Hooper’s War by Peter Van Buren is an alternative history of World War II with a deep message about war. Peter Van Buren is a former foreign service officer, author, and first amendment rights defender by circumstance. His previous book The Ghosts of Tom Joad; The Story of the #99 tells a very realistic story of the fall of the rust belt cities that took me back to my days of growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.
Hooper’s War is an interesting book for reasons beyond it being a good war story. It runs along the lines of Philip Caputo but not as in your face as Dalton Trumbo. Van Buren sets his story in 1946 as the war has reached mainland Japan. This twist is particularly interesting because the atomic bombs are not mentioned in the story. To many, WWII was when the United States wore the white hat and took the high moral ground. The atomic bombs were perhaps the only recognizable scar on that victory. Since then we fought Korea to a draw. Vietnam brings to mind My Lai and the evacuation of the American Embassy. Iraq and Afghanistan were left unfinished. World War II was America’s just victory.
Hooper is an infantry lieutenant, far from his hometown in Ohio. He is leading a group of mostly inexperienced men in combat on mainland Japan. His unit was a mix of inexperienced soldiers with a few experienced NonCommissioned Officers who help lead and help the fresh lieutenant. The violence of the landing and coordination are well done. Van Buren brings an important aspect of the war with Japan to light. In the novel, Kyoto is fire bombed.
In real history, the fire bombing of Dresden was devastating; the German city was completely destroyed in a precision bombing raid. In Japan, precision bombing was abandoned and fire bombing was even more destructive. Cities there had an industrial center and were surrounded with wooden housing. Bombs were dropped near the target and the fires spread inward. The fires burned toward the city center trapping the population. Emergency services were overloaded and unable to prevent the spread of fire. Essentially, the entire city was burned to the ground and that included much of the civilian population. The 1945 firebombing of Tokyo produced more immediate casualties than the atomic bombs at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The story works its way mostly backward through the fictional history and for a large part takes place near the firebombed city of Kyoto. This is where the majority of the principles and morality of war take place. Through Hooper’s words, he tells the reader what he and his men experienced. There is also a Japanese soldier, Eichi Nakagawa, telling his story and a civilian woman, Naoko, with a connection to both Hooper and Nakagawa. Through the perspective of these three people many questions about war and who is right, if anyone, is raised. The immediate leadership on both sides comes into play with the strict discipline and idea of duty and honor to the average Japanese soldier. The Americans see themselves as liberators and question the resistance to freedom. Hooper’s men are given ice cream for completing their mission against the enemy, while Japanese civilians starve. There is a Major Moreland who hopes to wear down the resistance by limiting their supplies and demoralizing the enemy. His attitude is strikingly close to a Vietnam War general with a similar name.
Hooper’s War is an excellent war story and what makes it such is that it is not about the glory of war and the killing of people. It is about what war really is for those who fight it and those who experience it. There is a complexity that escapes many people and even those fighting. Hooper asks Naoko to the effect of “Why don’t you give up and except freedom?” He does not understand that he is now seen as an invader, not a liberator. Decades later people in power and fighting in Iraq would ask the same questions of Iraqi resistance. Van Buren uses alternative history to present questions asked in probably every war in history. He portrays war as two forces fighting, both believing they are right.