Peter Van Buren, Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan (Luminis Books, 2017) — a book review

© 2017 Peter Free


04 May 2017



For the right readers, outstanding


Peter Van Buren's Hooper's War is an early 21st century American allegory of understated, but hauntingly memorable ethical power.


Van Buren sets his story in an imagined (non-atomic bomb) invasion of the Japanese mainland in 1946. The alternative history setting allows his parable to play out in believable cross-cultural and military-civilian ways.



How to tell whether the book will appeal to you


Below is one my favorite passages.


Former US Army Lt. Hooper, presumably now in his 90s, is visiting Kyoto, where he had fought during World War II. A young Japanese woman translates for him:



"So, therefore, many small statues are placed here after war to remember the children who died in the firebombing elsewhere. They were roasted."


I suggested Syako/Sally say something like "killed in the fire" instead of roasted," and she looked grateful, jotting down with a pink mechanical pencil into a pink Hello Kitty notebook.


"So, because they were killed in the fire — Sayako/Sally looked to me for approval and I smiled "—these small statues are here. The relatives of them come to pour the water on and pray for the souls of the killed-in-the-fire-children of Kyoto."


In any other place on Earth where such violence had been done, this conversation could never have unfolded like this . . . .


Sayako/Sally gestured to an old woman gently pouring ladles of water on one of the small stone statues. The statues did not look like children. They were small ovals, with partial faces, cartoonish egg figurines with cloth bibs, symbolic without being ghoulish. A very Japanese touch. The old woman appeared to be speaking with the statues . . . .


"I've been here before," I said.


"I come often to pray for the souls of these children, I have much to discuss with God."


"What do you say as you pour the water on the statues?"


"I say 'Haruo-kun, that day of the firebombing was so hot for you.' I say "Akiko-chan, you wished so hard for water then. Please drink now.' You must think I am silly, talking to hosts," she said.


"I am here for ghosts," I said, and without warning to myself let out everything I had seen in 1946.


© 2017 Peter Van Buren, Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan (Luminis Books, 2017) (advance edition, Chapter 1 at pages 6-8)



A distinctive writing style


Van Buren's talent lies in writing brief and unpretentious paragraphs that describe pivotally soulful moments.


His style reminds me somewhat of the incomparable Soviet chronicler of the Second World War's Eastern Front, Vasily Grossman — whom I doubt anyone will surpass for delivering the concisely insightful, spare prose of human suffering.



Examples from Hooper's War


Regarding war's self-perpetuation:



[Japanese Sergeant] Nakagawa's eyes met Naoko's. . . . He turned toward her, and closed his eyes.


"I see the drops of water on your skin from that day we swam in the river. I saw an old man burned to death for a mistake an American pilot never knew he made. People who should have comforted me instead gave me this rifle. You do not write poetry after such molestation, you molest. Naoko, I am sorry."


© 2017 Peter Van Buren, Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan (Luminis Books, 2017) (advance edition, Chapter 6 at page 47) (paragraph split)



With respect to war crimes:



"Your planes bombed the Nishinomiya hospital. I am sure by accident," Naoko said.


"Of course it was by accident. Americans don't do things like that on purpose."


"Hmm. The large red crosses on the roof must have been hard to see," Naoko said.


(Chapter 8 at page 56)



On the difficulty of nuanced cross-cultural translation:



[W]e say ishin denshin. It too does not translate.




"As best I can say is it means 'what the heart knows' but I think a better way to understand it is that there is much said in silence," Naoko said. "Or maybe it describes a kind of sadness, like you feel as summer is ending, and you want it to last just one more day."


(Chapter 9 at page 70)



Regarding bushido:



[Sgt. Nakagawa] "I value my life only because I must use it to die properly."


(Chapter 11 at page 77)



For a more extensive treatment of bushido and its relationship to strategy and tactics — see Arthur Swinson, Four Samurai: A Quartet of Japanese Army Commanders in the Second World War (1968), which I reviewed — here.



The weird quasi-religious aspects of combat:



Ugly dusk was racing for the ground, that time when the horizon is painted the color of a burning cigarette. . . . Polanski, with the heavy BAR machine gun, had taken to carrying it across his shoulders, making him look like a Sunday school Jesus.


(Chapter 18 at page 147)



On the typically impoverished surviving impressions of a soldier's brief life:



I remembered now seeing him aboard ship, his lips moving as he read a paperback Western on deck. A man ought to be remembered for something more than that, even Jones.


(Chapter 20 at page 168)



Brutality freed:



The war would bury any crime.


(Chapter 20 at page 170)



Pointed focus:



I never imaged properly wearing a cap would become the focus of my being.


(Chapter 21 at page 178)



On innocence, irretrievably lost:



Naoko was our neighbor's daughter. We played together. We ran through the woods and pretended we were ghosts at the old temple near our homes. There was morning, after lunch, and then night. No sense of time was our silent friend.


(Chapter 26 at page 219)



Ruminating age — and the jumbled sense of time that accompanies it:



It was a quiet day that I left home for the Army. A song I like was playing on the radio. The morning felt as cool and sweet as a sip of lemonade. Rain was falling softly. If there was thunder, it was still far away.


Sometimes there are happy endings. Funny what you remember.


(Chapter 29 at page 234)




What did I mean — right readers?


As with virtually all things having to do with moral evolution, Hooper's War will (most likely) best appeal to those not actually needing the lesson.


However, people teetering on the cusp of understanding may benefit. As the Eastern Hemisphere typically has it, when the student is ready, the teacher will come or be recognized.



The moral? — Hooper's War is a masterpiece of sparsely worded brevity


What is foreseeable in war, is its unavoidable escalation of the brutality that lives in us. Wisdom, therefore, counsels against beginning combat, absent genuinely existential justifications.


It is in over-expanding the scope of what is existence-threatening that we fall into moral and strategic error.


Hooper's War illustrates the first concept (escalating brutality) more than the latter (maintaining a sensibly narrow core scope of vital national interests). But the allegory's frequent use of early 21st century American English — and, by implication, the history of US warmongering since World War II — remind us that Peter Van Buren's focus is actually on what happened after we addictively tasted the national power inherent in dropping Little Boy and Fat Man (among other things) on Japan.


In using his alternative history (meaning conventional war only) format, Van Buren bypassed the moral obfuscation that the expansive nature of atomic weapons brings with them. It is not the fission and fusion weapons that comprise the evil of modern war, he implies. It is the instinct-activated brutality that already lies within us, regardless of the weapons we use.


Notice, in this latter regard, that "real history's" almost trivial atomic bomb names were probably chosen to deceive us into underestimating the horrors that they would do.


And that (as I interpret it) is Van Buren's point. In my words:



War breeds unnecessary suffering.


We better be "damn" sure that the value of a (realistically apprised) strategic outcome noticeably exceeds the costs of the avenue taken to achieve it.


The United States has an overly long history of doing the opposite.



Hooper's War implies as much, without directly saying so.


You will have to read Peter Van Buren's blog, or his We Meant Well book, for more transparent statements of sensibleness. Both are well worth your while. Hooper's War is an addition to such well-stated sanity.