The Emperor’s General

My backlog of things to blog about is getting embarassingly long, so this little rieiew will likely be short. (“He says that like it’s a bad thing,” the experienced readers among you say…)

The Emperor’s General by James Webb is a story that takes place primarily in the waning days of the second world war, and is told from the point of view of Jay Marsh, an aide to General Douglas MacArthur. The story has many layers as Marsh wrestles with balancing his blossoming career in MacArthur’s camp – one which he finds himself surprisingly adept at – and the love of a woman and the promises he made.

MacArthur’s occupation of Japan after the war was quite peaceful and successful, and this book examines some of the trade-offs that MacArthur made to ensure that stability. Some of those compromises were less than honorable, as he steadfastly refused to allow any of the Japanese royal family to be tried for war crimes, despite very strong evidence that they were intimately involved in the atrocities at Nanking.

Captain Marsh, who understands the Japanese language and, more importantly, Japanese culture, becomes a key go-between, an unofficial conduit of information between the Emperor’s men and the general. Marsh becomes increasingly disenchanted with the process as he realizes that guilt or innocence have nothing to do with who will be tried and who won’t. “There is no sin in Japan,” he observes, “only shame.” Several generals and politicians have been designated to bear the shame of defeat and the shame of the crimes committed.

Meanwhile, Marsh is in love with a Filipino woman, and I had to cringe every time he made promises that no matter what happened he would come back to her and they would marry. He won’t. We know that from the first chapter of the book. Something is going to happen and his most solemn vow will be broken. By giving us this foreknowledge, the author quite effectively casts a shadow of tragedy over even their happiest moments. There’s some good storytelling going on.

It’s also obvious that the author has done his research. Webb knows his military lore (he once served as Secretary of the Navy), and he has a good flair for bringing the historical characters to life, and providing a very well-rounded view of the historical incidents. This is another story that would benefit from a short list of suggested reading at the end, for those who want to learn more about the history without the encumbrance of a story narrative that must necessarily take precedence over fact.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

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