The current wave of World War II nostalgia was set in motion 10 years ago this spring by the 50th anniversary of D-day. Only so many books can be written about the Normandy invasion, so authors serving the insatiable market for "greatest generation" epics soon turned to the Pacific theater for new heroes to celebrate.
They found plenty of candidates, but they also found that Pacific war stories require special handling. Devotees of greatest-generation books expect to cheer the heroes and hiss the villains. That makes for an awkward situation when the villains are Japanese and the heroes end up dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
America went to war in 1941 to avenge Pearl Harbor, not to save the world from Hitler. Nowadays, we prefer to remember the conflict as a crusade against Nazi evil, while Japan has defaulted to its historical role as an idealized source of Zen wisdom for Americans seeking enlightenment.
Would Hollywood ever cast Tom Cruise in a film exalting the martial spirit of Prussia's officer corps in the time of Kaiser Wilhelm I? Not likely. Yet Cruise in The Last Samurai plays an American who travels to Japan in 1876 and embraces Bushido, the way of the warrior. At the end of the film, Cruise's character presents the sword of a defeated samurai to the Meiji emperor, who accepts it reverently and vows that Bushido will not be forgotten as Japan modernizes.
A touching scene, but it may give pause to readers of James Bradley's Flyboys: A True Story of Courage (Little, Brown, 400 pages, $25.95). Bradley relates a real-life incident from 1937 in which two Japanese army officers serving the Meiji emperor's grandson Hirohito used their samurai swords to see who could behead the most Chinese prisoners.
Other latter-day samurai later tested their swords on American necks. Such episodes fueled the bitter fury with which the Pacific war was fought on the American side, often with viciously racist overtones. This is not the stuff from which uplifting narratives are easily crafted. How, then, do greatest-generation eulogists write about the Pacific war without bogging down in the ugliness and bumming out their readers?
The answer generally has been to avoid the big picture and focus more narrowly on a specific event, such as the Iwo Jima campaign Bradley wrote about in his enormously popular Flags of Our Fathers four years ago. Flyboys, however, departs from this formula, because Bradley tackles head-on the thorny issues of Japan's wartime villainy and America's problematic response.
Flyboys graphically describes the horrors the Japanese committed in the Pacific war. Bradley also notes (and exaggerates) the atrocities U.S. soldiers committed decades earlier, during their conquest of the Philippines. Finally, he gives us a Japanese view of the firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated at least 84,000 people. And the book ends on a conciliatory note, with president George H. W. Bush and Bradley visiting Chichi Jima in 2002 and being warmly welcomed by the Japanese residents. It is brave of Bradley to take this evenhanded approach, because he is writing against his own genre. That huge Flags of Our Fathers audience expects another feel-good story in which good triumphs over evil. Flyboys denies them this tidy dichotomy, and Bradley keeps throwing cold water on the strong emotions generated by his central narrative. Some readers may be disappointed by his refusal to take sides.
Those readers might prefer Alan Schom's The Eagle and the Rising Sun (W.W. Norton, 416 pages, $28.95), which does not hesitate to blame the Pacific war on Japanese expansionism. Schom has written about the Napoleonic wars; this apparently is his first foray into World War II. His title, then, is boldly chosen, since it invites comparison to Eagle Against the Sun, Ronald Spector's highly regarded 1985 account of the Pacific war. Such a comparison would not be flattering to Schom, but his book has its merits.
Schom plays the iconoclast, scorning the alleged incompetence of Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall while championing such lesser-known figures as Richmond Kelly Turner and Raizo Tanaka, the admiral who skillfully extracted Japan's defeated troops from Guadalcanal.
While Schom and Bradley approach the war from different angles, both indict Hirohito as a war criminal. "In the final analysis, the mass gassing of hundreds of thousands of Chinese POWs ... had dramatic impact, similar to what the Germans were doing in their concentration camps against Jews and other prisoners," Schom writes, provocatively.
Hirohito goes virtually unnoticed in Donovan Webster's The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pages, $25), which mainly concerns itself with Gen. Joseph Stilwell's star-crossed effort to conquer northern Burma and reopen the supply road to China. Webster is an Outside magazine veteran, so it's no surprise to learn that while researching this book he trekked over as much of the old Burma Road as he could find.
Stilwell's was not the only ghost Webster was tracking; there was also the late Barbara Tuchman, whose magisterial Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Webster's book will not supplant Tuchman's, on which he leans heavily. But he does weave a compelling narrative.
Webster's emphasis is on war as a grueling outdoor adventure. The opposing armies pursue one another through tiger-infested jungles, plagued by leeches as they slog miserably from firefight to firefight. This is great material, and Webster handles it well. But when he strays from the Burma Road, he often stumbles, as when he refers to Japan as "a crowded island," locates Hanoi "in Indochina's deepest south" and omits Tokyo, the main target, from his list of the Japanese cities bombed during the Doolittle Raid.
With his Burma focus, Webster has no need to address the 1945 bomber campaigns that destroyed Japan's cities. Neither does Schom, who ends his book in 1943, halfway through the war. (A second volume is planned.) The last word, then, goes to Bradley, who gives it to George H.W. Bush. "I hold no rancor in my heart for my former enemy," the then-president told the U.S. and Japanese veterans gathered at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1991, to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack.
The hard feelings have faded, but the war was so savagely fought that we still shrink from the implications. Thus the greatest-generation publishing phenomenon dates not to 1991 but to 1994 and the D-Day anniversary, with its more ennobling story line. Six decades after it ended, the Pacific war still is easier to remember in fragments than in full.
Mark Lewis is books editor of Forbes.com. He is working on a book about the American colonial experience in the Philippines and has a strong interest in Pacific naval history. This review appeared in longer form in The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.