News | Dec. 29, 2021

Twilight of the Gods

By Paula G. Thornhill Joint Force Quarterly 104

Download PDF

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944–1945
Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944–1945
Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944–1945
Photo By: W.W. Norton and Co.
VIRIN: 211228-D-BD104-1016

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944–1945
By Ian W. Toll
W.W. Norton and Co., 2020
944 pp., $25.00
ISBN: 978-0393080650

Reviewed by Paula G. Thornhill

Dr. Paula G. Thornhill, Brigadier General, USAF (Ret.), is the Associate Director of the Strategic Studies program at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Demystifying the American Military: Institutions, Evolution, and Challenges Since 1789 (Naval Institute Press, 2019).

Twilight of the Gods completes Ian Toll’s superb trilogy of America’s war in the Pacific during World War II. As with his first two volumes, this dynamic, gifted writer tells a compelling story about how the United States ultimately triumphed in the Pacific. Major amphibious operations, such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, get considerable attention, as do major sea battles such as Leyte Gulf. His recounting of the Philippines campaign is particularly well done—easy to follow, detailed, and completely gripping. Twilight of the Gods, however, is more than the retelling of epic battles. Toll offers an exceptionally well-researched, integrated narrative built around the Services’ imperfect and, at times, remarkably parochial efforts in 1944–1945 to fight and ultimately defeat Japan. As joint force members read this book, they will find invaluable lessons even more powerful because of the myriad primary and secondary sources that underpin them.

Toll’s work is a masterful study in leadership from the five-star ranks on down. Admiral Raymond Spruance, for example, emerges as the most steady and reliable task force commander, even though his counterpart, Admiral William Halsey, steals the headlines and ultimately receives his fifth star despite his penchant for poor decisionmaking. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz ably handles operations in his theater but is not above taking questionable actions, including pursuing a deadly and perhaps unnecessary operation on Peleliu rather than making operational concessions to General Douglas MacArthur and the Army. Throughout his work, Toll paints a picture of senior uniformed commanders struggling to lead immense combined or joint forces yet unable to shed their Services’ parochialism. Striking the proper balance between these two—driven by the intellectual imperative of the former and the emotional imperative of the latter—was, and remains, extremely difficult.

Toll demonstrates a command of military theory in assessing strategy and operations in the Pacific. Sun Tzu and Alfred Thayer Mahan both make appearances, but J.C. Wylie’s cumulative strategy steals the show. Toll relies on Wylie’s theory to examine and assess the relative success of the submarine and air campaigns. Naval and Army air forces leaders executed both campaigns with relative autonomy and with vague measures of effectiveness. His discussion of long-range submarine operations executed under Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood’s command is particularly well done. By using Wylie to discuss these operations, Toll reintroduces a seminal military theorist and reminds the joint force of the importance of looking for alternative methods to understand, assess, and discuss military operations.

Twilight of the Gods reminds us how difficult it is to end a war. Japanese leaders knew for some time they could not win, but they also could not stop fighting. Toll does a marvelous job describing the agonizing and frustrating conversations in Tokyo during the last months of the war. The reader wants Japan to surrender, knowing that atomic bombs are lurking in the background. But this accomplished author leaves the reader wondering: Would Japan have fought on if the bombs had not been dropped? Ending wars, especially total wars, is extremely difficult and arguably receives insufficient attention in professional military education and from the joint force. Senior civilian and military leaders would do well to devote more thought to teaching and honing the skills associated with the termination of war.

If today’s joint force members take the time to read this volume, or even better, Toll’s entire trilogy, they shall learn much about the origins, successes, and limitations of jointness during the war. The range of insights are numerous. Toll touches on joint strategy, command boundaries, unity of command, Service rivalries, joint logistics, and theater commanders’ relationships with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In one instance, he examines how Douglas MacArthur’s ego and the Navy’s interests ultimately clashed over command and control of the final campaign against Japan. In another, he highlights General H.H. Arnold’s (the Army Air Force’s [AAF] Chief of Staff) successful effort to create an air command structure that ran through the Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the theater commands. This ensured the AAF had centralized control over the allocation, apportionment, and use of the B-29 bombers, denying that control to MacArthur and Nimitz.

Based on these topics alone, Toll’s work could fuel many animated professional military education seminar discussions. In addition, he helps today’s reader understand how World War II commanders tackled large operational problems such as conducting dispersed operations and collapsing the antiaccess/area-denial zone around Japan. Those seeking to understand Great Power competition and conflict in the 2020s and beyond will draw many insights about the associated challenges by reading this volume.

Twilight of the Gods might seem a bit repetitive in a few places, but this is a small quibble by a reviewer dazzled by the extent of Toll’s impressive achievement—the creation of an instant classic with this volume, not to mention his entire Pacific War trilogy. Sweeping in scope, brilliantly written, and with lessons for the joint force too numerous to list, Twilight of the Gods, as well as its two predecessor volumes, should figure prominently in the education of today’s joint force. JFQ