Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review of Pacific Crucible

History books are about meaning; they're not so much records of what happened (we have records for that) as they are attempts to figure out what all that stuff that happened means, both to us now and to the people who went through them. History books are about emotions, feelings, interpretations, and consequences. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll is about the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, and if I were on a committee (would anybody like me to be on their committee) it would win a Pulitzer Prize.

The first triumph of the book is how well Toll weaves the different perspectives on the events together into a cohesive narrative. He shows us the admirals deciding strategies and on the next page or the next paragraph he quotes from a sailor or pilot involved in carrying out those strategies. We see the grand abstractions of global strategies hashed out by Churchill, Roosevelt and the other upper echelon leaders, and the fire balls, oil slicks, and carnage of actual battle. We see the pride and fear of the Americans. We see the pride and fear of the Japanese. An event can never be recreated, and even the best approximations are simply mosaics of the event, pictures compiled by little bits of information and opinion. Toll does an amazing job of bringing clarity and depth to the mosaic of these events.

I drew two conclusions about the war in the Pacific from Toll's book. The first is that this movement was almost the WWI of WWII. Much of the horrifying slaughter of WWI was caused by new technologies being applied by people who didn't know how to use them. So you had cavalry charges into machine guns. The air craft carrier was a brand new technology and, in the beginning, neither the Japanese nor the Americans really knew how to use it. Furthermore, they presented a method of warfare entirely foreign to the dominant naval strategic ideologies held by both sides. Part of why the U.S. won the Battle of Midway so convincingly is that they figured out how to use air craft carriers first; strike first, with enough force to prevent a counter attack, get away.

The second was the power of arrogance. In the first few months of the war, the Japanese swept across the Pacific, easily conquering territory after territory, primarily because the European nations simply couldn't believe people who weren't white actually knew how to build and fly planes. The completely unprepared, undermanned, and undertrained outposts were easily annihilated by a Japanese military that included, what was most likely the most advanced and highly trained air force in the world at the time.

But the Japanese were not immune to arrogance. Despite being an island nation with very limited natural resources, they attacked a nation that had, essentially, a limitless capacity to produce the materials of war. Many Japanese believed that the decadent and materialistic Americans simply lacked fighting spirit. It didn't matter how many planes America built if it didn't have enough pilots brave enough to fly those planes into battle.

From this perspective, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was almost a blessing for the Americans, because it humbled them. It gave them a respect for their enemy. It showed them the limitations of their own defenses. It proved they were not invincible. That knowledge girded them for the long war ahead, made it easier to accept early defeat in service the subsequent victory, and drove them to constantly improve their tactics, techniques, and technologies.

I'm an idea guy. I read history books for those big perspectives, those abstract conclusions that help shape my understanding of the world, but Toll is a storyteller as much as he is a thinker and theoretician. There are characters and conflicts, story arcs and grand images, boardroom tension and battlefield carnage. The beauty is that it all comes together. Very few history writers achieve this kind of complex coherent synergy of event and action. There's Barbara Tuchman, of course. And now there's also Ian Toll.


  1. Well thought out review, Josh.

    I just finished Pacific Crucible, and I thoroughly agree with your assessment. I've read zillions of history books, and only a slightly smaller number of World War II books, and PC is one of the best.

    If you've got the history bug as well as the Midway bug, would you allow me to strongly recommend Shattered Sword, by Jon Parshall and Anthony Tully? Midway from the Japanese perspective, and one of the best battle narratives I've ever read.

  2. Also agree with the review and comments. I've read a pile of books about WWII including the Pacific war, and this is the best book I have read about this period of the war. Filled in some blanks I had about the early carrier forays prior to Coral Sea. The human side is well done with the quotes from US and Japanese military men. Makes me proud of what the American Navy did to pull themselves up immediately after Pearl Harbor. The information about the brilliance of Lt. Rochefort and his treatment by small minded and egotistical idiots in Washington was enlightening and also shameful.