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.

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

9th/10th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow


This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run.  However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict.  So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons.  Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.

This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow.  The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click.  And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor.  Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that.  The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class.  With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.

The English had a tradition of using the longbow.  Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.

Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow.  Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency.  Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.

At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle.  Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces.  The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field.  We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not.  Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.

Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility.  It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development.  The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.

Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War.  These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including

  • Protecting forests with yew trees
  • Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
  • Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
  • Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.

Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment.  To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants.  The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.

The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons.  The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups.  The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on.  But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?

Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.

Thanks so much,


Traditional Strengths

About a month ago Jordan Peterson returned to the public eye after a long period of dealing with his own personal and family medical issues. Controversy followed him in his earlier rise to prominence, and sure enough, controversy picked up where it left off with his first major interview in years with the Sunday Times. It appears that the published interview, and the unpublished edited transcript, show that the Times performed something of a hit piece. Given the mainstream media’s general dislike of Peterson (I also am critical of certain aspects of his message, and appreciative of others), some called into question why he would give the interview at all. One could easily assume that it came from weakness–a desire to correct the “embarrassment” of his departure from the public eye and subsequent issues with medication. Others questioned why he would, even with the best of motives, open himself up to the “jackals” of leftist media.

Peterson acknowledged the issues and explained some of his motivation on his website, writing,

So, what would a wise man do?

Learn my lesson, and avoid the press at all cost? But I don’t know how to distinguish that from turning my tail and hiding, and I think that would be worse for me, even in my currently compromised state, than continuing to engage as I have.

Only choose to make myself available to outlets that will produce positive coverage? First, how do I know which outlets are trustworthy. I could only talk to people with whom I have become friendly, such as David Rubin and Joe Rogan. But I don’t think it’s right to stay inside what risks becoming a mere echo chamber.

Was it a mistake for me to conduct the now-infamous Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman? Or the almost equally-viewed GQ interview with Helen Lewis? Both of those were markedly hostile. Were they failures, or successes? I don’t think it is unreasonable to note that they are markedly of our time, and perhaps indicate something important–whatever that might be–about our time. Both have garnered some 25 million views. There’s something of broad public interest about the tension that characterizes both conversations….

GQ, motivated by the success (?) of the Helen Lewis interview, plans to produce a profile on me in the near future. I have been asked to make myself available for an interview. Should I do it? I haven’t decided. If it goes badly, will I only have myself to blame? Should I therefore avoid it?

I hope to be judicious in my decisions about when and where to speak. I hope that I can stick to the truth when I do so, and believe that there is no better defense (and, indeed, no better offense) than that? Do I trust myself to tell the truth? Will my ego invariably get in the way? Has that already happened?

As the man says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I have no idea if Peterson should continue to give such interviews. But his “staying the course” I feel shows at least some strength. He gave such interviews before, which people interpreted in different ways. He can continue to give such interviews, with likely the same result–people will continue to disagree about him, perhaps even sharply so. But if he chooses the path of more mainstream interviews I will not condemn him. The temptation invariably will tend, however, towards seeing that choice as a weakness–as a love of attention, as an attempt to cover over his illness, etc. We love to break down narratives and deconstruct.

Within the Pseudepigrapha there exists a delightful story called “Joseph and Aseneth,” which details the marriage between the biblical Joseph and the daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45). Essentially, Aseneth has great beauty and is much desired throughout the land of Egypt, but refuses to consider marriage to the great Joseph. Joseph, for his part, wants nothing to do with someone devoted to idols. But Aseneth repents, forsakes her gods, and marries Joseph, all the while preventing a clash between Joseph’s brothers and the Pharoah’s eldest son.

What struck me in particular the means whereby the editor (someone named C. Burchard) of the text framed the story. First, we have the insinuation that the story is designed to cover over an embarrassment–“How could Joseph–the model of chastity, piety, and statesmanship, marry a foreign Hamitic girl, daughter of an idolatrous priest?”* Rather–should we not see the story in terms of the triumph of the whole biblical narrative? If we read the Old Testament from Christ backwards, we should expect to see marriages to foreigners as a foreshadowing of Christ “wooing” the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

Second, despite the clear statement that, “The book is an author’s work, not a folk tale which has no progenitor,” the editor seeks here and there for textual origins of the story. I apologize, for I have little stomach for the minutiae of scholars on such questions, though I admit the minutiae has its place at times. I feel, however, that often we make things too complicated. He sees the origin of the story’s framework in various kinds of Greek literature, writing, “More helpful is hellenistic romance [most agree that the story was originally written in Greek], especially the erotic variety as represented by the Great Five, “Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Calirrrhoe,’ Xenophon of Ephesus . . . [etc.]” I confess I have no idea who these authors are, but again–might we not be trying too hard for the sake of trying too hard? Isn’t there plenty of “origin” within the Old Testament itself, i.e., the Song of Songs, Hosea and Gomer, or the Book of Ruth for such romantic tales?

Though I lack all of the technical knowledge possessed by the editor, and therefore perhaps should not judge–yet–what bothers me is

  • The idea that tales such as “Joseph and Aseneth” present themselves to cover gaps, to explain away embarrassments, etc. rather than expand/magnify the existing tradition.
  • The idea that traditions are inherently weak, that they must constantly fill from the outside in

Essentially, the problem I encounter at times (though perhaps I judge the editor C. Burchard too harshly) involves focusing so much on the bark of one tree that no one sees the forest.^

Rachel Hallote’s Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World suffers from a similar problem. Her main thesis involves showing that the burial practices she uncovered show that the Israelites borrowed heavily from pagan practices in other peoples, and therefore failed to follow Mosaic law in their attitude towards the dead. Well, given the many denuniciations found in the prophets and elsewhere, the fact that Israel broke various commandments should not surprise us. We do not need an archaeologist to tell us this, though some of the burial details could illumine how they broke biblical law and whom they might have borrowed from. But, hearkening back to my earlier point, many scholars see themselves in the role of breaking down traditions by finding smoking guns in the historical record. When they do so, they sometimes miss the forest, as I think Rachel Hallote has in her book.

Hallote’s central point revolves around her observations that, while the Mosaic Law seems to mandate a definitive break between the living and dead, and that Israelite burial practices show a much more fluid relationship between them. Her main observations include:

  • Evidence of family members buried in agricultural fields, and not strictly formal graves. While at first glance this may seem disrespectful, Hallote and others speculate that the dead were to function as sentinels, in a sense, of fields laying fallow. Israel practiced this, as did other Middle Bronze Age cultures.
  • Iron and Bronze age burials of family members also took place under houses, indicating a continued relationship with the departed. The members buried under houses might be those still thought in need of care in some way, such as children or the elderly–not those in between, who might be buried in fields.
  • A strong suggestion that alternate forms of burial, such as placing a body under a stone mound, likely indicated that such a person was to receive no offerings, prayers, etc. It was a way of marking that person as ‘cursed’ in some way (i.e., Josh. 8:29, 10:27).

I see her chapter “The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel ” as central to her thesis. She cites various proscriptions about not participating in “sacrifices” to the dead, common among the Canaanites. She then goes on to point out that various Old Testament texts show that Israelites participated in such practices, such as Ps. 106:28. Certain particular archaeological finds certainly can illumine these texts for us. But she puts all of her eggs into the archaeology basket–everything similar from the Israelites and the Canaanites regarding their dead for her must mean an unbiblical syncretism. She cites a variety of passages from 1 Samuel to show that Israelites conducted yearly worship service families for their dead (1 Sm. 1:21, 2:19, 20:6, 20:29), which apparently the Canaanites also held. Yet no condemnation exists that I am aware of for such services (one of the references involves the soon to be crowned David and the family of Jesse).

Where Hallote sees embarrassment, I see strength. Some time ago my wife knew a lady that attended a particular church with a distinct fundamentalist leaning. Our friends’ skirts were inevitably the length of her shins. Obviously, skirts too short would be immodest. But at that time, long flowing skirts were very much in fashion. Thus, to avoid “worldliness” one had to wear modest skirts that out of fashion–to wear something modest but “fashionable” would not cut it. Should shin length skirts shoot up in popularity, her church would switch to those of a longer length. When one tacks so much to the world around them, “strength” is not the word most would use. Ideally one has such confidence in their way of life, that the world around them fades as a reference point. So in Deut. 26:13-14, Hallote sees evidence of Mosaic law making a concession to existing practices that Israelite leaders cannot control, rather than establishing a clear delineation between having a relationship with the dead and offering them sacrifices. She sees weakness where she should see strength.

So, not every Canaanite practice is “wrong,” just as not every fashion choice the “world” makes Christians need to avoid. A further distinction Hallote misses shows the limits of what archaeology can prove. To praise the dead is not worship. To remember the dead is not worship. To pray for them is not to worship them (i.e, 2 Macc. 12). To ask them to pray for us is not worshiping them. To offer sacrifices to them–that is worship, and that the Law and the Prophets condemns.

Archaeology deals with “facts,” with observational, physical data. So when Hallote observes practices that allow for a narrowly “physical” meaning, that is what she puts forth. So the Israelites used spices for the dead because of the smell of decomposition in the hot weather. Or, they buried people under trees to provide a kind of fertilization. To her credit, when such a narrow interpretation would lead into absurdity, she backs off (as in the above cited examples about burials in fields, for example). But why not apply that same symbolic understanding to all of what she sees? Surely, a trees at least have a great deal of rich layers of meaning attached to them. Surely death itself is a great mystery and only the barest minority of us deals with it in a strictly physical manner.

Archaeology can give wonderful insights into particular matters, and the strengths of Hallote’s work share in the strengths of that field. But trees can never show you the forest.


*After writing this, upon reflection and a re-read, I may have read the editor’s intro to the story (C. Burchard, found in Charlesworth’s collection of the Pseudepigrapha, p. 177 ff.) too critically. A week later I am not as confident in my interpretation above–the idea of the editor that the story meant to cover an embarrassment. I still think it likely given the tone and content of the intro, but I may be over-sensitive. If anyone else reads it for themselves and wants to offer a correction, my ears are open. Of course, this initial reading of the Burchard’s intro formed the basis of this haphazard post, so naturally I cannot question my initial reading too substantially.

**The story may be of Christian or Jewish origin. Either way, there is the fascinating renaming of Aseneth to “City of Refuge.” If the story is of Jewish origin, it shows that Marian typology, i.e., Mary as the “City of God” has its roots within Jewish tradition. If the story is of Christian origin, it shows us how to read back into stories “types of Mary” just as we can read back “types of Christ.”

^I find it perfectly natural that western scholars should seek to deconstruct traditions, for they would naturally view traditions as weak. Modern western civilization is built on a rejection of tradition. It is in our cultural DNA to assume that traditions are weak because we naturally assume a kind of unreality about them. Thus, it seems we must continually find underdogs to keep our culture moving at all.