This year Singapore celebrates its bicentennial, or rather, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the colonial city. Because of this milestone, there has been considerable soul-searching about the role of history in creating a people and WW2 naturally comes to mind. The war was not only one of the most traumatic episodes in the city’s history, but it was also one that catalyzed the unraveling of empire resulting in both independence and the trajectory it took.

Relatively little had been written about Indonesia during World War II and the conflict between the Dutch and Japanese in the Pacific. In her recent memoir, All Ships Follow Me, Mieke Eerkens starts with the complexity of her father’s upbringing in colonial Indonesia. The son of a Dutch family that had lived in what was then called the Dutch East Indies for three generations, Eerkens’ father spent his first ten years living a life of privilege in Java. 

On 13 April 1919, British and Imperial troops under the command of General Reginald “Rex” Dyer gunned down between 400 and 600 Indian protestors at Jallianwala Bagh, a garden near the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar in the Punjab state of India. Many more protestors were wounded. The shooting lasted for ten minutes. Many were shot as they ran for cover. Some were killed as they tried to scale high walls. The Amritsar Massacre, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, was a “slaughter”, a “monstrous event”, “an episode … without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.” British historian AJP Taylor wrote that the massacre was “the decisive moment when Indians were alienated from British rule.”

It is a truism that war is—by its very nature—tragic. For soldiers, it is about killing and being killed. World War II resulted in the deaths of more than 70 million people, a number which tends to overwhelm and obscure the individual lives lost. Sometimes the tragedy of war is easier to comprehend in small doses. That is what Mark Obmascik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former writer for the Denver Post, has accomplished in this fast-paced tale of the lives of two soldiers—a Japanese surgeon and an American infantryman—whose paths crossed on a desolate island in the northern Pacific.

All lives ultimately end in failure, but Richard Sorge’s shone brightest at twilight. Sorge simultaneously infiltrated the highest levels of Hitler’s and Tokyo’s wartime establishments penetrating both the Nazi Party and the Japanese Court. He warned Stalin of “Operation Barbarossa”—even its very date, 25 June 1941—when Hitler was to abrogate the Nazi-Soviet Pact and send three million troops sweeping across 2900 km of border.