Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
10 April 2012
Review by Chandar S. Sundaram, Victoria, Canada
The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942–45
By Frank McLynn
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 532. ISBN 978–0–300–17162–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Readers of this book expecting a balanced military history of the Second World War in Burma will be disappointed, for it is something rather different: a biographical study of "four larger than life" Allied commanders in that theater—William Slim, Joseph Stilwell, Louis Mountbatten, and Orde Wingate. This approach is not surprising, because McLynn has written a dozen or so popular biographies of figures ranging from Marcus Aurelius to Carl Jung. But, unfortunately, his focus on top-level commanders about whom much ink has already been spilled means knowledgeable readers will learn little that is new here. Nor will general readers find much that is unavailable in previously published accounts.[1]

McLynn has a clear favorite among his subjects: Gen. William Slim, commander of the 14th Army and the true architect of victory over the Japanese in Burma, is treated to a hero-worship that would have embarrassed the self-effacing Brummie.[2] While Slim was overlooked in the immediate postwar period as compared to more publicity-seeking generals, like Bernard Montgomery, he is now generally recognized as the best British commander of the war.[3] There is, thus, no need for the effusive language typified in the following: "When nerves of steel and extreme mental toughness were required, one could ask no better than Slim. Although the stress on him was enormous—shuttling in draughty planes between different command centres while suffering from a bad back, and keeping track not just of the multiple foci in the battle for Imphal but also of [Wingate's] Operation THURSDAY and the closing stages of the Arakan campaign—he cultivated a surface of perpetual calm and unflappability" (298–99). McLynn seems unaware that many World War II generals displayed these same qualities. Indeed, failure to do so could ruin a commander's career: consider Friedrich Paulus at Stalingrad, Rodolfo Graziani in North Africa, or H.R.M. Brooke-Popham in Malaya. McLynn relies so heavily on Slim's own memoir[4] that readers may wonder why they should not read that book instead.

If the book has a thesis, it is that Slim was a quiet genius, while almost everyone else, with the possible exception of Stilwell, was a mad, self-aggrandizing, or incompetent fool. Thus, Gen. Harold Alexander, who spent five months in Burma retreating from the Japanese, "was always overrated as a commander and did so well in the Second World War largely because he was one of Churchill's pets" (40). McLynn says Slim was unimpressed with Alexander, but offers no firm evidence to support this, merely referring to a "subtext" (in his memoir?). He also harshly criticizes Gen. Archibald Wavell, with little appreciation for the fact that he had parachuted, at the last minute, into an absolutely untenable strategic situation in Burma. Moreover, Wavell, as head of the ad hoc, ill-conceived American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, which was consistently thwarted by the highly-focused Japanese, did not have the luxury of concentrating, like Slim, on Burma alone. On the other hand, Wavell's racist underestimation of the Japanese does not figure in McLynn's book.

Orde Wingate, too, suffers a thorough character-assassination, as McLynn designates his personal eccentricities and fits of suicidal depression as sure signs of "bipolar syndrome" (75), a diagnosis unknown at the time. And to state that Wingate was "beyond any doubt" guilty of "war crimes" (72) is similarly anachronistic, since that concept only became current after 1945. McLynn is unaware of Nigel Collet's demonstration[5] that British officers of the early twentieth century were strongly influenced by C.E. Callwell's government-published tactical handbook Small Wars,[6] which lumped together all colonial mobs—whether brandishing arms or peacefully demonstrating—as fair game for violent suppression. In any case, none of this is strictly relevant to the Burma campaign. And, too, in vilifying Wingate, McLynn neglects to mention the unintended effect of his Chindit operations behind Japanese lines in convincing the Japanese high command to undertake their own disastrous Ha-Go and U-Go offensives on the Indo-Burmese frontier. Also disregarded is the considerable positive impact of the first Chindit[7] operation on Allied morale in those dark days of 1942.[8]

McLynn clearly does not think much of Louis Mountbatten, correctly noting that he owed his meteoric rise to his royal connections, but also calling him "flaky" (184) and citing the epithet "Mountbottom" in reference to the man's bisexuality (183). For him, Mountbatten was "a master of intrigue, jealousy, and ineptitude [who], like a spoilt child … toyed with men's lives with an indifference to casualties that can only be explained by his insatiable, even psychopathic ambition" (186). But this assessment is lifted from another biographer[9] (as McLynn acknowledges). In his preoccupation with Mountbatten's personal shortcomings, he barely mentions his pivotal role in diverting much needed transport planes to aid Slim (302).

The author again resorts to "Saint Bill" Slim's testimony (58, 125) in characterizing the acerbic, no-nonsense Joseph Stilwell, who had the hardest job of all—leading armies against the Japanese and also coping with Chiang Kai-Shek's uncooperative nationalist Chinese forces. Chiang, we are told, "abandoned his first wife, gave the second venereal disease on her wedding night, and then discarded her.... Venal, cruel, corrupt and egomaniacal" (4) Chiang may well have been, but McLynn explains neither how such traits are revealed by his mistreatment of women nor how his misogyny might be germane to the war in Burma. And, why insert into a book about the Burma campaign salacious tidbits like Madame Chiang's affair with the American politician Wendell Willkie (127) or British air commander Sir Richard Peirse's indiscreet liaison with the wife of the Commander-in-Chief India (197). Such things are better suited to a supermarket tabloid than a serious military history. McLynn does not explain the Americans' obsession with Chiang or their dislike of the communist Mao Tse-Tung, whose forces were actually fighting the Japanese. After all, Tito's communist partisans were favored over the non-communist Chetniks in Yugoslavia.

McLynn's carelessness is evident in his glib parroting of long discredited myths about the war in Southeast Asia. His claim that the British defense of Singapore rested "on the assumption that any attack must come from the sea, for the landward route through the jungle was 'impenetrable'" (23) is palpable rubbish. Obviously, he has not heard of Operation Matador, a plan to meet and defeat the Japanese invasion force on eastern Thai and Malay beaches—that is, on the landward invasion route—which was initiated too late to be effective.[10] Equally ludicrous is his claim that Slim "knew" the Japanese were hoping to carry their northeastern Indian offensive on to Delhi (293). Louis Allen[11] has shown that the Japanese offensive was meant to shore up their western perimeter and forestall an anticipated British attempt to retake Burma. In fact, General Mutaguchi's shortsighted superiors actively discouraged him from taking Dimapur, the railhead upon which the British defense of the area depended. "On to Delhi" was the war cry not of the Japanese but of their "allies" in the Indian National Army (INA), a force comprising Indian former POWs captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942 and leavened by members of the Indian expatriate communities in Southeast Asia.[12]

The book suffers throughout from slipshod research. For example, McLynn's source for his blanket assertion that "the Japanese Zero fighter was plane for plane, inferior to both the RAF Hurricane and the American P-40" (30) actually gives a much more nuanced picture: "To maneuver with the Japanese fighters, [Claire] Chennault warned his men [of the American Volunteer Group—AVG], was to commit suicide. Chennault hammered over and over his admonition: do not fight the enemy on his own terms. The trick was to use the P-40B to its best advantage—get on top, dive as fast as possible, shoot, and run. It lacked elegance, but it worked."[13] Chennault's admonition attests to a healthy respect for the Zero among Allied airmen. Moreover, not all the Japanese planes that the Hurricanes and P-40s encountered were the formidable Zeroes, nor, conversely, were all Allied fighter planes Hurricanes and P-40s—many were obsolete P-36s and Brewster Buffaloes.

McLynn's characterizations of the Japanese evince no proper sense of history or cultural background. Take, for example, his notion that the Japanese could have avoided war simply by accepting the American attitudes toward China (5). We may as well argue that the United States could have avoided war simply by changing its attitudes toward China. McLynn substitutes the counterfactual for real research in writing that the "stolidity and lack of imagination" of the Japanese prevented them from seizing the chance to capture Ceylon and Mauritius, thereby severing Allied sea contact with India (30–31).

Verdict: McLynn's Burma Campaign, though written with a lively pen, offers little of real merit to either an academic or a general readership.

[1] To which frequent references are made in notes inconveniently located at the rear of the book.

[2] British slang for a native of Birmingham.

[3] See Raymond Callahan, "Were the 'Sepoy Generals' Any Good? A Reappraisal of the British-Indian Army's High Command in the Second World War," in War and Society in Colonial India, 1807–1945, ed. Kaushik Roy (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2006) 304–29.

[4] Defeat into Victory (1956; rpt. NY: Cooper Square, 2000).

[5] In The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer (NY: Hambledon Continuum, 2006)—see my review in Itinerario 32.1 (2008) 132-33.

[6] Subtitle: Their Principles and Practice [1896], 3rd ed. (London: HMSO, 1906).

[7] McLynn pillories Wingate for this rendering of the Burmese Chinthe, but such manglings of unfamiliar, esp. non-European, place and (as I myself can attest) personal names are commonplace among western writers.

[8] See Fergal Keane, Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima (NY: HarperCollins, 2010) 111–12. Keane's book, though smaller in scope, is better than McLynn's, breaking new ground by carefully recounting the experiences of both Allied and Japanese veterans of the Burma war.

[9] A.N. Wilson, After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[10] See Malcolm Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1999); the chapters by Brian Farrell are especially relevant.

[11] In his magisterial Burma: The Longest War, 1941–45 (1984; rpt. London: Phoenix Pr, 2000).

[12] On the INA, see my "A Paper Tiger: The Indian National Army in Battle, 1944–1945," War & Society 13.1 (1995) 35–59 and "Seditious Letters and Steel Helmets: Disaffection among Indian Troops in Singapore and Hong Kong, 1940–41, and the Formation of the Indian National Army," in War and Society in Colonial India (note 3 above) 126–60.

[13] Martin Caidin, Zero Fighter (NY: Ballantine, 1970) 104. Further digging by this reviewer has discovered the real source for McLynn's assertion: Slim's memoir (note 4 above) 19. Such is the care of McLynn's "research."

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