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Book Review

Burmese Battleground

By Bertil Lintner

The War in Burma 1942-45: A Vital Contribution to Victory in the Far East, by Julian Thompson. Sidgwick & Jackson in association with the Imperial War Museum. 30 ($48)

It is hard to imagine that there could be more to say about the war in Burma between the Allied forces and Japan. Dozens of books have been written about the British retreat in 1942 and the establishment of a Japanese-supported puppet administration in Burma,how the Allies began to regain ground through local tribal guerrilla forces--and how the Japanese, in the end, suffered a humiliating defeat. But Julian Thompson, a retired Royal Marine major-general and now a visiting professor of war studies at King's College, London, proves that the whole story never has been told.

Using mainly unpublished material from Britain's Imperial War Museum, including some unique black-and-white photographs from the campaign, he presents the most detailed account of the war so far.

The War in Burma is not dry facts. Thompson's description of the major battles is extremely detailed. The setting itself, one of the most multi-ethnic parts of the world, and the make-up of the forces that fought the battles, make for a book that's an exciting and colourful read. "The Burma Campaign,&uqot; as it became known, was not only the biggest ground war between the Allies and the Japanese, but also the biggest multiracial undertaking in the history of warfare.

Witness the construction of the 1,000-kilometre road from India through northern Burma to support the forces fighting the Japanese in China. According to Lt.-Col. Frank Owen, a British war veteran, "Chinese, Chins, Kachins, Indians, Nepalese, Nagas, Garos slashed, hauled and piled. Negroes drove machines. Black, brown, yellow and white men toiled shoulder-deep in the streams, belt-deep in red mud."

In the frontier areas, local hill peoples--mostly Kachin and Karen--staged hit-and-run attacks on Japanese positions.

Thompson points out that 340,000 Indian troops under British command, 100,000 British soldiers, 90,000 African and 65,000 Chinese troops as well as 10,000 Americans took part in the campaign.

It was an extremely bloody war, especially for the Japanese, who lost 190,000 soldiers in Burma, three-fifths of the men who were sent there,or 13 times the number of Allied dead.

By comparison, almost the same number of Japanese died when the two atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The War in Burma is a fascinating and highly readable account of one of the most bitter wars that has ever been fought in this part of the world.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, January 16, 2003

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