Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eagle Against the Sun

Yes, Christine’s military history seminar returns once again, with a brief detour into World War II. This shoots Ohio State University’s reading list all to hell, of course.

OSU’s list ordered me to read eight general works before going on to European and American military history. I read three before hopping to the end of the list. When I checked the World War II book out of the library, I imagined a room full of militant academics, all wearing those Prussian helmets with the spikes, shouting “Nein! Nein! You must follow the plan!”

My latest book is Eagle Against the Sun by Ronald H. Spector, which deals with the American war with Japan.

I took this bold step after seeing the movie “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood and shot from the Japanese point of view. (1) The main character was very engaging. We meet him digging trenches on the island’s volcanic, ashy beach, preparing for the American invasion. “Why do the Americans want this little shit island?” he asks his friend as he digs. “As far as I’m concerned, they can have it.”

I didn’t know squat about Iwo Jima when I saw the movie. I didn’t even know that famous picture of the Marines raising the flag was taken there. Naval histories bored me to death; I always skipped the Pacific theater in World War II books. But the Japanese in the Iwo Jima movie intrigued me. They had a brilliant commander and a harsh but admirable philosophy. What was the war against them like? So I hauled out Ohio State’s reading list and found “Eagle Against the Sun.”

I tell you, after three books describing military strategy and philosophy, “Eagle” read like a dime-store novel. I could actually concentrate on one war in one century in one area of the world. No more time traveling between Thermopolaye, Waterloo and the Franco-Prussian War within one paragraph. No more treatises on the development of spears and tercios and matchlock rifles. (2) Instead, “Eagle” had the American and the Japanese fleets and a ton of dinky islands and that was it. Excellent.

But now that I’ve finished “Eagle,” I find it a difficult book to summarize and review. Clausewitz and Kennedy and MacNeill spoke from the sunny heights of military theory and philosophy. They invited you to join the command centers of battle, where maps and strategies and civilized discussions reigned.

“Eagle Against the Sun” was very different. The reader did spend the first few chapters snug in his armchair, discussing the American state of mind (complacent, isolationist and ill prepared) and the Japanese state of mind (militant and bragging, but also ill prepared). The navies of both countries were enamored by a troublemaker named Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval historian whose book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” (thankfully not on the reading list), influenced naval strategy in WWII.

Mahan imagined big fleets of battleships that would fight one decisive battle and win “command of the sea.” It all sounded very dramatic and fun, so everyone went around dreaming of big guns, big ships and big battles, and practically ignoring torpedos and aircraft. The American navy endlessly replayed Trafalgar (1805) and the Battle of Jutland (1916) up to World War II. (3)

But reading Mahan wasn’t a great idea. As Spector put it, “Japanese naval officers , too, had inhaled deeply the heady, if somewhat musty, fumes of Mahan’s classic brew of imperialism and salt water.” Many historians believe that Japan’s fanatical efforts to bring about Mahan’s “decisive battle” contributed to its defeat.

So in the first few chapters of “Eagle Against the Sun” I was in familiar territory, reading about strategy and snickering at clueless, if influential, historians (remember Clause making fun of Jomini?). Pearl Harbor was described with drama and emotion – you could almost hear the dramatic music swelling in the background.

But then Ronald Spector turned to the actual war and the party was over. Before I knew it, I was thrown into the battles: the Philippines, Midway, Massacre Valley, Guadalcanal, the Gilberts, Kwajalein, the Marianas, all the way to Leyte and Luzon. I started carrying around a world atlas so I could figure out where all the teeny islands were. I didn’t know the outcome of most of the battles, so I followed the war’s twists and turns with wide eyes, elated by the victories, but most of the time just angry and sad.

But all in all, I’m glad I broke ranks and skipped to the end of the reading list. When I go back to reading general strategy (Peter Paret’s giant tome, “Makers of Modern Strategy” is glowering at me from the bookshelf), I won’t forget the suffering that all those abstract discussions ultimately lead to.


1) I liked it much better than “Flags of our Fathers,” which I rented later and found disjointed and occasionally dull.

2) The third book, “Pursuit of Power” started with 1000 AD and devoted pages to the development of iron weapons. It was enough to make a grown woman cry.

3) I will never cease to goggle at that. Trafalgar was um, against Napolean, you know. The ships had sails and were made of WOOD, guys.


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