Sunday, November 8, 2009

By Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 464 pages

Here is a model of excellence in historical bookmaking. Deeply researched and finely documented, “Tears in the Darkness” is written brilliantly in lucid prose with pacing that propels the unwilling reader. Handsomely designed with subtle originality, the volume’s editing is invisible and illustrations captivating. This book is beautiful in every respect — except its core. Its subject is grim beyond words, tortuous, agonizing.

I couldn’t put it down for the fascinations of its characters’ inexplicable courage and survival instincts, for the mercy of release inferred in many deaths and for the closing irony of justice miscarried. Do I recommend it? Hardly. When my wife asked what made me straighten in my chair and mutter, I replied it was not something I wanted to read aloud. Still, it is an extraordinary work for those interested in human extremes.

For my generation, “Bataan” exemplifies unspeakable cruelties that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan loosed upon the world. Not to pick a fight with revisionists or deny that every nation (including ours) has done heinous things, the fact remains that Japan and Germany initiated the proximate causes of World War II. Then their armies committed epochal atrocities, one of them the Bataan Death March.

The name comes from the 30-mile peninsula that bounds Manila Bay on Luzon, largest of the 7,000-island Philippine archipelago, a U.S. dependency in 1941. Within hours of striking Pearl Harbor, Japan launched another surprise attack here. Unable to repel the invaders, American and Filipino defenders soon fell back to the natural bastion of Bataan and its island redoubt, the “rock” of Corregidor.

Starting with the air raid on Clark Field, the prose is vivid: “The injured, when they could talk, described brimstone scenes and stygian slaughter: bombs falling in trenches, dismembering and decapitating those caught cowering there; orange fireballs of gasoline and oil rimmed with a cockscomb of thick black smoke… the runways and aprons littered with pieces of wings, tails, and fuselage. …” This review will redact horrific details of broken bodies.

Having promised Washington he was building a force of 200,000 fighting men, our commander actually had half that number, including 80,000 reservists in tennis shoes. “To these men, on the eve of war, [Gen.] Douglas MacArthur issued the following order,” husband/wife authors Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman report. “‘The enemy will be met at the beaches … [which] will be held at all costs.” Hubris was his.

The Normans observe, “Somewhere along the line from West Point to Bataan, the general had forgotten the most fundamental lesson of warfare … logistics.” MacArthur planned a storybook defense against an army he called “third-rate.” When that proved ludicrous, his retreat was so hasty and ill-planned that huge caches of supplies were abandoned. When the defenders dug in on Bataan on Jan. 2, 1942, they had barely food for a few weeks. Somehow they held out until early April.

Then came the inevitable, humiliating surrender and infamous Death March, in which GIs were herded north for 60 miles — nonstop without food, water or rest en route. Prisoners who fell by the wayside were dispatched by bayonet. They were beaten, stabbed, shot, beheaded, chained together and toppled into a ravine. Enough.

On Bataan, they had fought valiantly against suicidal waves of Japanese troops — and against starvation, fatigue, jungle heat, tropical diseases and volcanic terrain. It is here that the Normans’ superbly researched narrative becomes enough to make one weep, and retch. It is also here that a certain soldier’s special talent proves invaluable as the Yanks live off the hostile land that still supports a few horses and carabao.

Born and raised rough on a Montana ranch, Ben Steele could “bring down a big critter like a water buffalo … [then] slaughter and dress the carcass quickly in the dark in the middle of no-man’s-land.” Here, apropos, the narrative offers a short course in field-dressing a beast that would make Sarah Palin proud.

Such asides fit the book’s collage structure. Brutal war reportage is relieved by pacific interludes, particularly about Ben Steele, a splendid fellow despite such deeds as beating a fellow prisoner and abandoning another on the March — for reasons that seem reasonable only in these insane circumstances.

Beyond humanizing men subjected to horrors, the authors, both of them professors at New York University, use Mr. Steele to individualize the numberless members of an army. He is bayoneted in the buttock for helping a stranger, beaten, starved. He suffers bouts of malaria, dysentery, jaundice, pneumonia, blood poisoning and beriberi, often simultaneously, and severely enough to be read the last rites. Yet he lives to see Montana again, and to draw the faces, bodies and scenes that adorn the book.

Mr. Steele survived through art. He taught himself to draw with bits of charcoal, learned the rules of perspective, then proceeded to make graphic records of the prisoners’ sufferings and guards’ atrocities. His first drawings, hidden in a priest’s Mass kit, were lost when the men were shipped like cattle to another island and unknowing American planes sunk their vessel. But Steele felt driven for decades to redraw the portraits and prison scenes from memory and with eyewitness veracity.

Not all the Americans are heroes nor all the villains Japanese. MacArthur “concentrated on the politics of the moment, … and maligning his enemy”; his arrogance and gamesmanship inspired hugely wrongheaded decisions. Nor is monumental egotism his alone. Japan’s high command, driven by monocultural certitude, regarded westerners as a race apart, a race beneath. Further, since Japan never signed the Geneva Convention, she ignored its proscriptions against torture and executions.

One Japanese officer emerges as a tragic hero: Maj. Gen. Masaharu Homma, the invaders’ commander, an urbane soldier of a traditional and ethical mindset had clashed with his Tokyo superiors and was punished with the Philippine assignment. Examining his prosecution for war crimes, the Normans conclude that he was railroaded — that a fair trial would have found him innocent of allowing torture and murder. Further, his American defense team could appeal his conviction only to MacArthur, the general he had beaten in battle, who by now was ruling as commander of the occupation government in Japan. It was a military commission that tried Gen. Homma and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

In sum, this fiercely honest historical work displays the horrors of war, documents man’s inhumanity to man, champions the mettle of men in extreme duress, assays the counterfeit coin of vengeance and celebrates Faulkner’s great credo: “man will not merely endure, he will prevail.”

Philip Kopper, a frequent contributor, may be reached via

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