Sunday, 31 December 2017

Book Review - Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester

Goodbye, Darkness : a memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester

New York: Back Bay Books, 2002 (originally published by Little, Brown & Company 1980)

ISBN 9780316501118

What a book! I came to this work thinking that it was the recollections of Manchester's time in the Marines during the War: it is that, but so much more besides. It is a potted history of the island-hopping campaign run by Nimitz, along with a current-day (1980) view of some of the most infamous and bloody battles in history.

Manchester, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa - where he was seriously wounded - decided in his middle-age to revisit the Pacific, to try and make sense of his time there, to make sense of the War in the Pacific, and work through his ideas of what the United States had fought for, and whether it was worthwhile.

This is, mostly, a recollection of futility and waste: that is, a book about war. Manchester revisits Guadalcanal, the first test of the Marines in the War, where both the Allies and the Japanese fought the climate, disease and lack of food as much as they fought each other. Not for the last time, the Americans greatly underestimated how much effort it would take to successfully complete such invasions. For months, the fate of the Allies' war, and perhaps even Australia, balanced on who would prevail in the Solomons: at that time Guadalcanal was one of the most important places on the globe. When Manchester visits in the late 1970s Guadalcanal has returned to being the sleepy backwater it was before the War. He spends a night on Bloody Ridge, and is haunted by old memories and fears.

He then visits Tarawa; he wasn't there during the War, and there isn't much there now. The island of Betio which held the airstrip and which therefore was the prize, is small - "No part of it is more than three hundred yards from the water." There were nearly five thousand Japanese on the island, and about the same number of Marines landed to face them. In 76 hours the battle was over, at the cost of 3,381 Marine casualties (over 900 deaths): of the Japanese garrison, 17 were taken prisoner. Such brutality was commonplace in the Pacific, where the Marines often took 60-70% casualty rates in their units and were still fighting. The Japanese typically fought to the last man.

This fact makes it all the more horrifying when Manchester goes on to describe the battle for Peleliu. Owing to the quick advance of the Allies under MacArthur on the Western flank of the warzone, the Peleliu operation was strategically pointless by the time it got underway. Every casualty there was a waste of a life. 2,336 Marines died there, 8,450 were wounded. The Japanese lost 10,695 killed, and of the 202 men captured, 183 were foreign labourers.

As the Allies got close to Japan, the tactics of the enemy changed. Instead of meeting the Marines on the beach, the Japanese fortified themselves inland and proceeded to bleed the US forces dry. In this way they hoped that, even though they knew Japan couldn't win, the Allies would baulk at the horrific cost in men that an invasion of the Home Islands would make (MacArthur, usually accurate in his predictions, estimated one million US casualties in such an invasion).

Thus as Saipan, Guam and Iwo Jima fell, so did tens upon tens of thousands of men. In what is an acute irony, Manchester describes how Iwo Jima is now a Japanese military base.

Manchester deals briefly with MacArthur's war as well, his fleeing and returning to the Philippines via New Guinea. But this is a memoir mostly of the Marines, of Manchester's platoon, and in the end, of that platoon's Golgotha, which came to them on the slopes of Sugarloaf Hill on Okinawa. The scale of the carnage on that island is almost impossible to believe. In fact Manchester, when he revisits it, struggles to come to terms with the fact that normal life, with motorways and McDonalds stores can go on where such bloody battles were fought. This passage is a key to some of Manchester's struggles within this book: what was all the sacrifice for, if the World, and people, haven't really changed? How can people forget so quickly? How can it be that the things that he and his comrades fought for have now become "old hat"? And how can the fit and combat-ready Marine Sergeant have become a crusty middle-aged man?

Manchester's description of the horror and degradation of battle is at times terrifying and his howls of anger at the death of those he fought with are painful to read. In the end Manchester comes to the realisation that soldiers fight for love of the man next to them: grand strategy has little meaning, but the life of your platoon-mate means everything. When you see them die, part of you dies as well.

Some of Manchester's platoon died heroes, single-handedly fight off Japanese attacks; Others had their throats cut in the middle of the night; Some were killed by friendly-fire; one was incinerated when a flamethrower malfunctioned; another got hung up on barbed wire, unretrievable, and the platoon had to listen to his screams of agony until he died. This, in the end, is the legacy of war.

At the end of the book, Manchester has his recurring dream one more time. This time, when the middle-aged Manchester reaches the top of Sugarloaf, he doesn't see his younger self ascending the other side. He has laid his ghosts to rest: "His Sergeant would never come again. He turned away, blinded by tears." He wasn't alone in that.

This is one of the most powerful books on World War Two that I have read. It is not for the faint-of-heart. It is a classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Book Review - The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch

The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015                ISBN 9781250051028

Hagiography. The inherent danger in seeing no wrong in a person, especially if you are claiming to write history, is that you as historian may be hoist on your own petard. Thom Hatch, with his worship of Custer, has blown himself so high that he may never hit the ground. While the dust jacket tells us that Hatch will "set the record straight" all he actually does is make the reader question his interpretation of events.

And there is plenty of interpretation on offer to everyone, not only about the Battle of the Little Bighorn itself, but in many other aspects of Custer's career. Hatch, in every interpretation he makes, sides with Custer, and at times what he doesn't write in his book tells the reader as much as what he does.

Despite what the title suggests, this book not only delves into the last days of Custer's life, but also gives us over a hundred pages of preliminaries, covering most of the life and career of Custer. Hatch passes over Custer's less-than-stellar time at West Point, excusing his record number of demerits and low pass mark as the result of "youthful exuberance". Whilst not going into great detail, Hatch writes of Custer's Civil War as a triumphal progress as he does of his subsequent efforts against the Indians. By this part of the book it's clear to the reader that we are reading a one-sided account of events.

Hatch then goes on to describe the prelude to, and the Battle of, Little Bighorn relatively accurately. It is when he comes to his analysis that we again see his bias emerge. He is determined not to allow any opprobrium stick to his glorious General.

Hatch puts the entire blame for the failure of the Cavalry at Little Bighorn onto Major Reno's failed charge on the Indian village. While on one page he is equating Reno's failure to carry out Custer's order to the letter as a capital offence, in the next he incidentally shows us several reasons why Reno acted as he did: he thought Custer was coming along behind him, and Reno had no experience fighting Indians. One could, contra Hatch, just as easily argue that, given Custer knew Reno had not fought against Indians before, that he should have been much more explicit with his order, and in explaining what his tactics were to be. If - as Hatch contends - Reno's charge was the key to victory or defeat, it would have been well for Custer to do so. Reno was in fact second-in-command on the day and it would have been reasonable and even expected that Custer would discuss his overall tactics with him.

It is clear that Reno suffered from Battle Shock after the first contact at Little Bighorn, and his behaviour was far from what should have been expected from an officer, but it is a long bow to draw to place the entire failure of the Cavalry down to his ineffectual charge.

The irony of this excoriation of Reno for not following orders to the letter, after praising Custer for doing the same during the Civil War, is not lost on the reader, although it seems to be so to the author. Even with Hatch's idolisation of Custer throughout this book, it is clear in these pages that while Custer was no doubt personally brave, he was also reckless and impulsive. To attack what was as far as is known the largest Indian encampment ever seen on the Plains without even a reconnoitre of the lay of the land, or knowing if the River was passable, was reckless in the extreme, even if time was of the essence to catch the Indians by surprise.

Hatch describes how Custer almost had a "set play" for his battles against Indians - attack the front of the encampment with some troops, outflank and catch the Indians as they regroup or flee with the rest. This worked previously, but it seems that this time, under the aggressive leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall the Indians had decided to stand and fight. They outnumbered the Cavalry by five-to-one.

There is no knowing what the outcome of the Battle would have been if Reno had continued his charge; Hatch assumes that Custer would have come in on the flank to an easy victory. An equally realistic scenario is Reno and his men being cut down in the maze of tepees while Custer was held off at the river before the weight of numbers forced him to retreat, or to suffer defeat.

The reality of course is that no one thing caused the disaster. If General Crook had notified Terry and Custer of his battle on the Rosebud, if Custer had better knowledge of the size and location of the village, yes, if Reno had charged into the village, if Benteen had kept moving toward Custer with the pack train, if Custer had retreated toward Benteen and Reno when he was still able, if Custer had got his men together in a defensive position early enough, if, if, if. The enormous amount of Little Bighorn literature spawns from these ifs, and a lot of it is better thought-out and argued than Hatch's book.

Hatch also, to my mind, borders on the offensive when he brands the Indians as enemies of the United States, and of progress, writing "The United States had every right to expand its boundaries to include the Great Plains West. Oddly enough, many moder scholars believe there was something honorable about the Sioux fighting to defend their right to roam free. The West was becoming too small and populated to allow a group advocating violence to close off thousands of square miles.....Peace entreaties had been made and were dismissed." The disingenuousness of this paragraph, the last sentence in particular, is astounding. Peace entreaties had indeed been made, and regularly broken, by the United States Government. The Black Hills had been given in perpetuity to the Indian tribes and then taken away, as had many other locations across the West. What resort did the Indians have but to try to keep what was theirs by force, as negotiation and treaty had failed time and again. And surely there is honour in fighting for your freedom: I have no doubt Hatch, a Vietnam Veteran, would claim that himself. To state that there is honour in fighting for your way of life is not to denigrate the bravery of Custer, or of the Seventh Cavalry, who were on the right and wrong side of history at the same time, as were the Indians. By pushing his feelings too far, Hatch undermines himself, the petard explodes again.

There are better places to start with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer, and indeed the American West, than with this book.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell