Author: George Feifer
Feifer, George (1992). Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa And The Atomic Bomb. New York: Ticknor & Fields
Date Posted: November 30, 2016
Reviewed by Russell F. Weigley
Okinawa, April 1-July 2, 1945, was surely a Tennozan, an all-out, decisive battle. Fighting with suicidal tenacity, the Japanese defenders suffered some 110,000 deaths; 7,400 were taken prisoner. They inflicted more than 49,000 casualties on the Americans, about 12,500 of them killed. Some 150,000 Okinawan civilians died. The outcome was the American conquest of the last stepping stone toward invasion of the Japanese home islands (politically, Okinawa was a prefecture of Japan). Strategically, the Americans and Japanese both saw the battle for Okinawa as a preview of the coming battle for Japan. George Feifer argues in Tennozan that Okinawa thus prepared the way for using atomic bombs, lest the United States have to fight another such struggle, or worse.
It was especially the tragedy of the Okinawan people that drew Mr. Feifer to chronicle the battle. He was long a journalist in the Soviet Union, known especially for his 1976 book, Moscow Farewell. In Moscow he became accustomed to a brutal government’s ability to provoke callous indifference to suffering among its people. Visiting Okinawa, he could not resist the appeal of a people who remained gentle and friendly after so many of them had been oppressed and slaughtered.
While it continually returns to the plight of the Okinawans, however, his book is mainly a skillful narrative of combat history. Military historians may be disappointed that to insure pace and focus, Mr. Feifer concentrates on a few elements of the rival forces and says little or nothing about others. In the 10th United States Army, the invading force, he follows principally the 6th Marine Division. In the Imperial Japanese 32d Army, he makes much of the 22d Infantry Regiment in the 24th Infantry Division. The compensation for losing some of the larger picture is occasional exceedingly vivid detail, drawn from interviews and from a perceptive reading of the firsthand accounts from the caves and foxholes.
The zeal of the Japanese in defending Okinawa surpassed any strategic necessities as perceived by non-Japanese military critics; after all, Okinawa was not truly Japan itself. Mr. Feifer therefore can scarcely help seeing the Battle of Okinawa as a metaphor for current Japanese economic competitiveness: “Although the nature of contemporary Japan lies well outside the scope of this book, the qualities displayed on Okinawa–extraordinary intensity, insularity and a zealous capacity to endure pain in order to serve the nation and obtain rewards in a later life–may help explain the startling Japanese triumphs in manufacture and trade.”
Mr. Feifer believes that the shock of the atomic bombs loosed the grip of the insular and intense Japanese just enough to permit surrender in 1945, though even then nearly provoking a coup by die-hard militarists. He thus inclines toward the view that Okinawa demonstrated Japan would not have surrendered under bombing and blockade but would have had to be invaded, against formidable concrete artillery emplacements, ferocious infantry and women and children guerrillas wielding sharpened bamboo shoots. “That is what the American fighting men believed in their gut,” Mr. Feifer writes. The fighting men may not have been right, but their opinion was nearly unanimous, and it is presumptuous for those of us who did not experience Okinawa to dismiss their view. George Feifer helps us remember why they held it.
 Russell F. Weigley, “Japan’s Next-to-Last Stand,” The New York Times Book Review (August 30, 1992). Russell F. Weigley, the Distinguished University Professor at Temple University, is the author of The Age of Battles. Downloaded November 30, 2016.