Saber and Scroll is pleased to offer this review by Dr. Robert Smith (LTC Ret.) Myers, Michael W. The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat was not Inevitable. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015.
The standard historical assumption is that Japan's defeat was inevitable in World War II, and that therefore, their strike against the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was an act of defiant suicide. It is a nice pat answer that anyone reflecting on the post-war facts would have trouble disputing. However, it begs the question: Why did the Japanese military, political, and industrial leaders embark upon a path that Western historians label as one of folly at best? Dr. Michael Myers does not accept the thesis of historical inevitability in his new book The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat was not Inevitable. Myers instead attempts to examine the conflict from both the Pacific and the Asian perspectives. The key to understanding this somewhat provocative book is to grasp what Myers means by contingencies.
Myers’s explanation of contingencies in his writing would feel very familiar to anyone serving in the military as it harkens in large part to the options a staff offers to a commander, which include a Red Team—or enemy—response. In doing so, the team explores a series of decision trees or possible contingencies, and that is how Myers presents his case to the reader. He takes a broad brush to some issues, but tends to weave other issues and arguments into these making for an interesting approach. He pays more attention to Operation CARTWHEEL than do many writers, giving it a fresh perspective.
Myers’s book may not seem provocative in 2015, but to some degree, it is. How well he presents a reasoned case is the crux of the matter. For the casual reader, his writing style will lose many, as it is stilted and academic. Phrases like “[t]his book is an exercise in the elucidation of terms,” (p. IX) and “partly instantiated” (p. 50) only serve to lessen the reader’s enjoyment and add nothing in terms of clarity. That is a shame, for Myers does an excellent job integrating maps with his writing, which add to the overall understanding of his arguments. The maps are excellent; notwithstanding there is no list of them in the table of contents.
There are some negatives here and this reviewer is surprised that Myers and his editors at the University Press of Kansas did not recognize and correct them. The book would have been better served by the inclusion of even generic Imperial Japanese pictures to illustrate some points, such as contrasting the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber (also known as the “one shot lighter” due to its non-sealing fuel tanks) to the Boeing B-29, the epitome of propeller-driven bomber technology. It is surprising with his stress on economics that Myers did not look at John Ellis's tour de force Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, Max Hastings’s Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 or Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. As well, Myers could have contrasted the Japanese economic situation and Japan’s run up to unleashing their whirlwind in the Pacific by a comparison to the Third Reich's desultory approach as detailed in Adam Tooze's The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. The maps are what readers expect from a twenty-first century book. However, basic graphic programs have advanced so much that it puzzles this reviewer why the maps are a bit on the bland side. They are not as dull as those in David Stone’s The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917, but why not add some color? The book has a snazzy and appealing cover, so why not add to the overall curb appeal of it?
The economics in the book are bland. For instance, why not contrast how the United States built more merchant shipping in the first four and a half months of 1943 than Imperial Japan put in the water in seven years of their war? Or, that the US out-produced Japan 4.5 to 1 in planes? Or, how the US took a chance on the enormous expenditures required for the Manhattan Project—to build a weapon that no one knew would work? Japan had no such economic cushioning for such a project. Or, that the US built 141 different types of carriers once at war versus 17 for Imperial Japan? A deeper understanding of economics and a better feel for the sinews of war, the “beans and bullets” aspects, would have enhanced the book. It just did not go in-depth enough, and that nearly scuttled the author’s arguments for this reviewer.
Overall, the book is a worthwhile read, despite some pedantic writing. It contributes to the overall understanding of the options facing Imperial Japan against the West in 1941. Moreover, his work and considerations of Australia are new and worth a deep read. If Myers looked at the US options had Japan not attacked the US, which he did not do, the book would have been truly pace setting. As it is, the book is a worthy read. The irony of this book is that it felt like it should have been longer. As it is, Myers provides at worst a nice primer—and that is a good thing