Sunday, January 30, 2005

MYANMAR: Book Review - "The Burma Campaign and Beyond" - Bertil Lintner

+ The Burma Campaign was one of the biggest multiracial undertakings
in the history of warfare. The allied troops came not only from
Britain and the United States but also from Canada, Australia, New
Zealand, West, East and South Africa, and, overwhelmingly, from
India. As Latimer points out, they were “Dogras, Sikhs, Punjabis,
Kumaonis, Madrassis and Nepalese, representing every race and caste
on the subcontinent.” +

The Burma Campaign and Beyond
By Bertil Lintner
January 2005

Another look at the World War Two Burma theatre

Burma: The Forgotten War by Jon Latimer. John Murray, London. GBP25.

The title of this book is definitely a misnomer. The fighting in
Burma between the Allies and the Japanese Imperial Army can hardly be
described as “forgotten.” Only two years ago, the Imperial War
Museum in London published a detailed, 456-page volume on the Burma
Campaign written by military historian Julian Thompson. Dozens of
other books, including a number of classics, have been written on
what was one of the bloodiest campaigns in Asia during the Second
World War.

The fighting in Burma may, in fact, be one of the most documented
wars in modern Asian history. That said, Jon Latimer’s study is
worth reading, not because his heroes are “unsung”, as he puts
it, but as an authoritative and comprehensive study of the Burma
campaign. He chronicles the British defeat, the ensuing stalemate,
and then the eventual victory over the Japanese in minute detail. It
is also beautifully written.

Latimer, who served for many years with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,
then as a military intelligence officer, is the author of several
other books about World War Two. For this book he drew from wartime
records in Washington, London, Edinburgh, and the Gurkha Museum in
Winchester, and interviews with survivors of the conflict.

The Burma Campaign was one of the biggest multiracial undertakings in
the history of warfare. The allied troops came not only from Britain
and the United States but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
West, East and South Africa, and, overwhelmingly, from India. As
Latimer points out, they were “Dogras, Sikhs, Punjabis, Kumaonis,
Madrassis and Nepalese, representing every race and caste on the
subcontinent.”

Witness the construction of the 1,000-kilometre road from
northeastern India through northern Burma to support the forces
fighting the Japanese in China. According to Lt-Col Frank Owen, a
British war veteran and the author of The Campaign in Burma, yet
another book about this supposedly “forgotten” war, “Chinese,
Chins, Kachins, Indians, Nepalese, Nagas, Garos slashed, hauled and
piled. Negroes drove machines. Black, brown, yellow and white men
toiled shoulder-deep in the streams, belt-deep in red mud.” In the
surrounding hills and mountains, Kachin and Karen guerrillas staged
hit-and-run attacks on Japanese positions.

More than any author before him, Latimer portrays the personalities
who led this unique campaign. There was William “Uncle Bill”
Slim, the commander of the Fourteenth Army who was backed by the
aristocratic Lord Louis Mountbatten, and US General Joseph Stilwell,
who became known as “Vinegar Joe” because of his short temper and
vitriolic verbal attacks on almost anyone around him, especially his
British comrades. Orde Wingate, a British officer, was “a blend of
mysticism, passion and complete self-confidence tinged with darkest
depression; he was obsessive, rude and overbearing,” according to
Latimer. But his special force, code-named the Chindits, thrust far
behind the Japanese lines, gravely disrupting the enemy’s supply
lines. Wingate did not live to see the Japanese defeated. He died in
a plane crash in Burma in 1944.

Following the routing of the Japanese, the camaraderie of the
trenches swiftly dissipated. Latimer deals with the immediate
consequences and then the legacies of the war: the gasping last
breaths of British colonial triumphalism; the renewed push for
autonomy on the part of the colonies; the rise of a military regime
in Burma; the seemingly never-ending insurgencies among some of the
tribes that were armed by the Allies to fight against the Japanese,
who after independence turned their guns on their respective
governments.


The Karen, the Kachin and other groups fought for years for
sovereignty from Rangoon. In northeastern India, from where the
campaign was launched, the Naga have fought ever since independence
from Britain for independence from India—and that may indeed be a
“forgotten war” as it, unlike Burma’s tribal insurgencies, has
received very little attention outside the region and almost no
coverage in the international media.

Burma: The Forgotten War is more than just a history of the World War
Two Burma Theater, it is an account of how Asia’s old order
collapsed and gave way to new realities. It also stands out for its
poignant post-war and post-colonial anecdotes.

Most Allied veterans carried into peace “the same abiding hatred”
of their wartime adversary. But David Wilson, chairman of the Burma
Star Association of war veterans, once invited his former enemies to
his home and a war memorial in York where “their emotion [was]
quite genuine when they lay their wreaths of chrysanthemums”. When
he asked why they held a British memorial in such high esteem, he was
told, “because it is part of our history too now. We have nothing
in Japan to remind us of our friends and relatives who lie with yours
in Burma. It is our privilege to remember them here.” (About
190,000 Japanese soldiers, or 60 percent of the men that served in
Burma, died there—13 times the number of Allied dead.)

In stark contrast, Latimer also recounts the postwar experience of
Mohammed Munsif Khan, the Indian Army soldier who raised the Union
Jack over Rangoon when it was retaken from the Japanese. After the
partition of India in 1947, he worked in the Pakistan embassy in
Beijing, then went to join his son in Britain. But he was stopped at
London’s Heathrow airport, and refused entry due to some
“administrative error.” Infuriated, he returned his medals,
including the Burma Star.