How the East Was Won; Battle Stations ... US Marines Establishing a Beachhead on Iwo Jima in 1945. More Than 20,000 Japanese Soldiers Died Vainly Defending the Island

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Byline: Max Hastings

Reading this horrifying book, I felt ashamed of how ignorant I had beenabout the war in the East.

Like many people, I knew a certain amount about the Japanese treatment of theBritish prisoners of war, and a bit about the dropping of the atomic bombs onHiroshima and Nagasaki, but otherwise very little.

In his introduction, Max Hastings suggests we should really add a plural, andcall them the Second World Wars, as there was precious little to connect theNazis with the Japanese. The two enemies of the Allies had little in common,and never really understood one another.

Right at the end of the war, on April 17, 1945, a Japanese vice-admiral appliedfor an audience with Adolf Hitler to ask whether the Japanese fleet couldborrow some of his U-boats. He was refused his audience, on the grounds,explained Ribbentrop with a measure of understatement, that the Fuhrer was'extremely busy'.

The notion of two different world wars also applies to our currentunderstanding of their histories: many of those who feel they know about thewar in the West know next-tonothing about the war in the East. Yet this was awar in which the Japanese dead numbered nearly three million, and in which103,000 Americans perished. Like the Russians against the Nazis, the Chineseregarded the struggle against the Japanese as their war, and theirs alone. Andwith some reason: at a conservative estimate, 15 million Chinese died, onethird of them soldiers.

Other statistics are equally shaming to the ignorant: for instance, one millionVietnamese died in the enforced famine of 1944-45, after the Japanese made themreplant the rice paddies with fibre crops.

Even at the time, most people in Britain considered the war in the East distantand incomprehensible.

Primarily, this was because the Japanese represented no immediate threat to theBritish mainland, but there were also cultural differences that made theJapanese seem far more remote than the Germans.

On almost every page of Nemesis, one comes across an often hideous detail thatreinforces this sense of a cultural divide: the random violence applied toJapanese military trainees by their officers; the soldiers' handbook whichtells them, 'do not survive in shame as a prisoner - die, to ensure that you donot leave ignominy behind you'; the bayonet practice on live Chinese prisonersof war; the unanaesthetised vivisection of captured American airmen, with theirstomachs, hearts, lungs and brains removed while they were still alive.

And everywhere, evidence of the matter-offact acceptance by the Japaneserank-and-file of acts of inhumanity: a diary found on a dead Japanese soldierfinds him eulogising about the beauty of a sunset before seamlessly going on todescribe the clubbing of a baby against a tree.

Max Hastings has always been the least mealy-mouthed of our militaryhistorians. His condemnation of the Japanese is forthright and comprehensive.Their systematic inhumanity was, he says, as gross as that of the Nazis, butwhile the Germans have repented, the Japanese remain, by and large, in denial.

Many of the incidental details he provides make their behaviour seem, ifanything, even more grotesque than the Nazis'. For instance, he says it wasquite common among Japanese soldiers to send photographs of beheadings back totheir families, and that British soldiers in Burma were shocked to find thebody parts of former colleagues in many of the haversacks of dead Japanese:they subsequently discovered there was a tradition of burying some portion of acorpse in its homeland.

I had some idea, perhaps taken from the comic strips of my childhood, that theJapanese were fiendishly clever tacticians, but Hastings is similarlycontemptuous of their tactics.

Most of their leaders, he says, 'possessed the hearts of lions, but the brainsof sheep'. With an industrial capacity of just ten per cent of America's, theyembarked on a war they could never have won, and their native inability toarticulate unwelcome thoughts meant they were unable to acknowledge any defeat. …