- - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

REFIGHTING THE PACIFIC WAR: AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF WORLD WAR II
Edited by Jim Bresnahan
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 250 pages

This slim book takes an interesting approach to the retelling of the Pacific War, at least as it involved the Navy and Marines. In this sense, the title is somewhat misleading, since the Army and Army Air Forces are hardly mentioned. Nevertheless, author-editor Jim Bresnahan posits a number of “what ifs” involving what might have happened had selected battles or commanders’ decisions gone the other way.

For example, suppose the Japanese had carried out a third attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Suppose the Americans had not broken the Japanese code and thus had not been forewarned about the planned assault on Midway. Suppose the Americans had lost at Guadalcanal and been forced out of the Solomons. Suppose Tarawa and the subsequent slaughter of Marines had been bypassed. Suppose Adm. William “Bull” Halsey had not swallowed the bait and rushed north chasing toothless Japanese carriers, thus leaving the Leyte invasion force with less-than-desired air support. Suppose President Truman had not authorized the use of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Discussing these hypothetical scenarios and more are a select group of distinguished Pacific War historians and combat veterans. It’s an interesting way to review history and absorb lessons learned, but a word of caution is in order. Unless one knows fairly well the actual history of the naval war in the Pacific, much of the discussions will not be fully comprehensible. To be fair, the editor does try to orient the reader between each situation posed, but such orientation is often insufficient. There seems to have been an underlying assumption that, “everyone knows” the history. If you do, this book is for you. If you do not, you had probably better brush up first.

Even for the knowledgeable there is a problem, however. There are absolutely no maps. Unless one is current in readings about the Pacific War or is a geography guru, it’s quite easy to forget the relationships of and distances between the various Pacific islands and archipelagos. Fewer photos of old admirals and a few clarifying maps would have been a tremendous improvement.

On the other hand, the introduction by retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is well worth the price of the book. Seldom before, if ever, has the pre-World War II Japanese thinking, planning and equipping been so clearly and so well detailed.

For example, neither the Japanese nor the Americans at the time had fully developed aircraft carrier doctrine. This proved to be responsible for terrible mistakes on both sides, since it required commanders to make decisions on the fly, often with limited information.Japanese Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo at Midway was placed in just such a situation. Jon Parshall does an outstanding job of describing Nagumo’s dilemma.

Over the years, Nagumo has come in for much criticism for not keeping his attack aircraft armed with torpedoes ready to launch against the Americans once they were located. Would that it were that simple. For readers who wish to understand Nagumo’s situation, a review of Mr. Parshall’s comments is recommended.

Throughout, Mr. Bresnahan’s subject and commentator selections succeed. His contributors are experts and he has done a good job of parsing what is important. Not neglected are the key factors that made America’s ultimate victory possible: the tremendous resources and production efforts of the entire United States and the steadily diminishing lack thereof within the empire of Japan.

“Refighting the Pacific War” is a compelling exercise and many of the lessons learned are relevant today. Of particular note is the discussion of whether the atomic bombs should have been used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Stephen D. Regan, whose father had been a corpsman on Bougainville. He writes, “Finally, we must remember, although Americans are quick to forget such things, that war is a horrible, gut-wrenching, painful and hideous murdering of men and a similar loss of our own men. Wars are easy to start and darn difficult to end.”

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.

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