In today’s volatile geopolitical arena filled with uncertain threats and dangers, it is important to look to the past for lessons and guidance in taking correct action. World War II provides many such lessons. Like WWII, today’s war on terror transcends political borders, has good fighting an axis of evil, and if lost, our very way of life will be destroyed. But when reflecting upon such complicated events like WWII, it is easy to overlook events that have been lost in time or are overlooked to other more prominent events of WWII. Fortunately, there are people like Donovan Webster who, armed with an inquisitive mind and the talent to write, bring back the memories and lessons of the WWII. In his new book The Burma Road, Webster analyzes the China, India, and Burma theater of war, recounting one of history’s horrific and fading stories of the Second World War.
Burma’s importance during WWII was due mainly to the fact that if the Japanese controlled Burma, which today is more commonly referred to by its non-colonial name Myanmar, then China would likely fall, initiating a domino effect starting with the fall of the Soviet Union followed by the fall of Europe and North Africa -- China’s defeat would basically commence the fall of Asia and Europe to the Axis. Vital to averting this domino effect was keeping China in the war and fighting the Japanese. This task though was more difficult than one can imagine. Webster explains in his book how the Chinese were so ill-equipped that they were often using trucks, tanks, and guns used in World War I. Exacerbating this problem was the fact that China was beginning to split in two factions; one side comprising the nationalist (and American-backed) Army, and the other faction being the Communist Army of Mao Tse-tung. Unfortunately for the Allies almost all of China’s sea ports were controlled by the Japanese, thus necessitating an overland route. This supply route running from Burma into China was to be called the Burma Road, and the job of keeping this umbilical cord to China in friendly hands was given to American General Stilwell.
In his book, Webster examines the complexities of the CBI (the China-India-Burma theater) General Stilwell dealt with. In addition to fighting legendarily tough and determined Japanese, Webster expounds on the political battles Gen. Stilwell had against the Chinese and even the British and American leadership. Compounding these less than ideal conditions for waging war, Vinegar Joe (aka Gen. Stilwell) had to deal with the dubious fact that his war ranked last on America’s priority list, meaning supplies, personnel, and money would be allocated elsewhere, and whatever was leftover would be dedicated to the CBI. The Burma Road does an excellent job of illustrating how through innovation, strong-arm tactics, and other means, the leaders of the CBI worked through huge obstacles to give their men a fighting chance. And as the stories in this book show, a fighting chance is all the men really needed. Though the book fully deconstructs the relationship between generals, presidents, dignitaries, etc., perhaps more importantly Webster gets down and dirty with the grunts.
To get a thorough account of the CBI, The Burma Road also explores the lives of the privates and engineers who battled firsthand in and with the jungles, mountains, and parched valleys of Burma. By quoting both Japanese and Allied infantrymen, The Burma Road brings perspective from both sides of the battlefield. This testimony provides the most vivid and horrifying descriptions of what the men faced in Burma. Atrocities like leech infestations resulting from the mass of dead soldiers, so many leeches at times the leaves on trees seemed to move in the wind; men subsisting on a diet of leaves, slugs, and boiled grass while fighting against the enemy; the relentless, vicious, and ubiquitous enemy diseases, including malaria and dysentery, which attacked both sides with impunity. Though both generals and infantrymen made great sacrifices, the tales and imagery presented by the grunts who were in the mud are by far much more memorable and haunting, but few dealt with the anguish, frustration, and stress Vinegar Joe dealt with, stress that eventually whittled down his once impressive physical body and claimed his life.
The most important fact about this book to remember is that it is more than just a retelling of the CBI theater. Donovan Webster dissects the political web navigated by those involved, he tacitly recounts and applauds the quotidian acts of heroism made by the soldiers, and he gets to the story of how success is won in such an harsh place. The characters, props, and plot of the CBI theater are fully investigated and placed in history. This book would have benefitted from more maps as the country of Burma is not well-known, the military maneuvers were complex, and at times the barrage of names of towns can be somewhat confusing. But overall this is a memorable read expounding the struggle of waging war.