Twilight in the Pacific

I just finished reading Twilight of the Gods, the third book of Ian Toll’s magisterial trilogy of World War II in the Pacific. Covering the final year of the war, the massive 944 page volume is monumental in both size and achievement.

This is well-tilled ground, of course. Entire libraries of books have been written about the exploits of the Navy and Marine Corps in the war against Japan — not to mention the Army and MacArthur, the other allied nations, and Japan itself. What sets apart Toll’s trilogy, and especially Twilight of the Gods, is its apparently effortless integration of sweeping strategic overview and grunt’s-eye view; of military, political, and social investigation; of American and Japanese perspectives – in what is, withal, an agreeably readable narrative.

Setting out all the things I liked about Twilight of the Gods would require an essay nearly as long as the book itself; so I’ll content myself with listing a few aspects that I thought Toll covered especially well.

Twilight in the Pacific

  • Kamikaze. Anyone who’s done any reading at all about World War II is familiar with the suicide pilots whose efforts lent the end of the war an especially tragic and desperate cast. But more than any other author I’ve read, Toll provides not only a very thorough recounting of the kamikaze – including the other suicide soldiers in boats, subs, and missiles – but a true reckoning of just how effective they were in many cases. By the end of the war, the US had amassed so many ships and men in the western Pacific that it’s easy, reading other authors, to get the impression that the kamikaze attacks were no more than a pinprick. Toll demonstrates that they were a real factor against the allies’ effectiveness in some areas; and the Navy never really solved the problem, except by brute attrition.
  • Logistics. I know, I know. But in Toll’s hands, the logistics of the war provide not only a real insight into why events unfolded as they did, but also offer a fascinating angle on the jiu-jitsu by which the US gradually imposed its will. Particular threads, such as the submarine campaign against Japanese shipping, and the bottlenecks that held back the B-29 buildup in the Marianas, demonstrate not just the strategy and politics of the war, but the very real human costs that hinge on simply moving stuff from point A to point B.
  • Halsey. I’m probably on safe ground in saying that William F. Halsey was the best known and best loved admiral of the war, at least by Americans. Known for colorful (not to say bloodthirsty) rhetoric – his favorite exhortations appear to have variations on the phrase “Kill more Japs!” – Halsey was a hard-charger who was one of Chester Nimitz’s top two operational commanders for most of the war. The other was Admiral Raymond Spruance, a low-key, cerebral officer who seems to have been nearly the antithesis of Halsey. The two men took turns leading the main carrier task force in the Pacific – Task Force 38 when Halsey was running it, and Task Force 58 when Spruance had the helm. Since the end of the war, it has been a favorite diversion of armchair historians to debate which of the commanders was more effective; and while it was Halsey, not Spruance, who ultimately went on to wear five stars, the judgment of history seems to have come down on the latter’s side as to who was the better fleet admiral. Exhibit A against Halsey was his apparent recklessness during the invasion of the Philippines, which left the invasion force barely defended against a strong Japanese battleship group. Exhibit B was his questionable seamanship in allowing the task force to be mauled badly by not one but two typhoons. Twilight of the Gods examines Halsey’s decisions and actions quite comprehensively; and far from exonerating, it effectively seals the case against him. Toll concludes (as others have done) that the apparent reason Halsey was not relieved, possibly on multiple occasions, lay in his popularity back home.
  • MacArthur’s return. Most recent accounts of the naval battles around the Philippines give curiously short shrift to the ground operations that occasioned those battles. Twilight of the Gods fills out the narrative with an account not only of the battle for Manila and the tragic fight for the Intramuros, which has been recounted elsewhere, but of the dangerous and difficult Army operations to subdue Leyte and Luzon. At the same time, in covering MacArthur’s conduct in the Philippines and his early activities administering Japan, Toll wisely avoids going down the rabbit hole of examining the generalissimo’s legendary character issues, which have already been treated in detail by other historians. Toll’s MacArthur is a strategist and a mover of events, not a psychology case study or a cautionary tale.

An illuminating thread that runs throughout Twilight of the Gods regards the Japanese home front. Some other recent authors, as well, have done excellent work in describing the politics of the war, the internecine battles between the Japanese army and navy, and the hideous cost of the conflict to both the combatants and their families at home. But Toll’s most compelling observation, which he expands upon toward the end of the book, specifically regards the deadly cost of the lies the Japanese leaders told themselves and their people.

As the author shows, military leaders lied to themselves that they could challenge the industrial might of America. Even though they knew better, they convinced themselves they could not only take but keep the tenuous lifelines that held together a sprawling empire. As the war went on, the government and their compliant press told bigger and bigger lies to their people – first calling narrow wins decisive, and then increasingly calling outright defeats smashing victories. They whitewashed the inhuman conduct of their own forces, and magnified the cruelty of their adversaries. So, by the late stages of the war, neither the people nor their leaders could envision defeat, nor countenance surrendering to a savage and wanton foe. Instead they endured the complete destruction of their empire, the immolation of their cities, the ruin of their economy – and in the cruelest irony, the very national humiliation that was their greatest fear. (One could, of course, extend all these same observations to Japan’s major partner in the Axis, Nazi Germany.)

Like all great history, then, Twilight of the Gods delivers a vital lesson to readers of any age: a nation that governs itself with lies sows the seeds of its own destruction. Leaders who lie to amass and maintain power, or to accumulate riches, in the end keep none of these things.

Can you think of a more important lesson for the world in 2021?

Published by Ronald Crittenden

American SciFi writer in France. Amateur historian of art and war. Tea not coffee, s'il vous plait, and don't forget to say hi to your dog for me.

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