In his descriptions of the lives of Japanese pilots, soldiers and civilians David creates a vivid picture of a culture that seems on a different planet; a medieval idea of dishonour that led to the military leaders on the island committing ritual suicide by plunging daggers into their stomachs (the cue for a conveniently placed soldier to slice off their heads to avoid a lingering death).
It was the carnage of Okinawa that left Truman with no choice but to order the atom bomb; hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of young Americans and Japanese would otherwise have died as Japan fought inch-by-inch on the mainland.
And yet one of the most moving moments of the book comes in an account of a kamikaze pilot saying goodbye to his new wife. ‘When will I see you again?’ she asks. ‘I’ll be back,’ he replies, ‘when it rains.’ It’s hard to know what to make of such a remark. Its poetic quality is striking, but perhaps also an indication of the extent of the pilot’s delusion, especially when it’s set alongside the horrific account of a Japanese nurse who worked in an underground dressing station on Okinawa. ‘Those with brain fever were no longer human beings,’ she wrote.
Kamikaze pilots, given their ephemeral contribution, are seldom assigned personality in accounts of this war. David deftly does so, rendering their role all the more uncomfortable to contemplate. They gather together before a big mission and tell bawdy jokes, boasting of sexual experiences they don’t actually have. Bathos quickly shifts to pathos when they board their planes and mumble farewell to their mothers. One kamikaze pilot asks permission to marry his stepsister before his mission. She understands that she cannot refuse.