples” of the destructive capacity of the conventional B-29s.

With the retrospective knowledge that we have, there is a sickening feeling of inevitability in reading of the delays, intransigence, orders, counter orders and confusion that led finally to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Quoting Tolstoy in War and Peace, Hastings bleakly comments that certain events have their own momentum: from June 1945 onwards, only Truman’s direct veto or unconditional Japanese surrender could have saved the two doomed cities; neither was forthcoming. Truman, thrust into supreme power late in the day, relied on his experts and the Japanese high command, unbelievably, still held out even after the atomic impact until the Emperor Hirohito finally persuaded them and the Japanese people to “bear the unbearable” (had they not already done so?) and accept defeat on the Allied terms. For the author, final blame must lie with the Japanese militarists, who, unlike the Nazi high command, were men of high birth, cultivated and educated, yet whose tragic pride, blindness and obstinacy caused their country and millions of other peoples, the extremity of suffering.

As well as quoting official documentation, Hastings’ narrative is made more vivid and memorable by his skilled use of ordinary people’s letters, diaries and memories, such as the eyewitness account of the Japanese soldiers in India against General Slim’s 14th Army: “These small men with savage hearts and hands that can paint exquisite watercolours in their diaries, which they leave lying in the red mud.” Alongside this is his mastery of an enormous canvas, encompassing campaigns in the Pacific and throughout Asia and his knowledge of the logistics necessary for such a war. This is military history at its best.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.