Book Review: The Great Pacific War

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Most wargames are alternative history.  The scope varies considerably.  Some games delve into the smallest details of a single tactical battle.  Other games put the player in charge of an entire nation or alliance allowing strategic decisions altering the economy, military technology, logistics, diplomacy and even the decision to declare war.

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By: Avery Abernethy,

This probably explains the appeal of alternative military history books to wargamers.  Many alternative military histories focus on past battles or wars altering anything from a single small fact to major strategic changes.  For example, Grey Tide in the East written by Andrew Heller in 2017 changes WW1 by having the Kaiser stop the invasion of Belgium redirecting German forces against Imperial Russia.

Writing good alternative military fiction about plausible future conflicts is harder.  Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising arose out of a Harpoon wargame with the USSR launching a gambit to take Iceland at the start of a war against NATO in the 1980s.  Wargame designer Larry Bond of Harpoon fame wrote a series of alternative history novels of future conflicts including Red Phoenix where North Korea attacked South Korea in the 1980s.

After World War 1 much of the world was sick of the carnage of war.  The US, Great Britain, and many other countries allowed their military might to languish and turned to isolationism or appeasement.

Counter to this trend, British Author Hector Bywater wrote The Great Pacific War in 1925 about a future war in the Pacific between Japan and the United States in 1931.  At least one historian claims Bywater’s book was widely read by senior officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Bywater’s book was mentioned in an article I read on US Pacific war plans in the 1920s-1940 (War Plan Orange).  Curious, I purchased an electronic copy of the book for $0.99 from Amazon.

The Great Pacific War is a very good alt-history.  China is partly occupied by Japan. The Chinese Emperor found an effective military leader who launched a campaign against warlords bringing more of China under the rule of the central government.   Militant socialist/communist unions in Japan are fomenting massive unrest.  Japan’s goal in China is to gain control over their economic resources.  The military dominates Japan’s leadership and believes a short, victorious war will unite the Japanese citizenry, restore trust in the government, and build support for conquering China.

Japan’s excuse for waging war against the United States is a relatively minor trade concession by the Chinese Emperor to a US Company.

Unlike many alternative histories, The Great Pacific War incorporates the logistical constraints of waging war across vast distances.  Having secure ports which can refuel, repair, and replenish warships is vital.  Protecting trade routes and commerce is especially essential to Japan.

Military setbacks due to the fog of war, bad weather, bad luck, and simple mistakes occur.  This was refreshing to read.  In so many alt-histories the protagonist country makes few mistakes, there is no fog of war, and bad luck under combat (or bad weather) conditions seldom happen.

Bywater uses the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905 as a template of Japanese behavior.  The Japanese military follows the rules of civilized warfare, fights honorably, and treats military and civilian prisoners well.  Japan fights hard, skillfully, and honorably.

The War starts with Japan seizing the Philippines and Guam and sinking most of the US Asiatic fleet harbored in the Philippines.  Japan temporarily closes the Panama Canal by blowing up a merchant vessel secretly carrying large quantities of explosives in a narrow straight.  The US finds itself with no bases Western Pacific, great difficulty combining the Atlantic and Pacific fleet, and huge logistics problems supporting fleet or amphibious actions to recover lost territory.

World War 1 was the last major military or naval conflict reference available to Bywater.  He believed that poison gas could be effectively used against warships at sea.  Big guns of Battleships would settle the naval war if logistics allowed.  Considering the battle of Jutland, the use of poison gas in WW1, and no examples of air attacks sinking major warships under wartime conditions, Bywater’s assumptions are reasonable.  But Bywater’s huge Japanese Submarines mounting large caliber naval artillery was a strange twist.

I enjoyed Bywater’s use of ruses to convey false intentions to the enemy.  I especially like how he incorporates the fog of war including how senior leadership does not know what is going on when communications fail and that ships vanish for reasons unknown to central commanders.

To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to divulge more plot details.  What I’ve described takes place very early.

I’ve read about a score of alternative military histories.  Overall, I would rate The Great Pacific War an “80” on a 100 point with Red Storm Rising being close to 100 for an alternative history of a war in the near future.  This novel is a rare example of an alternative history conflict between Japan and the USA in the 1930s.  In my opinion, writing a plausible alternative military history about a war in the near future is harder than novels addressing past conflicts.

The Great Pacific War was reprinted after Pearl Harbor and became quite popular.  Mr. Bywater died in 1940 and never saw how his predictions of a US/Japanese war would work out.

If you like Alternative History books on warfare or are interested in gaming Pacific conflicts in the interwar period, I strongly encourage you to read The Great Pacific War.  For only $0.99 from Amazon, you will get a lot of entertainment value.

Avery Abernethy is gainfully retired.  He fell in love with Red Storm Rising back in graduate school and has been an avid reader of alternative military history ever since.  You can find Avery’s after action reports, game reviews and see pictures of his dogs at: https://averysgameblog.wordpress.com/


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