History Friday: The Burma Road

Recovering on Orchard Road
Is this my second or third iced tea?
1318 hrs.

The image of unsung heroes scraping a truck route through the planet’s densest jungles and highest mountains – under fire, no less – to feed and arm the people of China was too good to resist, so it was with great anticipation that I picked up Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road.

What I was hoping for was a dramatic and detailed retelling of what it took to construct this feat of combat engineering and human endeavor, so initially I was disappointed. (Lesson one: pay more attention to subtitles.) Using the construction of the road as a backdrop, Webster chose instead to cover the entire China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in World War II, with an emphasis on Burma and India, and some of the more colorful personalities who drove the progress of the war in this part of the world.

CBI for the Rest of Us

As a campaign history the book suffers, perhaps unfairly, because the standard for World War II historians has risen drastically in recent years. Just when you thought everything about the conflict was that could be known or written has already seen the light of day, we have had a cascade of superb books that have, in many cases, redefined how we relate to and understand the war. Three examples among many:

  • The first two books of Rick Atkinson’s planned “Liberation Trilogy” (the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army at Dawn and the even better Day of Battle) not only amount to the best accounts of the North African and Italian campaigns ever written, they are compelling a complete rethinking of how we must view the war in Europe.
  • Over in the Pacific, John Parshall and Tony Tully, both part-time American historians, have written Shattered Sword, an account of the Midway battle emphasizing the Japanese side that casts new, unexpected, and iconoclastic insights on the American victory in that pivotal battle. So much for the Hollywood version.
  • Edward S. Miller, another gifted amateur historian, offers in his superb War Plan Orange and Bankrupting the Enemy, together bringing to light the long overture to the war against Japan that most popular histories skim or ignore completely.

Burma Road does not approach the insightful yet accessible scholarship of those accounts. What Webster does instead is to consolidate the works of others with his own on-the-ground research to fill a gaping hole in the popular history of this “tertiary” but locally critical theater in World War II.

Most works about CBI have focused on either personalities (Stilwell, Merrill, Wingate, Chennault) or units (the Flying Tigers, the OSS, the Marauders, the Chindits). Webster pulls these disparate threads together into a single tapestry that gives a good feel for the region’s “War-on-a-Shoestring” as the world focused on Europe, Africa, the Atlantic, and the vast Pacific.

Picking Nits

I have a list of minor quibbles with the book, most of them rooted in Webster’s background as a journalist rather than a military hitorian, that are illustrative of the issues that might keep The Burma Road from taking its deserved place among popular World War II histories:

  • Webster refers to an officer “retiring his commission” when what was meant in the context was “resigning his commission.”
  • Throughout the text, Webster comes across as something of a Stilwell partisan. I tend to sympathize with “Vinegar Joe” myself (his assessments of Chiang were politically incorrect but fairly accurate), but his lack of political acumen consistently undermined his tactical strengths.
  • The maps in the work are far too few, and the few there are are not very helpful in orienting the reader.  What is worse, the symbology – the way he represents different units and their movements – would cause a corporal to giggle.

Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed Burma Road and at a well-written 335 pages, I found it a worthy read, if for no other reason than it gave me a new point from which to re-commence my own studies on the CBI theater. For anyone largely unaware of the progress of the war on China’s southern border, I highly recommend it.