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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #26 (June 22, 2004), page 14.
The Burma Road relates epic story of forgotten WWII theater
The Burma Road:
The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II
By Donovan Webster
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
Hardcover, 370 pages, $25.00
By Jeff Wenger
There has been a resurgence of interest in World War II of late. Much of the responsibility belongs to the late historian Stephen Ambrose, whose books Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers celebrated democracy’s warriors. Ambrose was a technical advisor for Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In Ambrose’s wake have come other literary efforts including Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers.
The Burma Road, by Donovan Webster, is a worthy peer to these popular histories. The China-Burma-India theater of operations (CBI) in World War II is little known and The Burma Road is a welcome corrective. It relates the land war in Asia that, since the Korean conflict, has been consistently counseled against.
The Burma Road is rich with history about the strategic arc of the war’s back door and with details about the individuals who turned events, with political maneuvers both base and brilliant, and with details, responsibly reported, that lead us to conclude, again, that war is all hell.
The Road and Vinegar Joe
When Imperial Japan seized Chinese territory it did so first and foremost along the coast, seizing all the critical ports. The Burma Road was a seven-hundred-mile overland route from Burma (now Myanmar) into China. It was the route of re-supply for the fighters in China. The Japanese closed parts of the road and the Americans and their allies lost ground. Large sections of the road went through jungle that reclaimed everything in time.
It fell to General "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell to coordinate the fight against the Japanese. Though there are other personalities prominently featured in The Burma Road, Stilwell is the star here.
Webster relates how after graduating from West Point in 1900 Stilwell entered the infantry and went to the Philippines to put down a Moro insurrection. This fell in an interesting period in U.S. history: between the Spanish-American War in 1898, when America reached for Imperial greatness, and World War I, when it settled for democratic survival. It was a time when Americans wanted a fight and had trouble finding one.
According to Stilwell, he spent World War I, "sitting, just sitting."
The situation grew more acute in the time between the wars. The American military dwindled and promotion for career officers was scarce. (It was during this time that the younger Dwight Eisenhower went to the Philippines and nearly mustered out, feeling that his career had plateaued.) Stilwell grabbed an opportunity to serve as a military attaché in China. It was in China that he would meet General George Marshall, who would later serve as chief of staff of the War Department. The two men met again at Fort Benning in Georgia, where Marshall said that Stilwell was "qualified for any command in peace or in war."
When war exploded in September 1939, Marshall was set to tap Stilwell to command the U.S. Army in Europe and Africa when it became involved.
In the meantime, Japan had seized twice as much land as the Germans, and the Chinese had fallen apart. By shortly after Pearl Harbor the Japanese had grabbed three times Germany’s holdings.
The Allies agreed that attention would be directed first and foremost to Europe. Yet they needed to defend China and India. Marshall called the task "the most impossible job of the war."
The right commander for the job could expect little support in the way of men or materiel.
As Webster writes: "Keeping together the disparate and undersupplied Chinese, Indian, Nepalese Ghurka, British, and American forces (in China) would require a leader of vision, stamina, and determination — not to mention deep stores of tactical creativity. The job also demanded someone who could manage Chang Kai-shek."
Stillwell met these demands better than other military leaders and spoke several Chinese dialects besides.
In late January 1942 Marshall met with Stilwell in Washington and told his old friend that instead of being Allied commander in Africa and Europe he would take the lead in China.
"In an instant, Vinegar Joe Stilwell watched the most-desired field generalship in American history evaporate. (The position eventually was filled by Dwight D. Eisenhower.) In his promised job’s stead, Stilwell was being offered an impossible command in the wettest, muddiest, most-unknown, most-disorganized, lowest-priority corner of World War II."
The Burma Road is exceptional in displaying the Japanese side of events. Indeed, as men ordered to fight to the death, their level of suffering was astonishing.
Webster shows us these fighters along with others, such as the tribal Kachins, and the Chinese who were forged into an awesome force under Stilwell’s leadership.
And Webster gives us biographical sketches of Generalissimo Chang and American aviator Claire Chenault, famous for his "Flying Tigers," and British eccentric Orde Wingate.
The Burma Road is vital reading because it’s so well done and because it helps to corrects the delegation of the Pacific-Asia theater to the "most unknown, lowest priority corner of WW II" in the history books long after the fighting stopped.
Moreover, The Burma Road is timely. Europe has sat relatively stable for sixty years while Asia continues to simmer. Already there is talk that once the War on Terror is passed, China will have to be confronted. The Burma Road, graphic and honest, reminds us why Churchill was right when he said it was better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.