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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adding too much fiction to the history


PEARL HARBOR: A Novel of December 8th, by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, 366 pp., $25.95 (cloth)

Last week, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said on CBS-TV that the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow enemy combatants to challenge their detention at Guantanamo was "a disaster" that might lead to the nuclear destruction of a U.S. city.

Gingrich, who gave up his congressional seat in 1998, is still active in politics and earlier this year put out unsuccessful feelers concerning a possible run for the White House.

This collaboration with science fiction author William R. Forstchen brings with the narrative some of Gingrich's political baggage. Basically it hypothesizes what would have happened if Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had taken direct command of the Japanese Combined Fleet. Would he, unlike Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, have been more aggressive and, after striking the American air fields and battleships, ordered followup attacks on Pearl Harbor's dry dock, submarine base and oil storage facilities?

Nagumo's rationale for breaking off the attack seemed perfectly logical at the time. His bombers and torpedo planes had inflicted maximum damage with minimal losses, and since surprise could no longer be achieved, any additional attacks risked greater losses of planes. Moreover, Nagumo lacked intelligence on the whereabouts of the American aircraft carriers, which raised the possibility that U.S. planes might suddenly swoop down on the unprotected Japanese fleet.

Structurally the novel adopts a "Forrest Gump" approach, interspersing fictitious characters and dialogues with real historical figures who mouth made-up lines. It's a dumbed-down dramatization of history and a poor substitute for reading Gordon Prange's landmark work "At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor" (used as the basis of the script for the 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!") and others such as John Toland's "Infamy" and Ladislas Farago's "The Broken Seal."

"When faced with a crisis," Gingrich, a former college history professor, not so subtly sermonizes in his introduction, "America can indeed stand united, and for potential enemies to assume otherwise is folly."

Indeed. And because fiction writers are free to reconstruct wars in which they can spin any no-brainer hypothesis they want, what's next, Newt? Will William Travis and Davy Crockett defend the Alamo with M-16 rifles and bazookas, instead of flintlock muskets? Or, perhaps equally implausible, how about a work in which Donald Rumsfeld heeds the advice of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, instead of bullying them into invading Iraq with a force too small to prevent postwar mayhem? Would the United States then have become embroiled in the quagmire it faces today?



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