Decisive Darkness Part One: Majestic
Sea Lion Press
As I work my way through the list of titles produced by Sea Lion Press, I’m happy to report that the publisher certainly doesn’t seem to intend to shy away from some of the more controversial counter-factual scenarios that exist in the alternate history genre. A case in point is the two-part Decisive Darkness series by Paul Hynes, which together deliver a rewritten history of the end of the Pacific War in 1945; specifically that after the delivery of both atomic weapons to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the peace faction within the Japanese government, which prevailed historically and sued for peace with the Allies, are overthrown by a coup led by an ultra-nationalist General who refuses to surrender. As a result, the Allied invasion of Japan, Operation Olympic, is forced to take place with predictably grim and bloody consequences.
Operation Olympic, in conjunction with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is an incredibly contentious counter-factual scenario that continues to stimulate passionate and partisan debates and arguments, both in academic circles and on forums and social media. The scenario covers a series of questions: were the atomic bombings actually necessary to force an unconditional Japanese surrender, and would a prolonged economic blockade instead have achieved the same result at far less cost? If the atomic bombs had not sufficed to force the Japanese government’s hand, then would an Allied amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands been successful? And – perhaps the most contentious of queries – did Hiroshima and Nagasaki save more lives than they took, by preventing Operation Olympic and a campaign that would have made Okinawa and Iwo Jima seem like training exercises in comparison?
The Decisive Darkness series consists of two parts, Majestic and Coronet; in this blog post, I will review Majestic and a follow-up post will review its sequel. Majestic is presented as a single historical text, describing, chapter by chapter, the scenario that unfolds after the initial Japanese agreement to unconditional surrender is rescinded after only a few hours as a result of a military coup led by General Anami. The result is both dramatic and portentous; enough time had passed for celebrations to break out across the United States at the declaration of peace, only for that peace to be baldly snatched away. The immediate consequences are an outpouring of anger against the Japanese by the American public, resulting in riots that focus on East-Asian-Americans, many of whom had only recently been released from their internment camps. The longer-term consequences are a hardening of hearts in American political and military circles, as well as American public opinion, and President Truman reluctantly orders the launch of Operation Olympic – the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.
Hynes goes into significant detail about the preparations for Olympic (eventually re-named Majestic due to fears of Japanese intelligence hearing of the code-name and what it represented), but never gets bogged down in fetishistic detail or reams of statistics; instead, he is able to succinctly get to the core of the issues around Majestic without slowing the story down or boring the reader. He ably highlights that the invasion had been planned for numerous months before it was scheduled to take place, and that the U.S. had gathered together an unprecedented military force to launch Majestic; but that even this mighty armada could still be damaged by a fortuitous Typhoon that kills thousands, and delays the operation by vital weeks. This delay in turn puts pressure on the overarching plan for the invasion – if Majestic is not completed by December 1945, then there won’t be sufficient time for Coronet to take place by March 1946, before the Pacific weather deteriorates and forces the Allies to stop campaigning for months.
The invasion is launched, and is very much the meat-grinder that historians suspected that it might be – casualty predictions are shown to be wildly conservative in nature, and the fighting soon gets bogged down in the same type of fighting that was seen in the island-hopping of previous years. As the Americans fight for every yard, against an enemy fighting for their homeland, Hynes superbly shows the sequence of events that leads to the American military, and the White House, turning to ever-more destructive weapons in an attempt to end the conflict. More and more atomic bombs are dropped on Japanese cities and military targets, killing tens of thousands and irradiating countless acres of land, and eventually even chemical weapons are deployed en-masse to finally turn the tide of Majestic in the American’s favour. By the end of the novel, the Americans have captured the island of Kyushu, but at a huge cost – hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, and an island that can barely be called habitable in many placed.
There was a point early on when I was concerned that Majestic might focus solely on the invasion of Kyushu and the surrounding areas, and neglect the wider military and political implications of the invasion. Fortunately, I was quickly proven wrong – Hynes provides a great deal of context for the results of this counter-factual invasion, highlighting the disintegration of the Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere and the Japanese empire, and how the Allied focus on the invasion of Japan gives many of the occupied East Asian countries far greater freedom than they did historically to create their own destinies – by the end of the novel, a resurgent Thailand is launcing an invasion of its neighbours, and Vietnam looks set to be united under Ho Chi Minh, avoiding the conflict that should take place there twenty years in the future. Even the British Commonwealth and other Allied nations are given space, with Hynes illustrating the tragic results of the invasion of Singapore, and events in Indonesia that have direct consequences for Majestic itself.
Well-written and keeping up an even pace throughout, this is a thoroughly-researched and enjoyable title by Mr Hynes, and I look forward to reading and reviewing Coronet when I am able to get hold of a copy.