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Book review

Author paints vivid picture of war

Sunday, December 2, 2012
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Book review


A book browser could be forgiven for thinking that “Pacific Crucible,” with its cover photo of burning American battleships, is just about the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, 71 years ago this Friday.

But author Ian W. Toll offers more than an account of the two hours of Japanese air attacks. He goes on to describe later battles, up to and including the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

Toll, who now lives in California, wrote most of the book while living in the Capital Region.

‘Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942’

Author: Ian W. Toll

Published by: W.W. Norton, 598 pages

How much: $19.95, paperback

Through the fog

The chaos of battle is sometimes called the “fog of war.” Like a successful commander, Toll leads the reader through the fog with well-organized writing and thorough research. The writing is so vivid that you feel the kinetic energy of aircraft battles in a way that makes modern war movies seem visually impoverished.

“Pacific Crucible” draws from classics, such as Walter Lord’s “Day of Infamy.” Yet it cites many new books as well as Internet research sources that have appeared in the past 10 years.

Toll has a gift for using narrative to set the stage. He shows, for example, how Japan’s culture, fragile economy and history led to the modern Imperial Japanese Navy, poised to strike Pearl Harbor. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, when the latter was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913, “I do not anticipate any trouble with Japan, but it may come, and if it does, it will come suddenly.”

Toll deftly explains American, British, Dutch and Japanese strategies and tactics before each battle. Then he describes the battle. He calls out the Japanese for their aggressive nationalism and atrocities. However, by giving a complete picture of the mindsets, technologies and tactics on each sides, he helps the reader better understand why each battle ended the way that it did.

“Pacific Crucible” has excellent profiles of the main war leaders: Roosevelt, Churchill, Emperor Hirohito, and admirals Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, Isoroku Yamamoto, Nobutake Kondo and Minoru Genda.

These leaders came of age in the early 20th century. Yamamoto was in the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905; President Theodore Roosevelt handed Ernest King his degree when King graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1901.

As these leaders started their careers, aircraft, radar, radio and oil-powered ships did not exist. Yet they saw the potential of these technologies, fit them into existing institutions and created something more powerful.

History repeats

Although it may not have been his main intention, Toll reminds the reader of how history repeats and evolves. Both admirals Yamamoto and King were unfaithful philanderers. Yet this part of their personal character did not affect their work, which might make generals Petraeus and Allen envious.

Japanese militarists built hostility toward the United States by publicizing racism experienced by Japanese immigrants arriving on the West Coast. This reminded me that when contemporary Americans disrespect Islamic or Middle Eastern traditions, the disrespect strengthens jihadists fighting the West.

The Navy worked relentlessly to break Japanese naval codes, so the American aircraft carrier fleet would not be caught off-guard by superior Japanese forces. American code-breakers succeeded but the United States almost lost the Battle of Midway because of bureaucratic turf wars, like those intelligence agencies wage today.

 
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