four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Max Hastings
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A-RetributionAward-winning British military historian and former journalist and editor Max Hastings (Bomber Command, Overlord, Battle for the Falklands, and Armageddon, 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2005, among others), whose experience includes reportage from more than 60 countries and 11 wars, revisits the final months of World War II.

The Topic: The title of Hastings’s history of the final days of World War II in Japan reveals much: The Allies, horrified at the Japanese attitude toward surrender and the atrocities perpetrated against soldiers (their own and those of the Allies) and civilians (20 million deaths, conservatively, 15 million of whom were Chinese), found themselves increasingly seeking justice against a ruthless enemy. When a sea blockade and relentless bombing of major Japanese cities could not move the enemy to surrender (despite a 10-to-1 advantage in military capability for the Allies by the end of the war), President Harry Truman made the fateful decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end justified the means, asserts Hastings, and the use of unprecedented force was necessary. Call it victory, or call it retribution.
Knopf. 615 pages. $35. ISBN: 0307263517

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Hastings] is equally adept at analyzing the broad sweep of strategy and creating thrilling set pieces that put the reader in the cockpit of a fighter plane or the conning tower of a submarine. But he is best on the human cost of war." Evan Thomas

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] compelling read, even for readers who know the outlines of the war in the Pacific. To the broad sweep of military events Mr. Hastings adds myriad human stories culled from interviews, letters, diaries and memoirs, and he does not hesitate to offer his own keen analysis along the way." Peter R. Kann

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Hastings, former newspaper reporter and editor, offers a wide-ranging view of the last year of the war in the Pacific in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. … [It] is an apt title that describes the desire for revenge and increasing ferocity shown on all sides in the final months of World War II in the Pacific." Len Barcousky

San Antonio Express-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Comprehensive and incisive are just two of many words that describe Max Hastings’ Retribution. It is both a broad-picture and a detailed accounting of the final year of the war against a barbaric empire." Sterlin Holmesly

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In Retribution, Hastings does not leave out the big actors, but what is new and original are the personal stories he has extracted from oral histories and his own interviews with veterans of the American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and even Chinese armies. … But I am appalled by the critical evidence left out." Kai Bird

Critical Summary

Hastings details Japan’s atrocities in the last days of the war and America’s role in the "retribution" against Japan with an unblinking eye and the meticulous research of a first-rank historian, drawing on interviews and firsthand accounts from both sides of the fighting. Hastings, known for "military history as told from the foxhole" (Washington Post), combines intimate portraits of unknown individuals with expert analysis of the long view to bring the true horror of the Pacific theatre into focus. Only the Washington Post suggests that Hastings ignored evidence, including the recent claim that the Soviet entry into the war, rather than the bombings, led to surrender. Despite this quibble, Retribution is an important book that will become a standard on the subject—one worthy of sitting "alongside John Keegan, Alistair Horne and Rick Atkinson" (New York Times Book Review).