Nineteen-forty-six was the year the present began. That's the way it's always been in my life. In high school and college, as a student of history, I took courses with titles like "Crucial Years" that covered "1945 to the present." They began when the shooting stopped at the end of World War II. You never had to take a course in World War II, or the inter-war period, so it was genuinely possible to think the world began in 1946.

It's convenient for the organizers of curricula and the writers of textbooks to break up the world like that. So 1945 joins other convenient "zero" dates that punctuate history: 1914, 1815, 1776, 1492, 1215, 476.

In the unconscious, Dali-esque mental calendar in my head, the gap between 1946 and "today," sixty years later, actually seems smaller than that between 1946 and, say, 1936.

That is false, of course. In my daughter's education, 2001 is likely to replace 1945. Those of us alive and adult now know just how false that will be.

Maybe awareness of that is why my reading after Sept. 11 took a turn back to 1945, and to break through the artificial barrier and thread the present with the past.

Gregor Dallas' excellent book takes a big whack at this wall. Ronald H. Spector's "In the Ruins of Empire," compliments it like a matching bookend. Whereas Dallas concentrated on Europe, Spector, who also wrote the well-received Eagle Against the Sun, looks at the end of the war in Asia.

(He also earned his props to do this by writing an insightful work on the Vietnam War.)

I had been interested for some time in the complexities of race and imperialism in the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. I hadn't been able to find anything good on the topic until I heard about this book.

I bought it sight-unseen online. Had I picked it up in a bookstore, however, I might have put it right down again. The blurbs on the back cover tell of "a resounding lesson for our time about the failure of postwar operations in countries we were little prepared to reconstruct ... a cautionary tale that should be read by anyone interested in how we need to think about future involvements in distant lands we enter at our peril ... dismal accounts of civil war and mass slaughter, much of it provoked by the blundering victorious powers ... a painful lesson ...."

Some of this was written by fellow historians (the author of "Nixon and Kissinger" is among them) who apparently failed to read the book first, or else who came to it with brains scrambled by Iraq rage. How would you "reconstruct" jungle islands that never saw World War II battles in the first place? But the reviewer has eyes firmly fixed on the present.

But this book is not yet another bid to pillage the historical record for weapons to bash Bush with. Spector wrote in the wake of Iraq and obviously is aware of it. His choice of words and the framing of certain scenes reflects that awareness. But he is genuinely interested in his historical topic for its own sake, not as a cudgel to punish the present.

This review, which includes the memorably descriptive phrase "When the Japanese formally laid down their arms in mid-August 1945, the entire continent of Asia immediately became shrouded in a thick fog of peace," gets the gist of the story's strangeness:

Friends and foes became hard to distinguish. Before they could be repatriated, some idealistic Japanese soldiers - and not a few who feared indictment for war crimes - deserted the Imperial Army and stayed behind to battle for Indonesian independence. Others fought alongside the Vietminh against the French and the British in Vietnam, while those still wearing the Imperial chrysanthemum stood guard - fully armed and with bayonets fixed - when U.S. forces landed at Inchon to begin the occupation of Korea. Many of Chiang Kai-shek's generals, having attended the Japanese military academy, used Japanese troops to fight the Communists. Spector, a professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, reports that the Japanese patrolled rail lines and broke a Communist-led strike in Shanghai and that as late as November 1946, some 80,000 Japanese troops were operating under Chiang's command.

Often the victors were simply clueless, trying to govern with limited intelligence as they groped around in the dark. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru once mocked the U.S. occupation in Japan for "its generally happy ignorance of the amount of requisite knowledge it lacked." Despite the services of a very competent OSS (the forerunner of the CIA), the United States was remarkably ignorant of the region. Armed only with "a few pages on Korea" from a 1905 travel guidebook, for example, and with no knowledge of the language, U.S. occupation forces hired former Japanese occupiers and suspected Korean collaborators to explain life on the peninsula to them. A confused U.S. proconsul in Seoul declared to a stunned Korean populace that the Japanese would continue to govern the country. It took months to undo the damage.

When Spector does address Iraq directly, toward the end of the book, he notes that the "lessons" supposedly learned in that recent war often conflict one another ("Only a long occupation can succeed." "A long occupation leads to resentments and rebellions.")

Turning back to his historical topic, Spector writes, "On all of these generalizations, the story of the liquidation of Japan's empire casts a bright light of ambiguity." And don't ever trust any history book that tells you otherwise. Where Spector is willing to make his own generalizations they can seem bland at first, but they really are crucial insights for people tearing their hair out with rage over Iraq, and with American "defeat" and "failure" there:

The successes and failures in East and Southeast Asia in 1945 and 1946 were often the result of factors far beyond the power of generals and soldiers to halt or redirect.
He quickly adds the very definition of "success" and "failure" is dicey in this situation. Success for whom? By what path? For how long?

Another no-brainer lesson that yet seems to have been forgotten: "Occupations proceeded most smoothly where soldiers of the occupation force found a basis for at least limited cooperation and friendship with the locals," and "where the occupiers and the occupied shared common, or at least compatible, interests."

As the entire American experience in Iraq attests; from the Kurdish welcome to the early cooperation from Shi'ite provinces, to the recent turn-around in Anbar. Finally, there's this warning:

The most deleterious effects of the Allied military presence developed not through blunders or misjudgments of those charged with carrying out the occupations, but when the highest levels of government acted indecisively, had mistaken notions or no notions at all about what was actually happening on the scene, and neglected or ignored reports from the field.
In places where the situation in Asia could offer some guidance in Iraq, the record is too mixed to read. Some critics decry the disbanding of the corrupt Iraqi army after Saddam's fall because it eliminated the only force capable of keeping order. The Allied use of Japanese troops to keep order after the surrender in Tokyo might be an example of an alternative policy. But the results there were mixed: Such policies were violently opposed by horrified local populations, whom the Japanese sometimes continued to brutalize. But in some other cases the Japanese did essential work in keeping order.

Nonetheless, there is room to notice more degree of sameness between now and then than Spector describes. The collapse of Japan was a "catastrophic success" for the Allies, yet the postwar disposition of the Japanese Empire was a problem that loomed for years. Apparently no one had a plan for it.

The American and British leaders formed their policies with a constant glancing back at a war-weary public that only wanted an end to fighting and the troops brought home. Other political considerations interfered with clear thinking.

And the major differences ought to be noted. In Iraq, America appeared in force for the first time in history in 1991, and left at once. Twelve years later it returned to overthrow an indigenous dictator.

In Asia in the 1940s, the Japanese chased out European colonial overlords from Asian nations, then ruled themselves with varying degrees of local complicity and general brutality. Then the Allies defeated Japan in Japan, and turned up to occupy the outposts of its empire with the old colonial authorities in tow.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson was how completely the mythical power of the Europeans dispelled. Once the local population had seen them defeated by Asian -- the Japanese -- the British, Dutch and French never could hope to rule uncontested again.

A few more lessons ought to be noted. One is the radically different career of the Philippines -- the only American colony in the region, and outside the purview of Spector's book (it had been liberated before the surrender). There, as Spector notes, the local population fought aggressively against the Japanese invaders alongside the Americans, and continued to resist in some cases after the American defeat. That exception is a telling clue to the effectiveness of the light-handed rule of American colonial policies.

The stories in Spector's book also affirms the strong anti-colonial mentality of America, a point hammered home as well in Derek Leebaert's fine history of the Cold War. Americans, from Roosevelt on down, were bluntly unwilling to help France and Britain re-establish their empires, and were unwilling to shed their own blood or anyone else's in such distasteful work. Ho Chi Minh, among others, looked on the Americans as liberators at first -- from the French as well as the Japanese.

But the pressure on Western Europe from the Soviets and national communist parties convinced Washington its priorities lay in strengthening the economies of Britain, France, and the Netherlands. And if that meant propping up the corrupt colonial empires in Asia, so it must be. That was, in Asian terms, a tragic mistake, a "failure," and most of the Americans working in Asia who knew anything about it warned the government so. But was there a better choice?

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© October 2, 2007 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"