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Days of Infamy by Harry Turtledove

Cover art by Steve Stone

Published by Roc

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a close thing. Although it was a significant blow, the significance was more psychological than strategic or tactical. The sheer audacity of striking at such a distance was important for their own morale, and the shock of being caught by surprise was a deep wound for an American populace grown complacent as a result of their racist assumptions about the war-fighting competence of persons of color.

However, significant military targets were left untouched, particularly the huge tank farms and the machine shops on the shores of Pearl Harbor which were vital to keeping a modern mechanized Navy running. Furthermore, the Pacific Fleet's three aircraft carriers were all out to sea (although the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was on its way home that morning, close enough that its squadrons could participate in the search for the Japanese task force afterward).

Most critically, there was no follow-through. Like al-Quaida on 9/11, the Japanese blew their whole wad betting double-or-nothing that a single surprise attack could knock the United States out of the running for good.

From that comes the central premise of this novel: what if the Japanese had followed through? What if, instead of making a single showy attack and then leaving, the Japanese had been thorough in their destruction and then followed up with an actual invasion and occupation, as they did in the Phillippines and other islands closer to the Asian mainland and the Home Islands?

Unlike many of Turtledove's other novels, which spend significant time on the activities of the top-level decision-makers, this novel focuses almost entirely upon the ordinary people. For instance, we see the US commanders in Hawaii only in the surrender ceremony, and from a Japanese point-of-view character. The response to the attack from Washington DC is presented only through the reactions of characters on the ground, often to news of uncertain reliability. Even the Japanese high command's activities is almost always presented through the eyes of lower-ranking officers. Thus we never see what Admiral Yamamoto is thinking, only how aviators such as Genda or Fuchida perceive him.

This is a significant choice, and at least to my thinking a literary masterstroke which really brings home the human meaning and cost of warfare. All too often many of the top decision-makers have a tendency to regard the ordinary people who will do the fighting and dying as if they were little more than pawns, numbers n a balance sheet. In their rarified heights the top leaders rarely feel real privation, at least until the point that everything is coming apart. But by bringing the reader to see the story through the eyes of ordinary people, whether a surfer dude or a third-grade teacher or an immigrant family torn by divided loyalties, we get a visceral experience of the day-to-day consequences of a change in the course of history which might otherwise be an abstraction.

And it is a visceral story, for we really get to see what it means to endure the capture and occupation of an island chain which has very few natural resources and had been largely supplied by ships now cut off. Two major viewpoint characters, Fletcher Armitage and Joe Patterson, are US military officers who surrender after they no longer have the wherewithal to resist. In the Japanese POW camps they are the subjects of abuse that many readers will find quite disturbing (although some of Turtledove's books can be read by a young teen with a reasonably wide vocabulary, this is most definitely one that is better kept until a reader has more life experience and can handle it emotionally).

Perhaps the most disturbing part of it is the fact that, for the most part, the Japanese point of view characters are not sadists in the conventional sense. That is, they generally do not take any particular pleasure in the sufferings of their victims (although some non-POV characters are shown as behaving with particular glee as they go about beating or bayonetting prisoners, particularly when they do it in such as way as to drag out their victim's suffering as long as possible, but we have only their outward affect to judge by, not their thoughts). Rather, the Japanese POV characters' attitudes tend to be one of profound indifference grading into contempt. Soldiers who surrender rather than fighting to the death or taking their own lives have irreparably lost all honor, and thus are owed nothing. This attitude even extends to one of their own who was captured by US forces in the first hours of the attack -- when he is found, there is no joyous liberation as would be expected for US troops sprung from captivity. Instead, he is tried and executed for having dishonored himself and by extension the entire Japanese Navy.

This mindset grows out of the martial tradition that developed during Japan's feudal period. Although there is a tendency, particularly among those who know about the period primarily through the vehicle of anime and manga, to treat it as being pretty much equivalent to the European Middle Ages, albeit extending chronologically into the modern era, culturally they were extremely different. In particular, the warrior code of bushido by which the samurai lived is not equivalent to the code of chivalry by which a knight lived. While a European knight owed fealty to a feudal lord, it was understood that if he were in a hopeless situation, he should submit to his enemies and his liege had an obligation to ransom him (the foundation of modern Western concepts of the status and proper treatment of prisoners of war), a samurai was expected to fight to the death for his daimyo, and dying for the honor of one's overlord or one's family, whether in battle or by ritual suicide, was heavily romanticized. Even samurai who successfully avenged the honor of a slain lord often would subsequently take their own lives, since without a lord to serve they were seen as without any honorable purpose in their lives.

However, this does not mean that civilians get off lightly simply because they were not bound by the code of bushido to fight to the death rather than submit. In Japanese feudalism, the peasants who were bound to a defeated lord were not destroyed, since it was their labor power that made the land productive and thus valuable, but rather become subjects of the new lord. They might be treated as suspect for a while, but in a sense all people where were not of the bushi class were considered somewhat suspect and handled harshly to keep them in line. However, they were still Japanese -- something that most of the people of occupied Hawaii are not. Thus the Japanese feel no particular obligation to keep them alive, let alone treat them well, even if they submit to the harsh occupation regulations without the slightest hint of resistance.

Part of it is the simple ugly fact of economics -- Hawaii in 1941 is populated far beyond its natural carrying capacity, heavily dependent upon supplies shipped from the American mainland. Even if the fields devoted to cash crops such as sugar cane and pineapple are replanted in staple crops such as rice, even if every lawn and other bit of arable ground is torn up and planted in gardens, there simply isn't enough room to feed everybody adequately -- and most of the people here are urbanites, not peasants conditioned to regular hard physical labor, and thus don't constitute a pool of labor power sufficiently valuable to motivate the occupiers to put any particular effort into preserving them. In fact, it seems that most of the effort to get them where they can feed themselves is to keep from having the trouble of disposing of the bodies should they die of starvation.

Grim as the picture of life in occupied Hawaii may be, this is not a novel without any hope, because Turtledove also gives us a view of the efforts of the United States to recover the islands. Through the eyes of noncoms and very junior officers we see the training of a strike force intended to retake the islands. Although the first attempt goes awry (at least partly due to a failure of surprise, but also because the group sent is really too small and weak to effectively project force over such distance, so that they do little more than bloody the occupiers' noses), it only fires the determination of the US to not give up the fight until Hawaii is retaken, and ultimately until Japan is thoroughly defeated.

Although this novel does not end on a cliffhanger, its ending is a stopping point rather than a true conclusion. One after another element is being brought into place for the big fight, setting us up for the next volume.

Review posted July 31, 2010.

Buy Days of Infamy (Pearl Harbor) from Amazon.com

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