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the conquering tide
23 december 2018
Ian Toll's Conquering Tide is the story of a military mismatch: the war between Japan and the United States for the South and Central Pacific, in the three years after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had so completely routed American and British forces everywhere in the Asian-Pacific theaters, in late 1941 and early 1942, that it seems absurd to think of the Americans so quickly reversing the balance. But Toll stresses how foregone the conclusion of the war was, so early on. It was not that the American victory was easy or bloodless, but that it was massively inevitable, as strategists on both sides seemed to take for granted. Even Japanese victories at Midway and Guadalcanal would only have slowed down the American war machine. And the Japanese were soundly defeated in both battles.
The Americans landed on Guadalcanal way too early and far too unprepared, materially and tactically. The landing came eight months after Pearl Harbor, and was nearly pushed back into the sea. Classic accounts of the battle, like Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary, stress the parlous position of the marines on their beachhead. But Toll, drawing on records from both Allied and Japanese sides, shows that the Japanese situation on Guadalcanal was at least as tenuous, and deteriorated steadily from the start. Japanese conquests earlier in the year had given their troops a superhuman mystique – but that mystique could not compensate for basic flaws in the Japanese supply operation that quickly drove the garrison to near-starvation.
A theme that Toll touches implicitly but importantly is how American war preparation, well before Pearl Harbor, began to turn the tide of the Pacific war immediately. The flood of Essex-class aircraft carriers that allowed the U.S. Navy to dominate the air war were already under construction in mid-1941. When they appear in Toll's narrative in mid-1943, these carriers seem like a force of nature, but they were the fruit of planning and persuasion that made the Americans ready for a war that most did not want and few foresaw. Toll's Conquering Tide follows the course of that war from Guadalcanal through Tarawa and Saipan, with special emphasis on naval combat.
Japan prepared with chilling efficiency for its initial attacks, but not for a long war. The assumption was that the Allies would simply abandon the Pacific to the Japanese. This attitude, says Toll, persisted even after the Allies were clearly in control of the war in 1943. One more grand victory like the one they had won over the Russians at Tsushima (1905), the Japanese commanders felt, would bring the Allies to terms. But nothing short of surrender would do so – and the victory was not forthcoming, anyway.
I had always learned that the emperor Hirohito was a mild-mannered figurehead, much happier studying jellyfish than being the tool of militarists. Toll revises that impression. While Hirohito had been aloof (as well as quite young) during the rise of the militarist police state, he increasingly exerted power as the war went on, demanding "Can't you give the American forces a walloping?" (417) just as the prospect of any such walloping became faint. Toll explains the emperor's assumption of leadership as the natural result of a dysfunctional government structure. For years, factions within the Japanese army and navy had battled other factions (and the army and navy, notoriously, battled each other). Each group that contended for control claimed that they were fulfilling the will of the emperor. Pretty soon nobody was in control. But since the rival factions had spent decades disingenuously attributing their goals to the emperor, they were in a poor position to resist the emperor's actual will when he began to assert it.
Toll, while looking at all parties to the war, is not above some factional argument himself. He consistently rates American marines as better in island combat than the army – more reckless, but thus achieving results more quickly, a must when vulnerable fleets were waiting offshore to support land troops. Toll also marginalizes the most famous U.S. Army figure of the war, Douglas MacArthur. While not without admiration for MacArthur's administrative talents, Toll presents the general as something of a pain in the ass. He arguably prioritized his own aggrandizement over any grand-strategic goal. This is not news, and may or may not be entirely accurate, but it's clearly a bias in Toll's narrative. There would be other ways of telling the story of the U.S.-Japan war that make MacArthur the hero of the story.
Toll has no "hero" to his story, though he admires Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance. Admiral Spruance won two major carrier battles (Midway in 1942 and the Philippine Sea in 1944) under Nimitz's strategic command. In both, the Japanese struck first. Doctrine of the time suggested that you should never let an opponent strike first, because then you might not get to strike at all. But at Midway, the Japanese struck first at the island itself, leaving themselves open to Spruance's counterstrike. In the Philippine Sea, two years later, American superiority in fighter-plane use and antiaircraft gunnery meant that the Japanese first strike was futile, and the Americans were able to follow up with a telling counterattack.
One really has to admire the complexity of Toll's project and the skill with which he weaves innumerable strands together. Japanese politics, the Japanese homefront, military technology, resources and logistics, individual battle narratives, anecdotes, character sketches of leaders, discussions of American troops at "liberty" and the communities they impacted (Sydney, Honolulu, San Francisco), and much more mean that the thousand pages of the first two volumes of this trilogy seem barely enough to contain all the material – material that never overstays its welcome.
One of my pet peeves, though, is the presence (or absence) of maps in books of military history. I give the maps in the Pacific War Trilogy about a C-minus. There are quite a few of them, and you can usually locate places discussed in the text on a map somewhere in the vicinity. That seems like a low bar for a C-minus, but many a military narrative doesn't even come up to that standard. But the maps in Toll's books suffer from inconsistent scale and orientation. The big picture is rarely invoked, so you end up squinting at a few little blotches in the middle of nowhere that might therefore be anywhere. The battle maps are very busy, with squiggly lines depicting the tracks of various ships and bunches of straight lines leading out to legends giving the ships' names. I reckon that writers in the 2010s assume that readers have instant access to Internet maps showing far more context and detail than a book can provide. I reckon this might also mean I should stop complaining about maps in military histories.
Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific islands, 1942-1944. 2015. New York: Norton, 2016. D 767 .T64