The Burma Campaign

My grandfather fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe during W.W. II, and received a Silver Star for bravery in action.  But I remember on more than one occasion him saying that he was grateful he fought in Europe instead of the Pacific/Asian theater.  The jungle, he said, might have been too much for him.

I couldn’t agree more.  Jungle warfare sounds like a nightmare to me.  Frank McLynn’s fine book does nothing to dispel my notions.

For jungle warfare, how about Burma? — home to large amounts of man-eating crocodiles and tigers.  Of the 2500 known species of snakes in the world, only about 200 pose any threat to mankind.  But just about all of them can be found in Burma, a country with the largest known concentration of deadly snakes on the planet.  True, most of them avoid mankind if they can.  Alas, not the small krait, the most feared of all Burmese snakes.  Called “The Two Step” (that’s as far as you can walk if bitten before you collapse and die), these snakes had no problem hiding themselves in the dark corners of tents, or in sleeping bags and boots.

All this to say nothing of the monsoon rains or the malaria infested mosquitos.

Perhaps its our general aversion to the jungle, or our familiarity with Europe, that has led us to overlook the massive war in Burma between 1942-1945, which at various times involved more than 600,000 allied troops.

I say to my students that. . .

  • Military problems are really political problems
  • Political problems are really cultural problems
  • Cultural problems are really religious problems.

I am 100% sure that I did not invent this idea, though I can’t place its origin.  And while I can’t prove it in every case, it sure sounds good, and I expect that it’s true.

But I do think one can see the above principle work itself out in most cases, including the Burma campaign.

For example, Japan had tremendous initial success in Burma as they had all over Southeast Asia in the early days of the war.  Their “bushido” mentality helped form a fearsome army that overwhelmed Allied forces initially.  But this same mentality led them towards an unrealistic view of themselves and their opponents.  Their rigid culture formed a rigid military that did not believe that their opponent could ever learn and adjust their tactics, because after all, they never adjusted their own.  British forces eventually climbed up the learning curve and started to hammer the Japanese by 1944.

Yet, the Japanese continue to do the only thing they know how to do — attack.  Bushido cares primarily about honor, not victory.  Perhaps what the Japanese sought most was not even honor, but an “honorable” death.  Their “attaque a outrance” over Asia seemed to court death and destruction.  As McLynn notes, by war’s end they had the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Soviets, and China as enemies.  Not even the Nazi’s showed such insanity.  Perhaps Japan worshipped death most of all, and as C.S. Lewis noted, we must be careful what we wish for, lest we actually receive it.  Japanese tactics did not change during the war, no doubt due in part to their rigid culture.  But it may also have to do with the fact that they pointed their car to head over the cliff.  The Imphal campaign, where the Japanese planned a massive attack knowing that they their troops would lack the necessary supplies to succeed, again illustrates this concept.

The book starts by describing England’s role in Burma, and their record left much to be desired.  Thankfully for them (though not the Burmese), the Japanese proved much worse landlords, and this I think relates to the paragraph above.  I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment that,

Thieves respect property.  They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it.

An attitude I think, that reflects the British and Japanese in Burma.  The Burmese in the end, could tell the differences between British respecters of property and the Japanese, who sought only destruction.

George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his time in Burma sheds additional light.  Strikingly to me, at least, he hardly mentions the snakes, tigers, and crocodiles, and mostly concentrated on the mosquitos.  He respects the Japanese, but certain anecdotes he relates make it clear that the Japanese did not seek military success above “honorable” death.  He tells tales of soldiers charging entrenched British positions with nothing more than a sword, yelling maniacally.  After Imphal the Japanese were surely beaten, but none of them ever surrendered.

Fraser’s account  also hints at the coming political transformation of Asia, especially regarding India.  Churchill feared using the Indian Army to fight in Burma since he wanted to keep the British empire intact after the war.  An army that fought to defend India would inevitably bring home a sense of pride that would translate into independence.  Of course the independence movement had begun before the war in India, but the war certainly accelerated it.  One Indian soldier, puffed with patriotism, flew too close the sun and insulted a Gurkha while exalting his own Indian people.  The gurkha needed a dozen men to prevent him from killing the Indian in reprisal (as a brief aside, what would one not believe about the exploits of Gurkhas?  Fraser tells of one Gurkha regiment, who, on a whim, attacked a lost and bewildered Japanese detachment with no guns — only knives — killing all and suffering no casualties themselves).  The Brits explained to the gurkha that if he killed the Indian he would be tried for murder and hang.  This did nothing to deter him.  One of them changed tactics and said that if he killed the Indian he would be thrown out of the army and he would never receive his officer’s commission.  That, and that only, did the trick.  The gurkha finally backed down after a long and profuse apology from the Indian.

Fraser doesn’t talk much about anyone higher than his immediate circle, but McLynn makes a few interesting observations about allied leaders in Burma.  Churchill was known for being impetuous, and he tended to like people with just that quality.  Just as Churchill’s political career survived numerous missteps and disasters, so too he supported Mountbatten and Windgate (leaders of the special forces in Burma, who specialized in dramatic, but possible ineffective campaigns).  All three had enormous self-confidence.  Churchill and Mountbatten had both been involved in political/military disasters that should have ended their careers.  But luckily for the Allied cause only Windgate may have actually bordered on insanity.  The jungle, perhaps, can do that to you.