"Not surprisingly, the critical reassessment of the A-bomb decision launched by [Gar] Alperovitz steadily gained ground after 1965 within academia, especially among younger scholars, as a succession of events eroded the credibility of public officials and their pronouncements: the optimistic bulletins that flowed from Vietnam as the body bags and the shocking TV images multiplied ...." Paul Boyer, History Wars, p. 129.
"Alperovitz, born in 1936, represented a younger generation of historians who came of age in Cold War America, when the bomb evoked ... the threat of a world-destroying thermonuclear holocaust." ibid. p. 128.
Eric Bergerud's TOUCHED WITH FIRE is, quite simply, one of the finest histories of any portion of World War II that this critic has ever read. Thoughtful, insightful, filled with a sense of detail and precision that are, evidently, all too lacking in modern "scholarship," this tome tells the story of the land war in the South Pacific in a way that has been neglected for entirely too long. TOUCHED WITH FIRE is a masterpiece, nothing less.
Bergerud -- known for his masterful Vietnam histories, RED THUNDER, TROPIC LIGHTNING, and THE DYNAMICS OF DEFEAT -- reaches back in time, aided by numerous interviews of the participants, to chronicle the trench war in the Pacific, potentially one of the most savage and brutal land encounters ever seen in warfare. "I have not tried to create another account of the war in the South Pacific as viewed by important military commanders ... instead ... I have tried to examine and explain the war's texture and tempo."
In this, Bergerud succeeds admirably. Frankly, it was a vicious encounter, a "war of extermination." Bergerud takes us into the trenches, the foxholes, and the killing jungle. (By far, the vast majority of casualties came from jungle rot, from malaria, from dysentery and other horrific diseases.) The jungle was a worse enemy, in many ways, than the Japanese.
But, more to the point, Bergerud puts to the lie the commonly held (and off-handedly echoed with dogmatic zeal in HISTORY WARS) view that the war against the Japanese was a "racist" war. No, the Australians and Americans hated the Japanese with a frightening intensity, perhaps, but melanin and epicanthic folds were not the issue. The Japanese refusal to take prisoners or to surrender when the situation was hopeless (the "cult of death" as Bergerud calls it) were the main culprits. Torture, castration, suicidal human bombings and continual "psychological warfare" turned the battlefields of Guadalcanal, of New Georgia and New Guinea into killing fields of immense brutality. Add to that that most artillery, tanks, planes, and infantry tactics did NOT work, and the ground war became chillingly simple: exterminate or be exterminated, with guns, grenades and knives.
Bergerud finally succeeds in explaining to us, fifty years later, WHY the combatants often still bear a deep and abiding hatred of one another that the band-aid of "racism" does a profound disservice to. This is not a record of campaigns. And, even though Iwo Jima and Okinawa are skimmed over, without understanding this first year of the land war, no understanding of the later bloodbaths, AND the decision to drop the atomic bomb can honestly be arrived at.
Pimlott's HISTORICAL ATLAS is an apt companion volume (covering the European Theater as well) and the maps and summaries are glorious. As a "picture" book of WWII, it is among the best I've read, and is highly recommended -- though more verbiage would be overkill.
Which brings us to HISTORY WARS.
The issues surrounding last year's Enola Gay controversy are elucidated herein, and, sadly, a better title might have been "The Academy Strikes Back." Eight scholars present their takes on the brouhaha that erupted between the Smithsonian and various veterans' groups over "political correctness" and "revisionism."
What is frightening here (and no doubt was NOT intended) is that the "scholars" have pulled their wagons into a circle. Nearly EVERY essay lumps those protesting the "cutting-edge" plans for an a-bomb retrospective into the Rush Limbaugh/Newt Gingrich camp (often explicitly, by name), suggesting in anything BUT a dispassionate manner that they alone are "serious historians."
Listen: "In the words of Jonathan Yardley, one of the [Washington] Post's columnists, the National Air and Space Museum was 'seeking to engage in what can fairly be called anti-American propaganda.' Yardley went on to use the controversy as a point of departure for an attack on 'deconstructionist' critical theory in general." (pp. 74-5) John W. Dower's condescending vitriol would not seem so damning were not Yardley actually the Post's staff book critic, AND a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. Dower begs the question: This IS deconstructionist, Post-Modern, (and clearly academic) pique (with the notable exception of Military Historian Richard H. Kohn's superior essay).
Listen to the snitty pretentions of the academicians in their choice of phrases: "serious historians," ["US"] "heroic narrative," "triumphal narrative," ["THEM", both from Dower]; "The essential American metanarrative," "fundamentally ahistorical" [Marilyn B. Young]; "Patriotic Orthodoxy and the American Decline" [Michael S. Sherry].
Second-guessing Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become a modern academic obsession, and a Monday-morning quarterbacking going back nearly to the date of the bombing. Although "hypothetical" questions are NOT the fair purview of historical reportage, I should point out some oddities here. First, nearly EVERY historian attacks (by implication as boobery) media reports on the incident, UNLESS media reports back up what they say. Second, the Hiroshima controversy invariably is based on Truman "waiting" to see if the Japanese would surrender.
It was a WAR, people. Kamikaze attacks were taking out ships, and huge numbers of Japanese committed suicide, rather than surrender. Wait? For what?
It is not my hope or intention to convert your point of view here. I would urge you read all three books and make up your own mind. But this much is clear: Rush and Newt CAN (rarely) voice trenchant criticisms, AND the writing of the academics in this tome ironically confirms what the "boobs" were saying all along. Yardley WAS right, after all.