The longest land campaign of the Second World War took place from 1942 to 1945 in the villages, cities, plains, jungles, wetlands, rice paddies, and mountains of Burma, a British colonial holding crushed in its turn after the Japanese ripped Singapore from Britain's tired imperial hands. Jon Latimer recounts the story of that campaign in Burma: The forgotten war. The British soldiers fighting in the campaign rightly felt overshadowed by the exploits of the Allies in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. History gives little attention to the campaign. The Allies won the war against Japan in the Pacific. And they won the war against Germany and Italy in Europe. Perhaps more accurately, they dominated the Axis powers with superior industrial capacity and manpower. In Burma, resources remained limited for all involved, though the Americans sent a relative fortune over 'the hump' of mountains between Burma and China to reinforce the static army of Chang Kai-Shek; but all that wealth never encouraged his active participation in the war against Japan; instead, he harbored his resources for the slow-burning fight against domestic communist forces. Meanwhile, the British and Japanese scrapped together whatever forces they could muster and uselessly grappled for control over a country that wanted nothing to do with them. Though the Japanese conquered Burma, they never gained a significant foothold along the east Indian frontier.
Yet Latimer's reuse of the phrase 'forgotten war' seems a misnomer. His book makes use of characters that captured the popular imagination for years. Mountbatten, Aulincheck, Wavell, and Slim were the last great generals of the British Empire. American general 'Vinegar' Joe Stilwell spat at the 'limeys' and hacked at the 'Japs' in a largely fruitless attempt to stir the Chinese forces into action. Orde Wingate made enemies with nearly every other British officer in the Indian Army, but while fighting deep behind the Japanese lines with his 'Chindit' guerrilla forces; after his death, Stilwell gained command of the Chindits and threw them against some of the strongest Japanese defenses. And the Japanese Lieutenant General Mutaguchi drove his 65,000 strong force so incessantly against the Indian frontier that 50,000 of his soldiers died, mostly of starvation and disease. The remnants of the Japanese forces dug in throughout Burma but put up little effective resistance. These characters do not speak softly. Nor are they easily forgotten. Yet the horror and meaninglessness of the campaign speaks to a nihilism so aware and so sharp that it must be human, and so incessant that it trivializes the heroics of its participants.
In the opening pages, Latimer explicitly ties himself to the theme of budding Burmese nationalism, but the subsequent chapters only lightly pursue that topic. In the main, the book examines the four year land and air campaign waged across the Burmese landscape, principally by British and Japanese forces. Without a doubt, Latimer shows that the multi-ethnic citizens of Burma suffered tremendously during the course of the war, but Latimer's gaze usually focuses on colorfully rendered wartime experiences of soldiers, usually at their most dramatic moments of their lives. Thus, Latimer fills page after page with farewells to dying friends and rapid-fire character sketches gleaned from diaries, reports, and published memoirs of the war. He also conveys the multi-ethnic nature of the British forces, and the hardships faced by the poorly equipped Chinese forces that Stilwell dragged into Burma. Yet contrary to the author's stated theme, the Burmese people make almost no appearance.
The book contains no maps. The absence of maps proves a boon for spurring the reader to imagine the terrain from the ground, rather than like a god. But maps helpfully express the relationship between martial forces, as well as political, social, and geographic variations. When properly prepared, maps can also dispel any notion of a linear battlefield narrative, which certainly did not occur in Burma. So the decision seems puzzling. [The BBC, however, has produced a useful series of animated maps about the campaign.]
While not quite a comprehensive study of the Burma campaign, Latimer's volume proves both able and useful for any scholar interested in the 'feel' of the fighting. He strongly depicts the horrors of close combat, as well as the wild emotional swings between defeat and victory that each side faced in turn. He deserves credit for his depictions of Japanese soldiers; he never shies away from their brutality, but also reveals their humanity. His explicit theme--the Burmese struggle for independence--hides too much in the corners of the book, but the hefty remainder proves worthwhile.
"While what is presented here is fundamentally a military history, the war in Burma does not lend itself well to a single treatment. Nevertheless, a single theme runs through it: the struggle of the Burmese people for independence after sixty years of occupation" (1).
"Some time after the war a memorial was unveiled near Rangoon dedicated to the '27,000 men of the Commonwealth forces who died in Assam and Burma in the defence of freedom ...'. Given the terrible regime in Burma for most of the time since, one might question whether the war fought between 1941 and 1945 was for 'freedom.'" (1-2).
"By 1941, with 1 1/4 million men in China and 1 million in Formosa, Korea and the home islands, Japan lacked large manpower reserves and to provide five armies (corps) to strike south meant scraping the sides of the barrel, with age limits widened in both directions and student deferments cancelled. Brutality in training became yet more harsh and standards of discipline diluted, resulting in an attitude that crime against superiors was far more serious than crimes against natives. Despite its modernity, much Japanese equipment compared unfavourably with Western models ... funnelling of manpower into the infantry and their ability to live off the land meant the Japanese appeared far more numerous than Allied forces ... Plainly the Imperial Japanese Army was not on a par with that of 1905, or even 1937" (39).
"Although overshadowed by the fall of Singapore, the battle of the Sittang on 22/23 February ranks as a defining moment in the decline and fall of the British Empire" (58).
[While it's true that Slim called the defeat at Sittang bridge the 'decisive battle of the first campaign,' Latimer's rhetoric overstates the case. The importance of Sittang bridge cannot measure up to Singapore, the largest capitulation in British military history.]
*This isn't a quote, but it seems like an important point of emphasis in Latimer's book. Churchill swapped Auchinleck and Wavell in 1941. Auchinleck won a fresh round of North African victories shortly thereafter. Back in Burma, the Japanese declaration of war forced Wavell into a fighting retreat while at the head of soldiers he barely knew. Wavell insisted that his forces maintain an aggressive posture, and that they counter-attack at every opportunity. Latimer finds Wavell out of touch with the situation on the ground, as offensive action was virtually impossible for the poorly prepared British Indian Army; to some extent, Latimer sneers at what he considers Wavell's foolish refusal to organize a more effective retreat. But the British Indian Army was a totally different force that that on the shores up North Africa, whatever the similarities on paper. Both commands featured imperial forces of mixed ethnicity. Both were motorized. The language barriers might be the same, and pose similar problems of command, but the appropriateness of the training, equipment, and logistics for the particular environment differed completely. AJP Taylor suggested in Warlords that Churchill's sacking of commanders helped spur action and relieve exhaustion. True. But Churchill's action also inspired massive confusion.
A quote from Wavell: "It is lack of this knowledge of the principles and practice of military movement and administration--the 'logistics' of war, some people call it--which puts what we call amateur strategists wrong, not the principles of strategy themselves, which can be apprehended in a very short time by any reasonable intelligence." (121 in Latimer; also in Wavell's 'The Good Soldier).
"The Japanese did not penetrate as far as Tamu, even with patrols ... In reality no more than a village, it was strewn with hundreds of abandoned vehicles ... filled with grisly emaciated figures who had reached the village after the monsoon had broken" (121).
"Japanese victory was devastatingly complete: British prestige had suffered another hammer blow, discrediting their concept of protecting, civilizing and supervising in Asia" (121).
"[Wavell] was experiencing difficulties with Stilwell, who planned operations without reference to Wavell, 'and I think, without much reference to his staff here who seem to know little ... His senior staff officers here gives me the impression of being overawed by Stilwell and afraid of representing the true administrative picture.' Wavell felt he was effectively communicating with Stilwell through Washington. Certainly Stilwell never showed any interest in administration or logistics, realities that constantly exercised Wavell's mind ..." (131).
"... Orde Charles Wingate's character was a blend of mysticism, passion and complete self-confidence tinged with darkest depression; he was obsessive rude and overbearing. But as things stood, the scheme proposed by this 'broad-shouldered, uncouth, almost simian officer', as Major Bernard Fergusson noted, offered the only prospect of action. In 1946 Fergusson wrote: 'Wingate would do any evil that good might come. He saw his object very clearly in front of him, and to achieve it he would spare no friend or enemy; he would lie; he would intrigue; he would bully, cajole and deceive. He was a hell of a great man and few people liked him.'" (Latimer 155-156; Fergusson, Beyond the Chindwin, pp.20-21).
"It was Burma's misfortune to have been used as a base for the Japanese 'March on Delhi' and to have suffered from concentrated Allied air attacks against railways and other transportation facilities from 1943 onwards. All the cities along the main north-south axis suffered partial demolition, and the countryside was strewn with ordnance left by both sides ... the Burmese who sought to lead their country to the sunny uplands of Independence found they had to take over a ruined country" (431).
Sometimes Latimer's historical opinion lacks a clear perspective. When writing about allied victories at Mandalay and Meiktila, for example, he notes that the Japanese defenders "had orders to resist to the last--orders that were largely futile since, as Kimura admitted later, 'the only reason it was held at all was for its prestige value'" (392). In what sense is prestige ever futile? He seems to imply 'prestige' lacks strategic value. But it seems to me that prestige is a fundamental spur to war-like action. His writing seems strange, or possibly meaningless in the wider context of the Burma campaign.