By Barrett Tillman, Osprey (2022)
Reviewed by: Capt. Chuck Good, USN (Ret.)
Much ink has been spilled over the years on how wars begin, and almost as much on the treaties and negotiations which formally signal their end and dictate their terms. At Dawn We Slept and The Guns of August remain classics on how things start. As to how the end is marked, thousands of pages have been compiled on the great peace treaties: Versailles, Vienna, Paris. But few authors and scholars choose to examine the implementation of these pieces of paper – how the killing actually stops “in the trenches” while conflicts still rage. The classic of this underrepresented genre is a literary and cinematic one, not a scholarly work: All Quiet on the Western Front. Who can forget, having seen it, the pathos and horror of Paul Baümer reaching for a butterfly, the only living thing of beauty in the trench moonscape, only to be killed by a sniper at the very hour of Armistice?
Recently, two eminent author-historians have risen to the challenge of this underrepresented topic, both focusing on the end of World War II in the Pacific. In 2020, Professor Marc Galliccio’s Unconditional: the Japanese Surrender in World War II examined the nature of Allied end-of-war demands and the impact on the Japanese side of their insistence on unconditional surrender. Two years later, Barrett Tillman has delivered his take on this pivotal event, seamlessly blending global politics with battlefield vignettes. As Tillman shows us, there were many Paul Baümers in August 1945, and much diplomatic and strategic maneuvering was required to prevent even more tragedy.
Only an author of Tillman’s experience, breadth and skill could pull off such a work: a multi-layered, nuanced and compelling look at the last few weeks of a global charnel-house, from individual soldiers, sailor and airmen on multiple sides, the theater-level wrangling over how to prevent unnecessary bloodshed without sacrificing momentum or position, the scientific breakthroughs that heralded the end, to the final geo-strategic wrangling that finally achieved an end to one war while setting in motion the next. The work harmoniously blends the various genres the author is known for: technical history, operational history, biography, and military anecdote. Tillman’s mastery is such that he can jump from geo-strategic appraisal in one paragraph to a nicely-formed tale of an individual combat action in the next without the book seeming disjointed.
Ultimately, the book coalesces around two interrelated themes: the geo-political why of the Japanese capitulation, to the operational and individual how of halting combat in the midst of a nihilistic endgame. Historians of many stripes have made cases for several whys as the dominant factor. The advent and use of the atomic bomb is the most obvious but polarizing of these to this day. Some favor instead the inevitable Soviet entry into the Pacific War as the dominant factor, perhaps history’s only truly successful mass projection of Western land power into Asia. And finally, always central to military analyses, is the layered air and sea blockade inexorably squeezing Japan both economically and physically. Each of these causes has its adherents and detractors; Tillman explores each without partisanship, recognizing that it was not either-or, but all which ultimately drove the Japanese government to the surrender table.
To his credit, Tillman comes off as neither a bomb apologist nor denier. The book makes obvious the bomb’s impact on the world, both technologically and militarily, in a trim and effective narrative which convincingly highlights the bomb as the preeminent factor in ending the war without obfuscating the importance of the other two. Certainly, Tillman makes clear the Japanese militarists’ fanaticism in the face of blockade and invasion; nothing short of the prospect of annihilation would move the internal balance of power towards moderation. That balance would ultimately be tipped – narrowly – by Emperor Hirohito, even in the face of a near-coup. As with other examples of Tillman’s nuance, he paints Hirohito as neither hero nor villain, merely as a critical element in ending the war when and how it did.
The Soviets are another player on the stage, given the same equitable treatment. With neither admiration nor disdain, Tillman lays out Stalin’s realpolitik in entering the war in the endgame, a cynical land-grab of continental proportions. The Red Army’s might in both mass and armored overmatch is undeniable, but Tillman compellingly uses battlefield anecdotes to show how confusion, ambiguity, and vast space can slow even the most irresistible of advances. This brief but sweeping campaign is still not well-documented in the West, and it is fascinating to read of the sporadic pockets of Soviet tactical failure even in the midst of smashing strategic success.
Finally, the depictions of the conventional air raids and submarine campaign bring out Tillman’s best; he remains an eminent aviation historian, and his depictions of the last few B-29 raids and carrier air strikes are both thrilling and very human. Here we meet young, junior airmen on both sides, who fought fiercely and died tragically in the last several days leading up to the surrender and even, in some cases, afterwards. The motivations and competence of these airmen – on both sides – are examined without disparagement, and the narrative thrillingly highlights the increasing desperation of their final actions without glamorizing the tragedy. More comically, Tillman shares stories of the first few Allied airmen to touch down in Japan, many under dubious pretexts, reminding the reader that war is not just a game of thrones, but also the lethal playground of exuberant – and sometimes foolish – young men.
Ultimately, it is Tillman’s choice of these vignettes, both horrifying and human, which personalize what could have been dry history. When the Shooting Stopped is a fine work, worthy of the author’s reputation. Readable, informative, and compelling, it is deserving of the time to contemplate and absorb. This reviewer can only add a brief anecdotal post-script to Tillman’s masterpiece. About 15 years ago, my ship made a brief port call in Sasebo, Japan. While there, the base commander, an old shipmate, invited me to dinner at his house. This residence, newly constructed on a bluff overlooking the port, had two curious features: a pair of small stones, obviously weathered and damaged, sitting in the back yard. When I asked about them, my friend replied “that is all that remains of the Imperial Japanese Navy Fleet HQ building after we bombed Sasebo in 1945.” Almost half of Sasebo was levelled in that one raid, a reminder that this particular war ended bloodily … and decisively.
Captain Good was a career Surface Warfare Officer. His service spanned 30 years, including destroyer and cruiser command. He finished his active duty as the inaugural Chair of Surface Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School and now provides contractor instructional services at the Mariner’s Skills Training Center Pacific.
Barrett Tillman is a professional author and speaker with more than 40 nonfiction books as well as novels to his credit. His first book, published in 1976, remains in print today as do most of his subsequent titles.
When the Shooting Stopped: August 1945. By Barret Tillman (Oxford, England: 2022)