The Battles of Hastings

I have had rather less time that I would have liked recently to read, but I have rather belatedly enjoyed Sir Max Hastings’ Nemesis: The Battle For Japan 1944-45 (published in America under the title Retribution).  It caused a storm of protest in Australia when it came out because of a short chapter in which he characterised the Australian effort in the later part of the war as one in which the army displayed cowardice and insubordination in the face of its own officers, and the role of Australia as a whole as plagued by sabotage by the trades unions, particularly in the docks.

Views vary as to whether Hastings’ analysis is fair. He does not display any unswerving criticism about Australians, and is highly complementary about the role of the Australian 9th Division in North Africa, before it was recalled to Australia by the Labor Prime Minister, trade unionist John Curtin. Hasting is demonstrably right about the fact that the Americans held the Australian military effort in very low esteem: MacArthur said, “I tell you, these Australians won’t fight”, and the contempt that both Roosevelt and Churchill felt for Curtin in February 1942, when Curtin refused to allow Australian troops help to hold Burma against the Japanese, is all too clear from the correspondence which Churchill quotes at length at pages 136 to 146 of Volume IV of his history of the war.  Since Curtin’s death, other socialists and trades unionists have sought to prop up his reputation, but his wartime record speaks of appalling weakness, incompetence and misjudgement which did real damage to Australia’s standing.

Curtin Government propaganda poster 1942

Not least among Curtin’s failings was his dishonesty with the Australian people; as Peter Stanley has pointed out, Curtin knew perfectly well from intercepted intelligence by mid 1942 that Japan had no intention of invading Australia, but lied about this for another crucial year, presumably in order to promote the interests of his sponsors in the trades unions who were doing so well of out the fear that was provoked, and for his own re-election prospects.

In the end, of course, it all blew over; Australia’s relationship with the UK, and indeed the USA, is about as hard to ruin as Australia’s inherent wealth, and Robert Menzies substantially repaired Australia’s reputation and prosperity during the 1960’s.  What is more interesting to come out of the book are the long terms effects of the war.  Hastings’ main conclusions are:

  • That the US army and navy performed extraordinarily well, not despite the fact that most of the servicemen were amateurs, but because of it.  Farmers, doctors, lawyers and so on soon learned how to fight with exceptional skill and bravery.
  • That the long-term US attitude to war has been conditioned by these unique events; there has been an attitude in the US that other wars – less total – can be fought and won in the same way. Despite repeated evidence to the contrary – Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – Americans seem to think that all can be made to bend to their will by sheer application of military resource.
  • That the extreme inhumanity of the Japanese towards the Chinese, the people of South East Asia and Caucasian prisoners from 1931 to 1946 has in no way been exaggerated.  The personal recollections of the Japanese suggest regret that they lost the war, but (unlike in the case of Germany) otherwise show no regret at all for their actions.
  • That the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1946 did indeed save millions of lives, not so much because it would otherwise have been necessary to invade the mainland of Japan, but because such an invasion was thought necessary at the time. Hastings suggests that the blockade of Japan was rapidly reducing Japan to starvation, and that once the Russians started with remarkable ease in throwing the Japanese out of Manchuria, just a few days before the end of the war, it would have been possible for the Americans to do little more than wait.  Not, of course, that the idea of millions of Japanese civilians starving themselves to death is much more attractive than the inevitability of thousands more of them ending their lives as Kamikazes in defence of their homeland.

What is also clear is that my generation has been extraordinarily fortunate to have escaped the horrors of total war.



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