“It’s the admirals, sir, playing with us like this is their own big-assed bathtub and we’re just toys.”
Jeff Shaara has written some of the best war stories ever published, and he’s done so for almost 25 years. I have read every last one of them. When I was invited to read and review his new novel about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, I was delighted, but also slightly apprehensive, because even after all these years, the subject remains an incendiary one; I needn’t have worried. This may be Shaara’s best book, and that’s saying a lot.
I’ll share a brief note about my own biases going in. My father was among the last men called to serve during World War II; he never left the U.S., however, where he was tasked with training new recruits to the still-new U.S. Air Force. But I grew up hearing about Japanese atrocities, and many of the bizarre stereotypes and misconceptions based on pseudoscience were told to me as fact. When as an adult I announced that I was about to marry a Japanese citizen, I sounded the waters with my family to see if there was resistance. I was told that my parents “still remember Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, my husband’s father also served during World War II—in the Japanese army. The topic was never raised by his parents around me, or at all as far as I know; but I asked my spouse a few questions to help me understand the Japanese perspective about this horrific conflict, and then I understood exactly how erroneous most of what I’d been raised to believe actually was.
So I was primed to read this book, and also a little afraid of what I might find. My internal map of Pearl Harbor was studded with emotional landmines, and at the book’s conclusion, none of them had been tripped.
Shaara tells this story primarily through the eyes of three people: Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese architect of the invasion; and Tommy Biggs, a 19-year-old naval recruit from an impoverished Caucasian family in rural Florida.
Shaara faithfully incorporates a character from the rank and file in every story; he does this even if there is nobody on record that he can report on, and so often, he is forced to create a fictional character based on experiences and characteristics from several people. When I saw no such disclaimer in any of his notes, I grew curious and wrote and asked him whether this is the case with Biggs. He replied that this time there is a Tommy Biggs (though the name is not the same), but that he did add the experiences of others in order to flesh him out. So this time, each of the three chief characters is based on an historical figure.
I learned a great deal. Though it’s well known that this attack profoundly crippled the U.S. Navy, sinking or badly damaging most of the fleet, I had never considered it from the Japanese perspective. Looked at in that way, it was not only audacious, it was immaculately planned and wildly successful. I also had never considered what a blunder it was on the part of the U.S. military to leave its equipment, ships, planes, and more so unguarded. In the fallout after the attack, we learn that the Navy considered security to be the job of the U.S. Army and vice-versa. What a colossal bungle.
Japan had emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, and its leadership was suffused with overwhelming confidence. Japanese racial superiority would lead to Japanese dominance throughout the China, Indochina, and across all of Asia, they claimed, because they were meant to dominate their portion of the globe. Japanese leaders were convinced that the U.S. would not seek retribution following an attack on its soil because American isolationist sentiment was so strong. They genuinely hoped that this attack would result in an end of the U.S. embargo that crippled Japan, and which existed in order to halt Japanese expansion and force Japan to withdraw from its alliance with the Axis powers. Americans, the Japanese brass told one another, were too big, too slow, too lazy to retaliate. There were voices of dissent, however:
“For any of you who believe the Americans are not worthy of a fight, that they do not have the stomach for blood, perhaps you are familiar with the American Civil War? In the 1860s, they divided and fought each other in the bloodiest war in their history. They did not require any enemy to inspire them. They fought each other. Are you familiar with football?”
Meanwhile the U.S. military, press and popular culture treated the Japanese as a bad joke. One myth dressed up as science suggested that Japan would never be able to build an air force because of an inherent defect in the inner ear of all Japanese. It was physically impossible for them to become pilots! The condescension was rife, everywhere one turned. Hollywood depicted the Japanese as ridiculous, rodent-like creatures with minds that didn’t function properly. The Chicago Tribune stated that for Japan to attack the U.S. was “a military impossibility.” Japanese were said to be too myopic to be effective against a military target. And it goes on.
There’s all sorts of blame to spread around. Nobody in Washington, D.C. had told the top brass at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, about the project named Magic, which intercepted and broke Japanese code. They had no idea that Japan was rattling its sabers to such a degree. And these two men appear to have been lazy, bureaucratic fools that ignored what little intelligence came their way. For example, shortly before the attack, the man on watch sees a Japanese sub in the water. Kimmel immediately assumes that the guard has seen a whale, and he goes back to bed.
There are three aspects of this novel that keep the pages turning for me. The first, of course, is my interest in military history. Shaara’s research is meticulous. The book is historical fiction at its best, which is when the contours of the story, even fairly detailed aspects of it, are correct, but the fictional genre is chosen so that dialogue and inner monologue can be added. Second is Shaara’s perceptive nature, and it’s this that permits him to choose the best details to include and cut what is inessential so that pacing never flags. And finally, his capacity to develop a character so that we feel we know him is matchless; in particular I bond to poor Tommy Biggs, a guy that can’t catch a break, until he can.
Nothing I can say will serve as well as what Shaara says himself. Get this book, even if you have to pony up full cover price. This is hands down the best fictional representation of Pearl Harbor on sale today. Believe it.