Tripwire by Lee Child (1999)

Novels of all types begin with a plot or fabula – a series of logically and chronologically related events, usually involving the same or a related set of characters. The author then creates from this a story, whereby different elements of the fabula are deployed in ways to create suspense, or irony, or mystery.

One of the main pleasures of reading a novel is working your way through the story back towards the fabula underlying it. In detective and thriller novels, this has become the main element of the text Whodunnit, and why?

The fabula

Thirty years ago in the Vietnam War, a U.S. helicopter pilot named Victor Hobie is sent on a mission, carrying a couple of military policemen to collect a notorious crooked American soldier, Carl Allen from a remote part of the jungle. The chopper is shot down and crashes, killing all on board except the criminal Allen who, however, has half his arm chopped off by a rotor blade and half his face burned by kerosene.

In a very bad way, Allen nonetheless swaps dog tags with the nearest body (as it happens, the tags of the pilot, Victor Hobie) and crawls off into the jungle.

Weeks later he is picked up by a U.S. patrol more dead than alive and taken to hospital. But as soon as he is half way mended, he breaks out of the hospital and makes his way, first of all to the secret location in the countryside where he had buried his stash of cash and other valuables; then uses this to buy his way through native villages across Vietnam, into Cambodia and then across the border into Thailand.

Thai doctors fix a prosthetic attachment to his stump of an arm, and he chooses a stainless steel hook. Not much can be done for his half-burned face. Eventually, Allen returns to the States and uses his assets to set himself up in business as a lender of last resort, using intimidation tactics to terrify his debtors.

Thirty years later he has established a respectable front organisation, Cayman Corporate Trust, with swish offices on the 88th floor of the World Trade Centre. He has adopted the name of the man whose dog tags he stole, Hobie, along with a grim nickname, ‘Hook’.

The trigger of the plot is that a man named Chester Stone has inherited the cinema film and projector company set up by his grandfather and expanded by his father, but which is now running into big trouble. Stone needs a loan of a million dollars to tide him over for six weeks until some new business comes in. Stone’s finance director points him towards Hobie, so Stone goes to meet him and takes out a loan, signing over some of the shares in the company as security.

What Stone doesn’t know is that Hobie plans to take over his entire company, by force and physical intimidation if necessary, and then demolish all the properties, factories and so on which it owns along the Long Island shore – and develop it as prime real estate land.

Hobie / Allen’s plan is complicated by the fact that he has been tipped off that someone has been snooping around the U.S. Army’s forensic facility in Hawaii, asking questions about Victor Hobie. And that, as part of the ongoing repatriation programme of U.S. military corpses, the army has just gotten round to crating up and shipping home the bodies from the site of the long-ago helicopter crash, delayed for so long partly because the Vietnamese authorities drove a hard bargain, demanding money for access, and partly because of its inaccessible location.

Hobie is tipped off about both of these situations, which threaten to unmask him and reveal his fake identity to the authorities. That is the meaning of the title, Tripwire. For thirty years Hobie has had in place a set of two ‘tripwires’ which would force him to bolt – the shipment of the bodies from Vietnam, and anybody snooping in Hawaii. Now both tripwires have been triggered at the same time.

His assistant, Tony, begs him to carry out the long-held plan, to liquidate his assets and flee the country, adopting a new identity. But Hobie is mesmerised by his project to fleece Stone, liquidate the Stone company, and sell of the Long Shore property at a vast profit. He wants to complete this last, grand plan.

And so he doesn’t hesitate to take Stone’s wife, Marilyn, hostage, along with the pretty woman estate agent who Marilyn had invited to come and value her and Chester’s house.

The story

This is the long, complicated back story which Jack Reacher (and the reader) has to unravel, starting with a trigger incident and then slowly working back through clues and investigations.

When we meet Reacher he is happily digging holes for swimming pools in Key West in Florida, hard exercise which has made his six foot five body even more formidable and fit. In the evenings he works as ‘muscle’ in a strip bar where the girls, unsurprisingly, are attracted by his size and strength and chivalrous nature. He looks, one of them says, ‘like a condom crammed with walnuts’ (p.23).

In the opening scene a private investigator, name of Costello, comes to the bar asking after a ‘Jack Reacher’. He’s been sent by a Mrs Jacob. Reacher tells him he’s never heard of Reacher or Jacobs. Later Reacher discovers Costello’s body, shot in the face with his fingertips cut off.

Intrigued, Reacher figures Costello must have been a retired cop, from New York by his accent, and with typical ‘Reacher luck’ rings around New York precincts till he is answered by a jaded old cop who says, ‘Sure, Costello, yeah he retired and set up as an investigator to pay off his alimony’ – and helpfully hands over the name and address of Costello’s office.

So Reacher’s Quest begins. He gets a plane to New York and goes to Costello’s office, only to find the door swinging open (as so many doors swing handily open in Reacher’s adventures) and the secretary’s computer handily left on. He uses it to get the address of the client ‘Mrs Jacob’ who Costello had mentioned, hires a car and motors out to her house.

To discover that ‘Mrs Jacob’ is none other than Jodie Garber, daughter of Reacher’s own mentor in the Military Police, Colonel Leon Garber. He knew her when she was an already-beautiful 15-year-old and he 24. Now she is a beautiful 29-year-old, in fact ‘achingly beautiful’ (p.81). Named Jacob because she married a man named Jacob, though she is now conveniently divorced and single again.

Reacher turns up as she is hosting a funeral party for her Dad who has just passed away from heart disease. Lots of Army top brass and officials who Reacher mixes with, embarrassed about his casual Key West clothes.

Once the guests leave Jodie and Reacher do some catching up. She explains that her dad had asked her to find Reacher, because he was involved in a case but, becoming increasingly poorly, needed his best M.P. to help him. Hence she commissioned Costello to find Reacher. Ah so.

But they have barely got chatting before two armed men try to shoot them. Reacher being Reacher handles the situation and he and Jodie roar off in her car. Now she is On The Quest, too. Now she is On The Team.

Reacher always assembles small teams, usually with one male sidekick, and always with a nubile and available woman who he ends up sleeping with. In Make Me it was investigator Chang, who he sleeps with. In Killing Floor it was Police Officer Roscoe, who he sleeps with. In this book it is attractive Wall Street lawyer Jodie Jacob, who… he sleeps with.

(‘Sleep with’ doesn’t really convey the sense of frenzied physical activity which the books tastefully hint at. In several of them there are fleeting references to the woman straddling Reacher. Given that he is six foot five of solid muscle trained to kill in 20 different ways, I can imagine that riding him is the only way to avoid serious physical injury.)

Jodie and Reacher go visit her father’s heart doctor whose receptionist tells them he was always chatting to old Mr Hobie, another patient with heart disease, in the waiting room. So, following this tip, off they go to interview Mr and Mrs Hobie, who tell them that, Yes, they asked the colonel to help them find the remains of their son. He was a model son, a medal-winning soldier and yet for all these years the Army has refused to confirm he is dead. So they are hoping against hope that he is still alive in Vietnam somewhere.

The Hobies had come across a researcher who they paid eighteen thousand dollars to track their son down and who came back with a photo of a gaunt fifty year old man in U.S. combat fatigues apparently in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. The bounty hunter asked for more money to fund an expedition to liberate him.

Reacher takes Jodie to meet this guy, Rutter, who turns out to be a con artist, who had rigged up the photo in the New York botanical gardens amid tropical plants. Reacher beats the crap out of Rutter, takes his gun and his car and all the cash he has, half to repay the Hobies what he swindled them out of, half to fund what is now Reacher’s Quest.

Thrillers generally have information instead of psychology. Characters don’t develop much, but they often take you to interesting places, and explore interesting subjects. In fact, many thrillers contain at their core a sort of Wikipedia level of basic information on the chosen topic or subject area.

In this case the novel includes extensive information about what happened to the American Missing In Action in the Vietnam War. Using his wartime credentials, and the fact he’s with the daughter of the widely respected Colonel Leon Garber, Reacher blags his way into first the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and then on to the military Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, a special facility that identifies the forensic remains of U.S. soldiers.

At the latter Reacher meets up with his old mentor, General Nash Newman, a forensic anthropologist (p.412). Threaded throughout the book we have had descriptions of the bodies of the American soldiers killed in that helicopter crash all those years earlier, being transported from the jungle to a military airport, being loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force plane with full military honours, and flown to Hawaii.

It is here that there is a memorable scene as Newman invites Reacher to study the seven bodies from the helicopter crash, reduced pretty much to charred skeletons, and figure out the puzzle.

The scene features the nearest thing to emotion in a Reacher novel, namely horror at the precise way each of the seven was dismembered, crushed or burned to death as the chopper crashed.

But it is also a Sherlock Holmes-level of close examination and deduction. We follow Reacher as he examines each of the bodies in turn before realising that the truth is staring him in the face — there are seven bodies but fifteen hands. The survivor had his hand chopped off in the disaster. They are looking for a one-armed man.

Meanwhile back in the World Trade Centre, the torture continues. Two policemen follow up a clue and go up to Hobie’s offices on the 88th floor, where they discover that Hobie is holding Chester, Marilyn and the state agent woman hostage. Hobie and Tony immediately get the drop on the cops, disarm and handcuff them.

Hook Hobie is a psychopath. He takes the woman cop into the bathroom of the swish offices, and tortures her to death to the terror of the other hostages. Chester and Marilyn have bought some time by telling Hobie that the remaining share certificates are held in trust, and can only be handed over with a lawyer as witness.

It’s hardly high feminism in action, but it’s worth pointing out that Marilyn, Chester’s wife, from the get-go is much more tough-minded, focused and practical than her lily-livered husband. While he goes into catatonic shock after being kidnapped, Marilyn becomes a classic Lee Child character, devising strategies to try and redeem the situation. It is she who persuades Hobie to let Sheryl, the estate agent whose nose Hobie had violently smashed, to be taken to hospital.

Grudgingly (and improbably) Hobie consents. Tony drives her to the nearest hospital, drumming into her that if she calls the cops Chester and Marilyn will be killed. She does this, putting off the cops, claiming her broken nose was an accident. But she also follows Marilyn’s instructions and alerts a law firm Marilyn knows, to expect a strange call.

Marilyn tells Hobie she is calling the law firm which must be witness to signing over all the share certificates to Stone’s company. Prepared for the call, the lawyer at the other end says they’re reluctant to do anything in this situation, she should really contact the police etc.

Hobie is standing right by Marilyn and can hear everything she says, so it’s like the scene you’ve seen in hundreds of TV shows and movies where the hostage has to say things which appear anodyne to the bad guy listening, but signal her real intent to the people at the other end of the line.

The climactic shootout

Jodie’s firm tell her she has been booked in for a big business meeting about the liquidation of a multi-million dollar company, and so she and Reacher hasten back from Hawaii mulling over what they’ve learned about the helicopter crash and the likely fate of Victor Hobie.

After having more sex at her Manhattan apartment, and freshening up, Reacher drops Jodie at the World Trade Centre. It is here, on the 88th floor, at Hobie’s offices, that the climax of the novel comes.

In the lift Jodie meets the private detective hired by the law firm Marilyn had contacted. The two of them walk into a trap in Hobie’s office, are disarmed, beaten up a little, and plonked on the sofa next to Chester and Marilyn.

All through the novel Hobie has been kept informed of the researches of Reacher. It was, after all, Hobie’s goons who killed Costello and then, following the same paper trail from Costello’s office that Reacher found, had tried to break in and kidnap Jodie – only to have Reacher save her life and scoot her away.

Hobie also has a paid snitch at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, who tips him off about Reacher’s visit. So for some time Hobie has known that Reacher was on his scent. Now he holds his razor sharp hook against Jodie’s pretty face and tells her to phone Reacher and ask him to meet her there.

Knowing something is wrong, Reacher says he’s still in St Louis and it will take him some time to get there. OK, says Jodie. Hobie hears all this and settles down to wait. Unbeknown to him Reacher is still just outside the World Trade Centre. He bluffs his way past security in the standard Reacher style, and takes the lift to the 88th floor. Takes out the hall bulb so it’s dark in the hallway, and buzzes to say there’s a delivery.

Now throughout this final stage of the story, Hobie has been accompanied only by his fixer, Tony, and another tough guy. The tough guy opens the door and Reacher immediately attacks him, disarms him, pushes him over to the wall and breaks his neck. Using a fire axe he chops his lower arm off, then arranges the body, with severed hand next to it, carefully on the floor, and ducks down behind the reception desk to wait.

Noticing the tough guy’s absence, Hobie himself comes out to the reception area but still holding Jodie by his hook with a shotgun in the other hand. Hobie freezes when he sees the dismembered body, overcome with traumatic memories of the helicopter crash exactly as Reacher had hoped.

But Jodie is entirely blocking his face so Reacher can’t get in a shot. Tony the fixer follows carrying a shotgun and, walking clear of the other two, Reacher has a clear shot and shoots his head off with his handgun. This makes Hobie turn, scoop up the shotgun and before Reacher can re-aim, fire a huge, scattergun blast at the reception desk Reacher’s hiding behind, which blows into smithereens.

Reacher is aware of terrible pain in his head and blood pouring down his face. Jodie tells him he has a nail sticking out of his forehead. After a minute’s stand-off, Jodie ushes backwards against Hobie who trips over the corpse on the floor and shoots the other barrel of the shotgun accidentally into the corpse.

Blood flies everywhere. That’s the two barrels of the shotgun used up, so Hobie scoops out of his pocket one of the little handguns he had confiscated off the cop-turned-investigator who had accompanied Jodie to the meeting.

He holds this gun against Jodie’s side. It is a classic movie standoff with Hobie knowing that if he kills Jodie, Reacher will immediately shoot him, but if Reacher tries to shoot Hobie, Hobie will kill Jodie. Impasse.

The two protagonists weigh the situation and discuss it like pros, like all the characters in Reacher novels who spend their entire lives calculating odds and making plans.

‘I’ll shoot her,’ Allen said.
Reacher shook his head again. The pain was fearsome. It was building stronger and spreading  behind both his eyes.
‘You won’t shoot her,’ he said. ‘Think about it, Allen. You’re a selfish piece of shit. The way you are, you’re always number one. You shoot her, I’ll shoot you. You’re twelve feet away from me. I’m aiming at your head. You pull your trigger, I’ll pull mine. She dies, you die one-hundredth of a second later. You won’t shoot me either because, you line up on me you go down before you’re even half way there. Think about it. Impasse.’
He stared at him through the pain and the gloom. A classic standoff. (p.521)

The impasse is broken by Jodie who suddenly kicks back against Hobie, giving Reacher just time enough to pull up his gun. Hobie beats him to it by a fraction of a second, fires and hits Reacher full in the chest but Reacher still has the momentum to fire a shot which, with typical Reacher luck, blows Hobie’s head to smithereens.

Days later Reacher regains consciousness in hospital. The doctors have removed the nail and other debris from his head. And it turns out that all that pool building in Key West has built up his musculature to such a peak of toughness that the bullet’s momentum was slowed and it only bruised a rib.

Captain America. Superman. Jack Reacher.


Jack Reacher novels as ternary systems

A binary numeral system has two values, represented as 0 and 1. A binary system has two states, off and on. A ternary system has three states.

Calculating plans As in the other Jack Reacher novels, all the characters spend most of their time calculating what to do next, coming up with plans and schemes.

‘We were chased and attacked there, but nobody out here is paying any attention to us.’
‘You been checking?’ she asked, alarmed.
‘I’m always checking,’ he said. (p. 352)

The other guy was busy calculating the odds. (p.29)

Hobie moved his arm and tapped a little rhythm on the desktop with the point of his hook. Thought hard, and nodded again, decisively. (p.57)

Then he made his second great breakthrough. Similar to the first. It was a process of deep radical thought. A response to a problem. (p.130)

There was silence on the line again. Just the same faint hiss, and breathing. Like the old woman was thinking. Like she needed time to adjust to some new considerations. (p.136)

Hobie nodded, vaguely. He was thinking hard. (p.139)

It was a good plan, almost worked. (p.181)

Reacher changed his plan. (p.287)

Tony laughed. Jodie looked from him to Hobie. She saw that they were very nearly at the end of some long process. (p.495)

Lee Child characters view life as a sequence of problems, to be thought through and solved. Have a problem = unhappy. Have a plan = happy.

He could see Gerber’s problem. In the middle of something, health failing, unwilling to abandon an obligation, needing help. (p.93)

Jodie was the problem. (p.104)

‘Those two assholes playing at being my enforcers will be no problem.’ (p.141)

‘What about this Reacher guy? He’s still a loose end.’
Hobie shrugged in his chair. ‘I’ve got a separate plan for him.’ (p.141)

They paused in the hot Missouri sunshine after they paid off the cab and agreed on how to do it. (p.313)

Hobie has put in place a plan for what to do if the secret of his false identity ever comes out.

When he discovers Mrs Jacob is on his trail he dispatches men to kill her.

He devises a plan to take Chester Stone’s company off him.

Chester, meanwhile, is devising a plan to keep his company afloat.

For her part, Marilyn Stone, sensing the financial trouble her husband is in, devises a plan to sell their house – hence the presence of the estate agent.

And then reacts to the plight of being kidnapped not with panic, but with a series of strategems intended to wrest some control and agency back to her and her husband.

And so on, throughout the text. There is no end to the characters’ scheming and planning.

Binary Therefore, you could say that, for the purpose of these stories, all Lee Child characters operate in a binary system, having just two mental states: problem – where they are confronted with a situation, complexities, barriers – or plan – a solution, a way forward which manages the problem.

Child has Reacher reflect that this simple-minded vision of life as a sequence of problems requiring planning and solving stems from his upbringing in the Army, which gave him a very binary view of life.

His own career had been locked tight inside the service itself, where things were always simple, either happening or not happening, good or bad, legal or not legal. (p.474)

And, in a later passage, we are also shown how Reacher’s obsession with planning everything out, about thinking in terms of strategic advantage, combat and victory, is also the legacy of his army training.

Combat is about time and space and opposing forces. Like a huge four-dimensional diagram… Stay calm and plan. (p.508)

Stage 1: analyse threat. Stage 2: implement plan. OK. But I think there is another, third, element.

Shrugging I couldn’t help noticing that the characters are always shrugging. I began to underline the word ‘shrug’ and realised that it occurs on almost every page, sometimes twice a page.

DeWitt just shrugged. (p.374)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.376)
DeWitt just shrugged again. (p.378)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.379)

Why? In practice there’s a variety of reasons, but at its simplest it’s because a character doesn’t know what to do or say next.

She looked up at him, astonished. ‘But why?’
He shrugged. (p.91)

McBannerman shrugged and looked blank. (p.122)

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Where to first?’
Reacher shrugged. This was not his area of expertise. (p.149)

‘But when? How?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe early one morning…’ (p.277)

‘I need to call somebody’s lawyer.’
The doctor looked at her and shrugged. (p.319)

‘Why list them as missing?’
Major Conrad shrugged. (p.327)

‘And what do we tell ourselves? That we were attacked by a ghost?’
He shrugged and made no reply. (p.359)

‘Why would she say she walked into a door if it was really a car wreck?’
O’Hallinen shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ (p.361)

‘So what are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘About what?’
‘About the future?’
He shrugged again. ‘I don’t know.’ (p.449)

‘Are you going to look for Hobie?’
He shrugged again. ‘Maybe.’ (p.466)

Why do characters shrug on every page?

I realised it is often a third ‘state’ to add to the ‘Problem / Plan’ dyad. It denotes a moment when a character is presented with a question or challenge which they can’t, at that moment, process. Which doesn’t fit with any existing plan or strategem. Which needs to be processed in order to generate a new plan. Or, quite often, a question which the character hasn’t considered yet. Or a question the character is deliberately not answering.

Whatever the precise motivation, it represents a kind of third state, intermediate between 1. being faced with a threatening problem, and 2. coming up with a planned solution. Neither 1 nor 0, it is in between. Neither yes nor no, it is the ‘maybe’ state.

Thus Lee Child characters can be said to exist in one of three possible states.

  1. Problem – where they’re presented with a challenge or threat, long-term strategic or physical and immediate
  2. Plan – where they have devised a plan to solve the problem
  3. Shrug – the intermediate stage, where a character has a problem but hasn’t yet formulated a plan, or is simply batting the problem aside

(In fact, rereading the shrug moments, I realise there’s an alternative explanation to some of the shrugs. They are a response to elements which are outside of the current game. What is Reacher going to do after he’s solved the Hobie mystery, Jodie asks. Reacher shrugs, because that is a scenario beyond the current game, outside current concerns.  Not relevant. Ignore. This is particularly true of poor Chester Stone who is kidnapped and beaten up and stripped early in the story, held prisoner in Hobie’s office and does nothing but shrug whenever anyone talks to him or asks him a question. His persistent shrugging indicates that he is hors de combat.

‘You ready?’ she asked.
Chester shrugged. ‘For what?’ (p.481)

Also, there might be a lot of shrugging for the same reason that all the characters are described simply as ‘saying’ things – he said, she said. Because Child is deliberately reducing all verbs (and lots of human variety) down to a bare minimum.)

Pauses Quite often in the novels, characters pause.

She gazed at the photograph for a long moment, something in her face. (p.96)

They paused a beat… (p. 296)

She was quiet for a beat. Amazed. (p.357)

She was silent for a moment. (p.495)

Child uses a handful of distinctive phrases to describe this moment, a long pause, a long moment, occasionally stretching out to the verge of discomfort (i.e. making the other person in the conversation uncomfortable).

The long pauses struck me as another marker for when a character hasn’t yet formulated a plan. Remember the old icons you used to get on Microsoft computers where a timer or an hourglass icon jiggled for a few seconds while a programme opened or closed or saved.

That’s what the pauses indicate a character is doing in a Jack Reacher novel. Processing information. Preparing another plan.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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