By Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness,” by Canadian author Mark Sakamoto, is part family memoir, part history book. Sakamoto’s mother, Diane MacLean, married his father, Stan Sakamoto, in 1973. They had two sons and settled down in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Their family was a merger of two different and equally harrowing sides of the Canadian experience of World War II.

Mark’s maternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, enlisted in the Canadian military as a rifleman in 1940. Ten months short of his 19th birthday, he had to lie about his age to join. Months later, he got the news that he would be deployed to Hong Kong with another roughly 2,000 Canadian troops. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, life in Hong Kong for the Canadian soldiers changed drastically. They prepared for war, and war they fought, but they were heavily outnumbered and soon were captured by the Japanese and taken to a camp housing prisoners of war. Mark describes the horrific and cruel conditions there in graphic detail. Ralph lived in those conditions for five years, struggling to survive, losing over half his body weight, watching his friends die of disease and hunger.

Mark’s paternal grandparents were Japanese Canadians living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Before the war, the family of his grandmother, Mitsue, had a comfortable life. Her father made a decent living as a fisherman, and when she became old enough to work, she found a job as a seamstress. But the war changed everything. The government, eager to appeal to a public that became increasingly frustrated with Asian immigrants they believed were taking their jobs, made life increasingly difficult for people of Japanese descent. Being at war with Japan made it worse. Boats owned by Japanese fishermen, including Mitsue’s father, were seized. And after Pearl Harbor, the government was under even more pressure to take action. As Mark writes, “Pearl Harbor was a gift to bigots who wanted to remove the Japanese from B.C. and its economy.” Some politicians advocated that all Japanese, whether Canadian citizens or not, be deported. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King instead decided to have them sent to protected areas away from the coast. Mitsue, her husband and their families were sent to Alberta to work on farms for next to nothing. They lived in squalor and dreamed of going back to B.C. – but for Mitsue, this dream never became reality.

Decades later, in 1968, Mitsue would meet Ralph at her home in Medicine Hat, as their children began dating. It was an unlikely pairing, given their family histories, but their parents became fast friends.

Yet, all didn’t end well. The last third of the book details the demise of Mark’s parents’ marriage and his mother’s downward spiral into alcoholism. “Forgiveness” reads like two books in one. The wartime stories of Canadian POWs and indentured Japanese Canadian laborers – recounted by Sakamoto’s own grandparents – are captivating and highlight a dark time in Canada’s past. But the author’s own experiences growing up in a less-than-ideal environment are also poignant. For these reasons, it’s well worth the read.

Valentina Jovanovski, editor


The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States
By Jeffrey Lewis

The title of Jeffrey Lewis’ new novel, “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States,” kind of gives away the ending. But how things got to that point makes for the sort of dark comedy that seems ideal for telling cautionary tales about nuclear war. The book begins where the current, real-world standoff takes place but fictionalizes how the detente collapses and plays out from here. In the imagination of Lewis, an unusually entertaining arms control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the path toward nuclear war starts with an undertrained North Korean surface-to-air missile crew. Misunderstanding its orders, the crew takes aim at a South Korean commercial jet, filled with children, that strayed from its flight path. Its new path apparently resembles those flown by U.S. bombers as they probe for weakness in North Korean air defenses. The North Koreans take it as a sign that the Americans are serious about disarming them.

As it happens, the U.S. and South Korea are kicking off major annual exercises, the preparations for which are indistinguishable to Pyongyang from preparations for an invasion. Things escalate from there in a preventable chain of events. Standard protocols are ignored. Critical communications break down. Tactical judgments are clouded by political concerns. Impulsive, ill-informed leaders nudge the world toward Armageddon. Everything in the book, up to the point where that the final manuscript went to print at some point this summer, is more or less factual, and what unfolds is rooted in familiar circumstances.

Speculative fiction is a genre I’m finding more enjoyable and more useful to this line of work. It jostles my imagination and checks my assumptions about how the things we study could unfold in unexpected ways. (See also my previous review on “Ghost Fleet,” by Peter Singer and Augustus Cole.)

Our process is focused on the impersonal: the underlying drivers, interests and constraints that create the conditions within which a range of outcomes is possible. Naturally, it’s more difficult to anticipate how individuals will behave within that range or map out a particular chain of events that lead to an outcome – particularly as countries resolve their differences with live ammunition. In most cases, the effects of individual mistakes, miscalculations, miscommunications and so forth ultimately prove fleeting. Eventually, the more dominant, impersonal geopolitical drivers prevail and things return to their natural course.

The thing about war, once it starts, is that it takes on a ruthless logic of its own, warping everything else around it. A nuclear strike would not be a blip in the sweep of history. And the fact that there hasn’t been one since World War II is the result as much of dumb luck as prudence, safeguards and careful decision-making. (See Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control for more on this.)

However improbable it may seem, the scenario Lewis lays out seems wholly plausible. In fact, perhaps what’s most alarming is how it is built around an inescapable reality: If the U.S. decides it cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, then it has to convince North Korea that it’s willing to go to war to force the issue, no matter the cost. This puts Pyongyang in the position of having to take U.S. feints and threatening tweets seriously. When both sides are on the warpath, with these kinds of weapons on hand, the margin for error gets really, really small.

Phillip Orchard, analyst