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Competent, though uninspiring
on 18 February 2009
I warmly applaud any attempt to bring the Forgotten Army in Burma and India during the Second World War to the attention of the modern reading public. This campaign has long been the second cousin to the better known struggles in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Western Europe, and yet deserves to be told again and again because of its vast and untapped depths of experience and memory. It is full of rich veins of interest, in terms of personal history, battlefield experience, leadership, politics, strategy and much more. The experience of the individual fighting man is remarkably powerful, but relative to those of other theatres remains poorly told. There remain too few good books on this subject.
Unfortunately, Fowler does not add much to the sum of our knowledge of the campaign in what is a rushed account that is competent though uninspiring. I am disappointed with Fowler's attempt to bring this story alive. This is because he tries to do too much, and crams his thin volume full of every manner of subject matter, without any care for the story line or for the sanctity of any single theme. Seemingly on every page he races between reminiscences to grand strategy, from the dirty, hand-to-hand skirmishes of the jungle battlefield to the broad sweep of the action that traversed a land mass the size of Western Europe, and does so in a staccato prose that leaves the reader struggling to keep his eye on the story line. We move rapidly from Malaya, to Singapore, to Arakan, Imphal, Kohima and the vast plains of central Burma in an exhausting pace that leaves little room for detail or satisfying comprehension, let alone any pause for breath.
Fowler gives us little here that is new, either from the memoirs of veterans (Indian, British and Japanese) or in terms of a new perspective on the war (such as that from a Naga, Chinese or Japanese viewpoint) which a new book on this subject demands. His library is startlingly deficient in breadth. Some stunning individual accounts of the fighting at various stages of the campaign have simply not been used (such as those, for example by Raymond Street, Gordon Graham, John Neild, John Hamilton, John Leyin and David Atkins amongst many others). It does not seem that Fowler was even aware of that vast repository of intelligence on this campaign: the Burma Campaign Memorial Library at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London which holds every book on the campaign that has been published in English. The book is deficient as a result, and no match for the late Jon Latimer's magnificent Burma, The Forgotten War (John Murray, 2005) which retains its foremost position among general accounts of the war in the Far East.