In a week when Barack Obama is conducting a farewell tour in the Far East, and commendably visiting Hiroshima whilst thus far avoiding the outright apology urged on him by Guardianistas (though not this one)and their US equivalents, it’s worth contemplating what an astonishing achievement the US Pacific campaign was.
This very brief introduction by the finest of popular historians, Victor Davis Hanson, gives a flavour of the challenge, unprecedented then and now.
The Knife has a particular fascination with the unbelievably intense combat of the battle on Tarawa, but really that gruelling pattern of fighting was repeated countless times in tiny islands over a mindbogglingly huge area of ocean, punctuated by occasional colossal naval and air battles. The ‘Greatest Generation‘ epithet is not remotely overstating it. They’re still out there, people like Buck Miller.
Who was responsible for the victory? Lots of people, but in terms of the actual strategy and combat, the admirals cited by Hanson take most of the credit. The more you read about them, the more in awe one becomes of their legacy. One might expect admirals, like many surgeons (this one included), to have occasional ego issues.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey was an unpredictable hot headed man with a very pointed degree of aggression and an ability to rub everyone up the wrong way. As his communique said at the conclusion of hostilities “Cessation of hostilities. War is over. If any Japanese airplanes appear, shoot them down in a friendly way”. However, when asked years later about the campaign he disarmingly stated:
There are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.
Not bad, for someone who had a lot to boast about.
His colleague, Admiral Raymond Spruance took it further, possibly claiming a title as the first ‘slacker’ admiral in the process, despite being a superb and calm leader in times of crisis:
“When I look at myself objectively, I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution….Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.“
Wonderful, on many levels.