Wednesday, September 09, 2009

My review of "Tears in the Darkness" in Bookforum

I've just reviewed Tears in the Darkness, a capacious, brilliantly narrated account of the Bataan Death March in World War II, featuring interviews with Japanese, American and Filipino veteran and civilian survivors. Former NYT correspondent Michael Norman and his wife, author and NYU professor Elizabeth M. Norman, spent ten years researching events surrounding and involving the largest ever US military surrender and one of the most brutal and sadistic POW horrors in recorded history. The result is a riveting book that is as artfully structured and well written as it is excruciating. John Dower (Embracing Defeat) and Herbert Bix (Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan), in particular, arguably raised the bar for English-language books on the Pacific War by conducting extensive research and interviews in Japan and with the Japanese. The Normans rise to the challenge admirably.
Tears conveys our capacity for stark inhumanity with novelistic intimacy. My review is out in this month's Bookforum.


Atrocity Exhibition


"The fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, remains the single largest surrender of United States military forces in history, with roughly seventy-six thousand soldiers (most of them Filipino allies) handed over to Japanese captors. Japan’s attack on America’s Clark Air Base in the Philippines destroyed an entire airfield of unprotected planes and unprepared men. While the Pearl Harbor attack of four months earlier is universally acknowledged as a watershed moment of US involvement in the Pacific theater, Bataan, with its less heroic mix of humiliation at the hands of the enemy and betrayal by those in command, has remained shrouded in shame.

The aftermath of Bataan’s fall brought an event arguably greater magnitude and horror than the troops’ surrender: the so-called Bataan Death March, a sixty-six-mile trek to prison camps in Luzon forced on the prisoners of war amid excruciating heat and murderous violence. The captives’ ordeal lasted well beyond the march proper—survivors were dispatched to hellish prison camps in the Philippines, and from there into overstuffed, underventilated holds of creaky transport ships bound for detention facilities on the Japanese mainland, where men were treated as slave laborers. Throughout, many died for simple want of water. The misery would end only with Japan’s surrender three years later, after the firebombing of its major cities and the decimation wrought by two atomic bombs.

Tears in the Darkness is far more humane and capacious than its often-brutal source material would lead readers to expect. Authors Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman frame their story in multiple contexts. A Montana-born cowboy type named Ben Steele is their protagonist, but to the authors’ credit, they never exploit his story for pathos or easy answers. He is a true survivor, with all the ugly guilt and second-guessing that entails: “It’s survival of the fittest,” Steele realized early on in the march while hoarding a single canteen of water. Nor does his individual saga obscure the key questions at the heart of the book: Why and how could this happen? ..."

[more here]

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