Top critical review
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Good account spoilt by personalized assessments
on 2 August 2017
I've read a number of books by this author and (mostly) enjoyed them. However, he tends to have fairly obvious biases and this can be a problem, particularly here, where he tells the story of the Burma Campaign by focusing on four key individuals, Slim, Stilwell, Wingate and Mountbatten.
I lived and worked in different parts of Asia for nearly 15 years, including Burma (or Myanmar, as it is today), so I have personal experience of the complexities of both geography and climate that made it such a difficult area to fight in. Japanese success will not surprise anyone who reads Somerset Maugham's stories of colonial British South-East Asia between the wars or the generally low calibre of British officers assigned there, notably the utterly useless Perceval in Singapore. These factors made it a tough assignment.
The book is best summarized as Slim - genius, Stilwell - difficult, but right, Wingate - looney, Mountbatten - snake oil merchant. I broadly agree but simply rubbishing those who opposed Slim or Stilwell, while doing a similar hatchet job on the supporters of the other two, means he fails to explain the other side and misses the wider strategic context.
Yes, Roosevelt was prone to naivety in his view of Chiang Kai Shek and his KMT regime but that should be seen within the context of 40 years of US economic and political penetration of China; the US's Asia-Pacific strategy specifically aimed at eliminating the European colonial empires in Asia and replacing it with a US/China alliance. The collapse of the KMT post-1945 was a US foreign policy disaster only equalled by the 1979 Iran Revolution or Iraq in 2003; but many others (including the Russians) made the same assumptions about the ultimate victory of the KMT. Above all, for the US, Burma only mattered as a supply line for the KMT which simply by existing, tied down nearly one million Japanese troops in Burma and China. For Churchill, Burma was a British possession needing to be recaptured and he constantly sought to repair the damage done to British prestige by the disasters of 1942; that fundamental disconnect was never acknowledged.
McLynn doesn't really acknowledge this strategic issue but above all, he is far too kind about Stilwell who regardless of his many virtues was the worst possible person for his position. McLynn claims Stilwell despised Chiang because of his feelings for ordinary Chinese and the impact of KMT corruption on them; that may be true but Stilwell wasn't the only person who felt that way and he also despised most non-Americans. The imprudence of first being caught referring to Chiang as 'Peanut,' then to carry on doing so beggars belief but it is also clear he didn't appreciate the strategic issue above. At the very least, the US saw China an American ally and trading partner for American business; Chiang understood that, which is why he viewed US Lend-Lease for China as part of a US policy objective, not some altruistic benefit requiring him to fight as did Stilwell.
I've focused on Stilwell but as I said above, it's a good account of the Burma campaign let down by biased views on the four individuals selected. Nothing wrong with that per se (hard to be too critical of Mountbatten, a charlatan on a scale comparable only with MacArthur) but it fails as a broader overview of the issues and why Burma was seen such a low priority.