Monday, 20 July 2015

Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II - Stuart D Goldman

This review has been published in the magazine: Army History

Title: Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II
Author: Stuart D Goldman
ISBN: 978-1-5891-14339-0
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Pages: 240
Photos: 24
The Battle of Nomonhan has been described by author, Stuart Goldman as “the most important World War II battle that most people have never heard of” (p. 5). Indeed, in many respects this is true and it comes across with striking clarity in this definitive work on the subject. Nomonham, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II, is two narratives that are mutually complementary, one providing critical background information for the other.
The first half of Goldman’s book sets the environment at the macro level. Drawing on extensive access to both declassified Soviet/Russian and Japanese archival material, Goldman provides insight into the intensity of the political, economic, and national turmoil that gripped the nations of Japan and the Soviet Union during this period. This baseline information is critical to understanding the Battle of Nomonhan; indeed, taken in isolation this conflict would make absolutely no sense to the reader as it was fought over nonstrategic ground for seemingly irrelevant reasons. From the Soviet perspective, a series of critical factors influenced not only its actions, but those of its adversaries. It was terrified of strategic isolation between two powerful opponents: Germany and Japan. Therefore, its behavior during the first half of the 1930s was initially focused on placating Japan while trying to turn the attention of Germany west. The thawing of relations with Germany in the latter half of the 1930s and the commencement of Japan’s war with China (and the subsequent weakening of the Japanese Manchukuo Army) resulted in a more confrontational regional stance. Unfortunately, Stalin’s subsequent purge of the USSR military leadership starting in 1937 undermined the message of the less accommodating Soviets and reinforced the preconceived low opinion of the local Japanese command to the Soviet military.
Japan, for its part, was undergoing its own internal challenges. Perhaps more than any other country, Japan had been experiencing internal machinations unlike anything that had happened is the west. An aggressive, agrarian society built upon the tenants of the Bushido Code of the Samurai had been supplanted within a few short decades into a modern  technological and industrialized society led by a government that was dominated by serving military officers. Racist, assertive, and lacking in domestic resources, it followed an expansionist policy bound to bring it in conflict with its neighbors, especially China and Russia.
A unique and traditional aspect of the Japanese code of honor was absolute subservience to the will of the emperor and to those in high office; however, with the rapid onset of technological change this subservience adapted itself under a concept called gekokujo or “rule from below.” Basically, this entailed the younger generation of the Japanese military seeing themselves as the experts in the new Japan with a duty to force decisions that older, more traditional members of society were unable or unwilling to make (as determined by the subordinate officers). The traditional reluctance against losing face or causing another to do so resulted in these younger leaders having a inordinate amount of authority and influence over their seniors. This perverted sense of honor and command and control would have profound consequences in the subsequent battles between the Soviets and Japanese.
The second part of the book delves into the battle itself, commencing with a precursor engagement at a location called Changkufeng. What is important about the geography of this region (both at Nomonhan and Changkufeng), situated at the intersection of the Soviet Union, Manchukuo, and Mongolia, is not its strategic relevance, but the fact that the border was not clearly defined because of the area’s isolation. Therefore, there was ample flexibility for an aggressive staff looking for a fight as movements close to the borders could be interpreted as incursions.
Goldman’s discussion about the battle—which was actually a series of escalating strikes and counterstrikes—is illustrative of the hubris and fanatical courage of the Japanese and the determination of the Russians. During this period the degree of blatant insubordination by Japanese commanders on the ground, against clear direction from Tokyo,was breathtaking. Conversely, the failure of the Japanese senior command to deal effectively and aggressively with the out of control local commanders is equally shocking and telling. This conflict served as a clear indicator to those paying attention of what would become both the strengths and weaknesses of the adversaries. The final tally of between 30,000 and 50,000 casualties and over 100,000 soldiers engaged in this undeclared war is a sobering indicator of the intensity of this conflict.
Nomonhan, 1939 is a particularly noteworthy book on this four-month battle. Goldman’s writing style is engaging and absorbing. As a historian, he brings a unique ability to inform and entertain; his topic is complex and vast but he deftly navigates the reader in a clear and logical way. The book has extensive endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. This reviewer would recommend the book very strongly to anyone, historians and casual readers alike, who wish to comprehend the intricacies of the Far East in the months prior to Japan’s entry into World War II.

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