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In the end, a trinity of bombs brought the war to a close: Jumbo, the device detonated in Alamagordo, New Mexico, to prove that atomic weapons could be made; Little Boy, the uranium titan that vaporized Hiroshima; and Fat Man, the plutonium monster that laid waste to Nagasaki. In the crematory light of those blasts, the world changed--so much death contained in so little; so much of the bloody business of war refined to a bloodless decision. Ultimately it all came down to science, to a matter of buttons. In a flash, Prometheus was one with Genghis Khan.

The philosophical ramifications of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have occupied humankind for half a century now. What has been obscured is the nature of the war that led to the use of the bombs, a war that possessed its own terrible clarity: that of simple, ferocious hate; of civilization pitted against civilization, race against race, blood against blood. That kind of fighting still occurs: in the Balkans, in Rwanda and Burundi, in the streets of Los Angeles and Karachi. But the imagination of the world pays little heed to the sensibilities of such conflicts. Minds have been polarized by the cold war and fascinated by the mighty mushroom clouds of 1945--by the imminence of endless death from the radiance of a thousand suns. Nevertheless, in the shadow of that terrifying splendor lurks a history of immense human hatreds, parables we ignore at our peril. The war in Asia was waged mercilessly on all sides. U.S. Major General Curtis LeMay, the man who took charge of the B-29 bombings of Japan, once said, "I'll tell you what war is about. You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough, they stop fighting." Eugene Sledge, then an 18-year-old Marine, remembered the abattoir of the Pacific this way in his memoirs: "I felt sickened to the depths of my soul. I asked God 'Why, why, why?' ... I had tasted the bitterest essence of the war ... and it filled me with disgust."

The carnage was horrific. In the China theater alone, perhaps as many as 10 million people perished. In the fighting in the central Pacific, some 20,000 U.S. soldiers died. On Saipan, Japanese women and children hurled themselves from cliffs rather than submit to the American invaders. Most Japanese soldiers there either died fighting or took their own lives: 27,040 corpses were found. The toll from Tarawa--984 U.S. Marines and 29 Navy men killed in just 76 hours of fighting--caused normally self-censoring correspondents to send home horror stories that nearly triggered a congressional investigation. All of February 1945 saw street fighting in Manila between American soldiers and renegade Japanese troops intent on turning the Philippine capital into Stalingrad-on-the-South-China-Sea. An estimated 100,000 people, mostly civilians, died. And then came the battles for Okinawa.

Off the coast of that island, at 10 a.m. on May 10, 1945, a Japanese Zero flew in low against the U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill and crashed onto the flight deck, igniting the 30 planes waiting to fly sorties. Thirty seconds later, another Japanese suicide flight dropped out of the sky and struck the Bunker Hill amidships, ripping open a 12m. hole with the blast of its 250-kg bomb and turning the fast carrier into an inferno for the next six hours. Of the 3,000 crewmen on board, 353 died in the smoke and flames. The kamikaze attacks were part of the Japanese navy's Ten Go (Operation Heaven), which sent 1,465 volunteer pilots on suicide missions against Allied ships during the assault on Okinawa, then in its second month.

At the same time that the Bunker Hill was aflame, Lieut. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, commander of the American forces fighting to capture Okinawa, was undertaking a new offensive to seize control of the island. The Americans knew the tiny speck in the Pacific was the ultimate stepping-stone to the empire's home islands. Throughout the 83-day struggle for Okinawa, Buckner's favorite toast, over bourbon and water, was "May you walk in the ashes of Tokyo." Aware of this objective, his enemy, Lieut. General Mitsuru Ushijima, prepared a war of attrition to keep Okinawa from becoming a staging ground for the U.S. invasion of Japan. "Do your utmost," Ushijima's men were told. "The victory of the century lies in this battle." In early July, when the battles for Okinawa were finally over, more than 125,000 people were dead. Among the corpses were those of Buckner and Ushijima, the former killed by a stray bullet, the latter by his own hand.

In Japan the Imperial Army mobilized civilians to stave off the expected invasion. The defense exercises--involving mock bamboo thrusts to the bellies of invading soldiers--struck many citizens as ridiculous. But everyone took part in the drills. A student explained, "No one wanted to be blamed for quitting." In the U.S. few were for quitting either. A June 1945 Gallup poll showed 90% of Americans pressing for decisive victory rather than peace terms that would allow Japan to avoid occupation.

Though paired with the European conflicts as World War II, the immense battles in Asia traced their beginnings back to different histories, different cultures, different fears and humiliations. The Pacific was a clash of civilizations: the attempt of a modern, non-Western power to carve its place, if not establish its superiority, in a world dominated and colonized by white people. And the war's beginning came long before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, was preparing strategies for a war against Japan as early as 1897. The Japanese saw the war as part of a hundred-year conflict that had begun with the humiliation of the self-satisfied, isolationist Chinese empire in 1842, after the Opium War, at the hands of the British. Until 1853 Japan was a hermetic, medieval kingdom, but learning from the foibles of its neighbors and from the technological prowess of the West, it established itself by 1895 as the dominant Asian power, defeating the forces of the moribund Chinese empire. Japan wanted not only to overtake China, the source of much of its traditional culture, as the dominant regional power but also to prove that Asians need never defer to the West. By 1905 it had trounced the Russians in Manchuria, sinking the armada that Nicholas II dispatched from the Baltic Sea to retake the waters around his Pacific port of Vladivostok. Japan had become a power "of the junior first rank," as one author noted. It wanted to be more.

The quest for superiority required not only armaments but also the establishment of a biological prerogative. For a would-be master race, the rights of hegemony must by definition be present in the blood. Japan thus embarked on the creation of a mythology of a chosen people with the Emperor, descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, as the divine icon of the Yamato race. Biologists produced studies decrying the apish physical features of other races (hairiness, long arms) and noting the highly evolved characteristics of the Japanese (relatively flattened forehead-to-nose ratio, milder body odor). More important, however, racial purity derived from loyalty to the Emperor and the protective centuries of isolation, which fostered a spirituality the Japanese believed was possessed by no other people. Proclamations in the Emperor's name bore the weight of both legal and divine imperative. "Bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather," proclaimed a rescript in the name of the Meiji Emperor. To disobey that dictum was a sin against heaven; it was treason and a denial of blood heritage.

The ideology dispensed with the silence that tradition once demanded in the Emperor's presence, replacing it with aggressive shouts of "Banzai!" ("May you live 10,000 years!"). At the same time, as the historian John Dower notes in his book War Without Mercy, the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education propagated the attendant doctrine that Japanese were "intrinsically quite different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries," inculcating a sense of superiority. One industrialist said the Japanese were the "sole superior race in the world."

It was the American commodore Matthew Perry who, in 1853, persuaded Japan to open its ports to Western trade, thus initiating an astonishing rush toward modernization. But when the Japanese began flexing their muscle in East Asia, the U.S. realized that its protaga had become a rival, with much resulting paranoia, including hysteria about Japanese designs on American territory. By 1924 an anti-Japanese immigration act had been passed. From the 1890s through the 1940s, the Hearst newspapers were especially rabid about the "yellow peril." When war did come, one of the Hearst tabloids declared, "The war in the Pacific is the World War, the War of the Oriental Races against the Occidental Races for the Domination of the World."

Throughout the early 20th century, the U.S. tried to temper its Pacific expansion with paternalism, attempting to define it as something other than a continuation of the bloody way in which it had won its Western states. It championed the "Open Door" policy in China--advocating universal trading access while respecting territorial integrity--even as Europe and Japan were dividing China into spheres of influence. Washington also promised independence to its Philippine colony by the early '40s.

Still, many of the American soldiers sent to Asia to pacify the Philippines in 1898 had fought in the Indian wars and described their new foes with white-settler terms for the old. "The only good Filipino," said a soldier, "is a dead one." Eventually, this "legacy of racial war words," as Dower writes, would lead to the American soldier's attitude toward the Japanese. A 1942 article titled "The Nips" in the New York Times Magazine said, "The Japanese are likened to the American Indian in their manner of making war. Our fighting men say that isn't fair to the Indian. He had honor of a sort." During the Pacific war, U.S. soldiers had reason to fear even Japanese corpses, which were sometimes rigged with explosives.

The war victories gave the Japanese a chance to avenge past humiliations. In Prisoners of the Japanese, historian Gavan Daws tells the story of U.S. Marine Corps Major J.P.S. Devereux, captured by the Japanese on Wake Island. Devereux, wrote Daws, "would never willingly have lowered himself to talk to a yellow man on equal terms." Now he had to. Devereux could not speak Japanese--few U.S. soldiers could. And so, in a submissive voice, he asked a Japanese officer of junior rank, "Do you speak English?" The Japanese replied contemptuously, in perfect English, "No, I do not speak English. Do you speak Japanese?"

Americans and other Westerners were convinced that the Japanese were a containable threat. For example, many Westerners believed myopia was common among the Japanese (hence the bespectacled caricatures) and that it would keep them from becoming good fighter pilots. Thus when the empire's air force destroyed Douglas MacArthur's fighters on the ground in the Philippines, the general thought white mercenaries had flown the Japanese planes. Japan's astonishing successes in routing the British and Americans in the early months of the Pacific war were credited to German military advisers. Even in 1945, on Okinawa, U.S. soldiers believed the Japanese strategy of heavy bombardment was inspired by German consultants.

But the Japanese did indeed drive the Westerners out of Asia and the Pacific. They had planned the grand strategy to establish self-sufficiency in the face of what they perceived as a Soviet threat. And they had carried out the blueprint. In 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt's Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, was privately worried that Japan might "succeed in combining most of the Asiatic peoples against the whites." Such paranoia led to the internment of 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps; the fbi also kept close surveillance on alleged Japanese attempts to turn black Americans against the U.S. government. For its part, Japanese propaganda described Americans as racist, sex-obsessed, abortion-loving yaju (wild beasts).

However, the doctrine of racial superiority worked very quickly against Japanese efforts to set up a harmonious new order in Asia. Indigenous leaders once sympathetic to Tokyo's presence accused the Japanese of arrogance. Civilians who did not bow to Japanese soldiers or who somehow displeased them were automatically slapped. Atrocities also contributed to Japanese unpopularity. The occupation police, the Kempeitai, won a reputation for torture. Occupation forces performed medical experiments on prisoners of war--or used them for target practice. Anti-Japanese guerrilla movements proliferated.

For Americans, the Bataan death march was the most infamous example of Japanese cruelty. American and Filipino prisoners from the fall of Corregidor in 1942 were refused food and water on a six-day, 97-km forced march to their place of confinement at Camp O'Donnell. Fingers were chopped off to get at West Point rings; decapitated bodies lined the road; by one estimate, there was a body every 10 or 15 paces. The death toll: more than 10,000.

For all its early prowess, the empire had exhausted its resources and skills to pull together its victories. Six months after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese armada steaming toward Midway Island was severely defeated and turned back. In October 1944 the Imperial Navy was routed in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, and Japan was virtually eliminated as a sea power. By July 1945 it was cut off from its territory in Southeast and East Asia, losing the raw materials it had gone to war for. The empire in June had just 4,000 aircraft, with only 800 operational. The U.S. had 22,000 at its disposal.

While the majority of Allied soldiers shrank from atrocity, a few were not averse to inflicting on the Japanese the horrors that had been visited on their comrades. In Tennozan, George Feifer cites Marine memories of barbaric acts against "the Japs" on Okinawa. The dead were cut up in search of souvenirs; soldiers, surrendering unarmed, were shot. Elsewhere, hospital ships were sunk and prisoners tortured. In 1946 Edgar Jones wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: "What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers."

By June 22, 1945, the U.S. had conquered Okinawa, just 350 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. LeMay's bombers set those islands aflame. From March to May, enormous sections of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Kawasaki and Yokohama were incinerated. The raids on Tokyo had to be called off after May because scarcely any major targets were left. Of the carnage, LeMay said, "No point in slaughtering civilians for the mere sake of slaughter." He was after military production. But, he added, "the entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war ... We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids ... Had to be done."

The U.S. Army and Navy, meanwhile, were reconstituting mechanisms from the Nazis' V-1 guided missiles, which had wrought such tremendous damage on England in the waning months of the European war. The result was the JB-2 jet bomb, a low-altitude missile. The Army had requisitioned 1,000 JB-2s by the end of July 1945 as part of an eventual plan to hit Japan with up to 500 such missiles a day. The Navy hoped to do the same with its version, called the Loon. But by that time, more horrific technologies were ready to close out the war.

By the end of May, MacArthur had outmaneuvered his rival, U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz, to lead the invasion of Japan as commander in chief of U.S. Army Forces Pacific. The plan consisted of two parts: first, Operation Olympic, scheduled for Nov. 1, 1945, would land the largest invasion force in history--nearly 340,000 soldiers and Marines--on the island of Kyushu; then, as early as March 1946, Operation Coronet, involving up to 2 million men, would target the island of Honshu and the Kanto plain, on which Tokyo lies.

The Emperor's strategists also prepared for an invasion of Kyushu. Allied intelligence estimates in late April put 84,200 Japanese troops in southern Kyushu. In fact, by late July almost 600,000 Imperial troops were on the island. That balance of Japanese to American fighting men portended a cataclysm. At Okinawa, until then the Pacific's largest land battle, 278,000 U.S. troops fought 83,000 Japanese. The Americans considered a worst-case scenario requiring three attempted landings to achieve victory. Meanwhile, Tokyo had issued orders to its troops--decrypted by U.S. intelligence, which long before had broken the Japanese ciphers--that a ferocious repulsion of the invasion was necessary. "Every soldier should fight to the last moment believing in the final victory." No one would be allowed to retreat; 13 million civilians were mobilized to fight with sticks and shovels if need be. One teenage girl was told, "If you don't kill at least one enemy soldier, you don't deserve to die."

U.S. casualty predictions ranged from 31,000 to 220,000. The Joint Chiefs of Staff offered three different sets of estimates. The worst case: as many as 500,000 Americans killed or wounded. It was assumed that millions of Japanese defenders, military and civilian, would perish.

By tradition, the Emperor kept silent during high-level strategy meetings. But on June 22, Hirohito spoke. His words were cloaked in the subtle and elliptical language of the court, but his meaning was clear: an effort must be made to negotiate an end to the war. The words provided no clear direction for his government. Though officials were eager for peace, few were willing to sue for it, certainly not with the U.S. Military factions were ready to stage assassinations or a coup if bureaucrats tried such a move. Japanese diplomats approached the Soviet Union, then neutral in the Pacific, seeking mediation and proffering an alliance. That intelligence caused concern in the U.S., already worried about the Soviets, so utterly triumphant over Germany. Thus, as Japan's peace seekers meandered, America's leaders pondered the obstacles to--and expediencies of--victory.

Already the empire was ashes. "Nights of strong wind were chosen, and bombs were dropped to windward in great quantity," wrote Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu in his memoirs. "The area encompassed by a wall of flame then became the target for the next wave, which systematically bombed the whole. The area became a sea of flame." Kokura, Niigata, Nagasaki and Hiroshima seemed to have been spared; but they were on a special list. "Day by day, Japan turned into a furnace from which the voice of a people searching for food rose in anguish," wrote Shigemitsu. "And yet the clarion call was accepted. If the Emperor ordained it, they would leap into the flames." On Okinawa, Marine Private Eugene Sledge and his compatriots prepared for the invasion "with complete resignation that we would be killed."

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Japanese propagandists crowed about the empire's people, the "100 million," and a national cohesiveness that could achieve anything it was directed to do: "100 million hearts beating as one," "100 million people as one bullet," and "100 million advancing like a ball of fire." No one expected the last to be a prophecy. For more terrifying wonders would come out of the heavens: the sun turned to darkness, the moon to blood.