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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | NONFICTION

HISTORY WARS The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past Edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt; Metropolitan Books: 291 pp., $30

December 29, 1996|JOYCE APPLEBY

The Japanese have only recently begun to discuss publicly such sensitive subjects as their brutal invasion of Nanking, the Pearl Harbor attack, the wartime impressment of Korean "comfort women" and the Bataan march. In the United Sates, meanwhile, President Truman's decision to use atomic weapons on a largely civilian population has been debated endlessly since 1945, notwithstanding its role in bringing the Pacific war to an immediate end.

Questions abound: Could there have been a demonstration of the bomb's force in a deserted place so the Japanese could have seen what they were up against? Did the United States ignore Japanese peace initiatives? Would the weapon have been dropped on a European country? Were civilians massacred to send a gruesome message to the Soviet Union about U.S. military might? And why a second bomb three days later on Nagasaki?

Focusing on the higher goal of making sense of one of the great battles over the American past, the writers of "History Wars" do not engage directly with the aging veterans and their young allies on the right, the cultural warriors of the '90s. What the authors explicate with passion and precision are the deep ambiguities involved in discussing a war that, once and for all, shredded the illusion that there were some things in this world that warring nations wouldn't or couldn't do.

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