Donovan Webster,
The Burma Road
(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003)

When most people think of World War II, they focus on the fight against Nazism in Europe. Even if they do consider Japan, many picture the U.S. Marines jumping from one bloody island to another on a long march north. Largely forgotten by many is the war in Asia; Japan invaded China in 1937, starting eight years of combat ranging from the mountains of China to the jungles of Burma and other southeast Asian countries. It wasn't a pretty campaign, but it was very important.

Donovan Webster has written a definitive account of this war from an American and British perspective. The Burma Road covers the war from the American entrance into the war until Japan's final collapse. A large part of the book is focused on Gen. Joseph Stillwell, or "Vinegar Joe" as his men called him, but Webster does cover almost every aspect of it. While the war in China is neglected for a long period of time, The Burma Road effectively shows us the blood, sweat and disease that dominated this campaign. It's a fascinating tale.

There is a bit of a framing story around the book, with Webster trying to walk the full length of the Burma Road from Burma to China; the road was supposed to supply the Chinese and keep them in the war. A large portion of northeast India is still restricted, especially from journalists, and Webster is unsuccessful in the beginning of his journey. He then segues into the beginning of Stillwell's story, giving a brief summary of his career up until he gets assigned to the southeast Asian sector of the war. Notoriously undersupplied and undermanned, Stillwell is forced to make do with what he can to keep the Japanese out of India at all costs. While Japan invades Thailand and Burma and Stillwell is forced to slog through the jungles to escape, he manages to keep them from their ultimate goal. He is less successful with the Chinese, however, forever clashing with China's leader, Chiang Kai-shek. After three years of fighting both the Japanese and his own allies, Stillwell is finally relieved of command, despite his many successes.

While a large portion of the book is told through Stillwell's point of view, other areas are not neglected. We hear a lot about the British army, especially the Chindit special forces (one whole chapter on their beginning plus numerous chapters when they are fighting alongside Stillwell's men) as well as the beginning of the world-famous "Flying Tigers," a group of American pilots who had resigned their commissions so they could fight for China before the United States entered the war. Their leader, Claire Chennault, later became a real thorn in Stillwell's side, siding with Kai-Shek in all of the battles between the two leaders.

The book follows a semi-chronological format, taking us from the beginning of Stillwell's involvement in the Asian theater of operations to the end of the war, but it does jump around a bit when it moves on to another subject. It gets to a certain point in Stillwell's career and then backtracks to tell the beginning of Chindit operations, for example. It also pauses to give brief biographies of major characters, such as the British Gen. Orde Wingate. This back-and-forth style does make it confusing at times, and there was one time reference that I swore didn't add up until I realized Webster was talking about something else. However, it does make the book feel even more comprehensive, as it seems to cover every conceivable angle of the war.

The one aspect of this where The Burma Road fails, however, is in regards to China. The constant lend-lease supply of goods to the Chinese is covered, the Chinese contribution to Stillwell's campaign is documented beautifully and Chennault's Flying Tigers are represented. On the other hand, other than a brief chapter near the end of the book and a few mentions in between, none of the fighting in China is actually discussed. Webster spends a brief time discussing the decision to finally bring the Chinese Communists into the war and makes a few small references to their savagery in fighting the Japanese. Given the depth of the rest of the book, however, it feels very small.

That being said, though, The Burma Road is a very valuable resource for anybody wanting a general history of the Asian campaign in World War II. It corrects some myths that have been fostered about the war. One chapter takes special aim at the book and movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai, calling the book fictional and the movie even worse.

"And due to the film's enormous popularity, the fiction of the bridge on the River Kwae ... will probably overshadow the truth forever. Which is tragic, since the reality of what happened along what the POWs came to call 'The Death Railway' is just as heartbreaking."

Webster gives the real details behind the building of that bridge and railway. He tells how the Japanese mistreated not only the prisoners, but also their own men.

That's where The Burma Road excels: the details. Webster doesn't pull any punches, telling of the disease, leeches, poisoned water, conditions of the corpses and other hardships that the valiant men who fought in this theater went through. He even interviewed some of the Japanese soldiers who survived the conflict, showcasing the ordeals they had to go through. They were chronically undersupplied and often subsisted on nothing but small quantities of rice and bad water. Webster gives us so much detail that you may not want to read this book over lunch.

I haven't read a better book on this subject, and I'm very glad I picked this up. I couldn't put it down. If you're a military history fan, I don't think you'll be able to either. It's a book that the men who fought and died in the jungles deserve to have written about them. It especially does old Vinegar Joe justice.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 5 June 2004

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