Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book 82: Tears in the Darkness

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman

Recently, I was at Barnes and Noble with a friend of mine. She was looking for a copy of Black Hearts in the military history section, and since we were over there, I remembered that this book, which I'd been eyeing in Germany at the PX and had heard overall great things about online, was probably out in paperback by now. I couldn't even remember the title or the author but when I saw the cover on a display table, I knew this was what I'd been searching for.

Personally, I really enjoyed the way they framed this book to tell the story. They choose one particular Soldier, Ben Steele, who experienced the death march, a work camp, and was sent to Japan to center their story around while also sharing anecdotes from many other Soldiers, discussing the big picture tactics and presenting both the Japanese and American sides. They give quite a bit of background to explain how the Bataan Death March came to be, including the loss of the Philippines, miscalculations on the Japanese sides, and then after the events of the Death March itself also explain what happened to the surviving American POWs and the eventual war crimes trial against the Japanese commander at the time of the March.

As I said, I think it was a great mix of historical fact with personal story. They also demonstrated the type of culture the Japanese soldiers were coming from, and the brutality within their own ranks. While this of course doesn't excuse anything, it helps shed a light on how this could happen. They interviewed a few Japanese, but, of course, for the most part, the Japanese that shared their stories were the ones that didn't want to kill prisoners etc. While I'm not doubting them, I'm sure the men that actively participated would be less willing to talk to interviewers so it makes sense that it seems like we get a bunch of Japanese that didn't participate and simply watched (kind of like after Hitler's demise, all the Germans were good people, and naturally none of them ever turned in a Jew and even gave them bread) - the question is whether these men or the sadists were more representative of the Japanese Army at the time. Also, it is clear that Japanese politicans and higher-ups were way too involved in the decision-making process and didn't allow for even their senior leaders to raise concerns or decide on the best tactial plans. LTG Homma was told he would have fifty days to take the Philippines and felt extreme pressure from higher when it took him five months (he was basically put into a type retirement after the campaign). One of his staff foresaw that Bataan would be very tough land against which to conduct an offensive and said it was more important to block the Americans from escaping to Bataan than winning Manila first but the Japanese Empire was more concerned with the symbolic victory of the capital city.

I also thought their portrayal of GEN MacArthur was rather interesting. I knew that at one point MacArthur's ego got to his head during the Korean War, and I'd also read a historical fiction novel that critiqued the way he handled the war crime trials after the war, saying that the men executed were pawns and scape goats. As far as the trials are concerned, they were shows. The verdict was decided way before the trial as seen by the differences between the defense and the prosecution's make-up and resources. Additionally, MacArthur had ultimate authority to change any decisions, and as someone else said, he was judging over a man that defeated him in battle - there's no way to be objective, as demonstrated by MacArthur's comment on the death warrant: "the proceedings show the defendant lacked the basic firmness of character and moral fortitude essential to officers charged with the high command of military forces in the field" (385) - not exactly necessary on a warrant that lists charges and court findings.

Mostly, the stuff about MacArthur I found interesting had to do with his preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. While I don't argue that he was a competent general, in this case he had quite a few missteps, some of which may have been a result of his famous ego. He sent false reports to the federal government about the preparedness of Filipino troops, he didn't expect the Japanese to attack until 1942, and as a result, all the Soldiers went about their duties rather complacently, and then he didn't react quickly when the Japanese did strike at Pearl Harbor. He didn't send out an airraid to Formosa soon enough so the entire air force was grounded and an easy target for the Japanese hours later. Additionally, even though Bataan was the obvious defensive position, MacArthur at first planned to defend all the islands, and as a result didn't move enough supplies south for a defensive campaign. As a result, the Americans were already weakened and starving before they even started the death march or arrived at the prison camps. Obviously, anyone can make a misstep but I just thought it was fascinating to see all these issues listed so specifically, especially given how popular MacArthur was with the American people and in the public imagination. It seems like everyone remembers him as a great general and his men thought he could do no wrong. Of course, this book also demonstrates that the man knew how to spin the press and press releases (then again, in the book, the Normans talk about how all the press releases said things like "General MacArthur and his troops . . .", "General MacArthur launched . . ." but I can kind of understand his side on this: yes, give your subordinates their due and acknowledge them but I also know that when I have to write evalution reports, they are written in a way to show that anything the Soldier that falls under the person being evaluated does reflects positively on the person being evaluated: "Soandso's squad completed . . . missions and drove . . . miles in support of . . ." - the idea being that it was Soandso's leadership that made it possible or inspired them).

While all this added depth and insight into the big picture (for example, the US government expected the Philippines to be an early target and knew they would be unable to hold it), the book's main focus is on the Soldiers, and what they saw and experienced. It was incredibly moving and educational, and there were quite a few men that stood out from the crowd (at one point, I was afraid I was going to start crying in the middle of a Moe's - the closest I've been able to get to a Chipotle in the Savannah area). Additionally, Ben Steele started drawing while he was a POW and pursued an education in art, so the book has several examples of his drawings dispersed throughout. I know I've spoken mainly about the men in charge in this review but I think that might be because that is the more analytical stuff that it is easy to talk about. Much of the rest of this book discusses things that are very violent, and emotional, detailing atrocities and how men survived. In some cases, it brought out the worst in them, and in others it brought out the best (could I sound anymore cliche). It is also written in a way that would appeal to people that aren't necessarily that interested in history books/nonfiction. Also, it's been years since I read this, but for anyone interested in the topic, I also remember being rather impressed by the book Ghost Soldiers. I think it focused more on the POW camps after the Death March than the march but it would probably still make a good companion to this book.

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