Book Review: The Conquering Tide
by Ian W. Toll
WW Norton, 2015
Ian Toll follows up the intensely good first volume in his Pacific War trilogy, Pacific Crucible, with The Conquering Tide, a gripping and meaty account of the height of the war in the Pacific Theater between the US and the Imperial Navy of Japan. This was the greatest naval conflict in human history, fought across vast spaces by two immense forces who were evenly-matched for most of the war and populated by some of the most vivid commanders, on both sides, that organized warfare has ever seen. It is, as its first great chronicler Samuel Eliot Morison was fond of saying, “one Hell of a story,” and for many readers, perhaps, the first volume of Toll’s trilogy was overshadowed by the Pacific Theater installments of Morison’s 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, an incredible product of twenty years of immersion and first-hand experience the like of which the world had scarcely seen since Thucydides mothballed his naval commission and took up his goosequill. Morison’s work never flags in all of its millions of words, and its cumulative effect is the kind of thing that makes aspiring historians take up accounting.
It may have had the opposite effect on Toll, who is a winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and in either case as good as Pacific Crucible was, The Conquering Tide is grandly superior in every way, a powerful and cinematically absorbing panorama of the height of the Pacific War, with all the key battles narrated in lively detail, from Savo Island to the Santa Cruz Islands to the epic confrontation at the Eastern Solomons in August of 1942, when the American fleet came under what one captain described as a “well executed and absolutely determined” attack:
At 5:09, the Enterprise radar pilot informed the captain that “the enemy planes are directly overhead now!” The antiaircraft gunners, with helmets pushed back on their heads and kapok life vests drawn up around their necks, studied the sky. For a moment, nothing seemed amiss. The afternoon was absurdly peaceful. A few black specks moved above and between the high, thin wisps of cloud. Then a few of those specks stopped and seemed to fix in place. Gradually, the rising drone of aircraft engines could be heard. The larger specks began to take shape – a blurred disk, bisected by wings, with fixed landing gear under the wings, sun glinting off the cockpit canopies, and a second, smaller speck (the bomb) tucked under the fuselage. Witnesses who had never seen a dive-bombing attack where surprised at how long the enemy planes took to come down. They dived at angles of 70 degrees or even steeper, most on the port beam and quarter of the Enterprise.
Toll also tries to look dispassionately at the less-than-heroic aspects of the land fighting involved, including the ghastly behavior of American troops at Guadalcanal:
Dehumanization of the enemy was one of war’s necessary evils, but it was every officer’s responsibility to arrest the descent into bestiality. On Guadalcanal, a small minority of American infantrymen had engaged in the practice of mutilating enemy dead. Mos common was the practice of extracting teeth for the value of their gold fillings – but there were also instances of men wearing severed ears on their belts, of necklaces made of teeth, of heads erected on poles, of skulls mounted on tanks.
(The passage shows one of Toll’s only weaknesses as a narrator: he’s partial to Our Boys. Even the sympathetic description he gives of what happened on Guadalcanal immediately gives even a neophyte reader an impression completely at odds with what the passage is actually saying – read it again: do those three sentences lead you to think you’re reading about “a small minority”?)
“Literally from the first minutes of the Pacific War, events proved that airpower and submarine warfare had unseated the battle line as the ultimate arbiter of naval power,” Toll writes. “But the admirals had refused to relinquish their trust in the big guns.” Insights like these are scattered throughout the book and serve to throw spotlights on the commanders of both sides, from the “peculiar” command style of Admiral William Halsey (a stretch of a term when applied to a frothing egomaniac who advocated the castration of all Japanese males and the “spaying” of all Japanese women, but it’s Toll’s discretion) to the sometimes reserved management ethos of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Chester Nimitz:
Chester Nimitz was not one to flaunt the power of his towering rank. In presiding over discussions at his headquarters, the CINCPAC was usually content to listen more than he spoke. He elicited the reasoned opinions of planners and commanders; he allowed a full airing of objections and criticisms, unimpeded by a stifling deference to rank or seniority; he shepherded his subordinates toward consensus before fixing his signature to operational orders. Rarely had he overruled his leading advisers, and never over their unanimous opposition.
The final brutal chapters of the Pacific Theater story Toll leaves for his final volume, and readers can only hope they won’t have to wait another five years for it. But if so, so be it: this is history-writing to savor.