Book Review: Nations in the Balance: The India-Burma Campaigns, December 1943–August 1944


by Christopher L. Kolakowski

Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 202.. Pp. xx, 219+. Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1636240968

The “Forgotten” Burma Campaign of 1944

The China-Burma-India theatre of the Second World War is largely a forgotten footnote among the numerous English language accounts of the European and Pacific Theatres. Christopher L. Kolakowski's Nations in the Balance recounting from 1943 on of the Allied counter-offensive in Burma does much to address that lost memory. In describing battles which saw far more nationalities fighting side-by-side than seen in most other Second World War campaigns, Kolakowski has woven together an engrossing tale of the much overlooked Allied victory and Japanese desperate defeat that helped shape Asia's, and a large portion of the globe's, post-war history. Kolakowski correctly notes that the dramatic events of forgotten 1944 Burma still echo into the present day.

However, Nations in the Balance is not a balanced narrative of the Second World War's Burma Campaign, at least not in the sense of a multi-culturally diverse perspective on a multi-national history of strategic global proportions. Confidence in accuracy is severely shaken when merely 8 pages into reading about the back-ground of the Burma Theatre; China's then wartime leader, Chiang Kai-shek, is described as "a graduate of Whampoa Military Academy." Actually, Chiang had organized and led the Whampoa Academy in 1924, at the specific request of the father of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

In fact, Chiang, also known as Chiang Chieh-shih or Jiang Jieshi (sometimes depending on the speaker's politics because China's mainland uses different spellings from that often used in Taiwan), actually was a graduate of the Japanese military academy, Tokyo Shinbu Gakko, and Chiang had served for a short time in the Imperial Japanese Army after graduation.

Chiang is further overbroadly misconstrued as having "led China since 1927", when Chiang at best could only be described at having been constantly beset by defiant regional warlords and communist insurgencies. In 1928, a warlord coalition ultimately of around 700,000 troops threatened to overthrow the Nanjing central government, during the Central Plains War which lasted until 1930. Furthermore, Chiang had been forced to resign as a result of Japan's conquest of China's Northeast in 1931 and was only asked back because no one else could cobble together any nominal Chinese unity. In 1936, a mere few years before Total War would engulf the world, Chiang was even outright kidnapped by the former Young Marshal warlord, Zhang Xueliang, at the Xi'an Incident. Kolakowski skims over Chiang having "weathered several internal challenges to his supremacy", but seldom notes the delicate existence of China's entire Kuomintang (or Guomindang) regime, or that the communist insurgency had so thoroughly infiltrated China's governing institutions that Chiang never had any real "supremacy".

Despite recognizing the precarious nature of Chiang's role, Kolakowski nonetheless blames Chiang for many problems that were due largely to forces beyond Chiang's control. Kolakowski even quotes John Service's observation that Chiang's authority "rested on its military might" (which government ultimately doesn't?) and the problems of a fractured China, continuing power struggles, and inevitable civil war. However, Kolakowski repeatedly follows the standard English language source problem of the unfair contemporary Anglo-American assignment of all faults to Chiang. Kolakowski, like many other western writers, ignores the fact that Chiang was the best leader available at that time of China's existential crisis.

Part of that bias against Chiang comes about from the over-indulgence towards General Joseph W. Stilwell of the United States. Although Kolakowski does not pull punches against Stilwell's well-known irascible nature, and Stilwell’s personal honor and integrity remains beyond reproach, Kolakowski also misses that Stilwell never fundamentally appreciated the Chinese people's -- including Chiang's – patriotism. Stilwell's demand and relish for being a foreign commander of Chinese troops should have given pause to anyone truly sensitive to China's soreness towards foreign domination. China had broken free from the foreign dynasty of the 267-year-long Qing Dynasty only in 1911, and still had the burden of the Unequal Treaties and extraterritoriality enjoyed by imperialist foreigners against native Chinese in China. The embarrassment of such treatment towards a fellow "Big Four" Ally was finally renounced in 1943.

Kolakowski could have skipped spreading the typical fetish stories about Madame Chiang's appearance and focused more on the fact that Chiang, his son Ching-kuo (who had been held hostage by the Soviet Union) who later led Taiwan, and Madame Chiang all lived relatively spartan lives throughout their tenure and even after leaving the mainland (Madame Chiang died in 2003 in the United States reportedly with only $120,000 in her entire estate) despite all the communist propaganda claiming corruption. Although we appreciate the intrigue of gossip from such noted British figures as Lord Louis Mountbatten, a more detailed examination of why China's leaders had particular opinions would have put greater balance in Kolakowski's account.

For instance, more recognition that China's military leaders never had the assurance of secure logistics which well-supplied western leaders took for granted, and the fact that China's best troops were being seen killed for the sake of British colonialism would have been much more informative than simply calling Chiang "stubborn", noting that some senior Chinese officers "resisted instruction", or repeating General Stilwell's complaint against Chinese "higher-ups who are weak". On one hand, the complaint is that the Chinese officers are not loyal enough to the foreigner Stilwell and Stilwell's perceived mission. On the other hand, the complaint is that the Chinese officers were too loyal to China’s leader and China's interests. At one point, the Chinese are even chastised for delaying the advance of the Chinese Y-Force from the east into Burma, but without any comparison to the Western Allies’ delay in opening the Second Front as demanded by Stalin in Europe.

To be fair, Stilwell's dissatisfaction with the British is also well-documented although, as proper and would be expected, British General William Slim was lauded for his professionalism and competence. It is a minor quibble, but one does wish that more space could have been found to describe China's General Sun Li-jen's 1942 rescue of the trapped British at the Battle of Yenangyaung which contributed much to Sun's reputation.

In fact, likely because of an over-reliance on English language sources, Kolakowski was able to spend far more time documenting the casualties of American and Commonwealth forces than those of their Chinese allies who died alongside them. In a rare instance where the information was available, Kolakowski notes that casualties of three months cost the American Merrill’s Marauders 8 killed, 37 wounded, and 179 lost to other causes; while the accompanying Allied Chinese troops in the Northern Combat Area Command lost 802 killed, 1,479 wounded, and 530 lost to other causes.

The failure to fully integrate China's true circumstances, China’s costs and legitimate priorities, leading to a repeated narrative bias against Chiang, would be a major fault in any strategic discussion of the multi-national Burma Campaign. Ultimately, the failure to address repeated annoyance with the Chinese who simply and correctly realized that they had other priorities, and who far better understood the larger Asian geopolitical picture than the Western transient guests in the region, leaves Nations in the Balance flawed. China was indeed awaiting a Civil War, one that unfortunately was won by a totalitarian dictatorship far worse than any level of corruption charged against China's wartime Central Government. Perhaps the West could have done nothing to stop the disaster, but continuing to collaborate in the propaganda unfairly criticizing rational choices is neither necessary nor desirable for a more rounded , more honest, grand-strategic context.

Fortunately, a grand-strategic audience is not the target of Nations in the Balance. Kolakowski shines best when describing the operational and tactical matters for which the readers of Casemate publications often crave. And here, Kolakowski does not disappoint.

Kolakowski includes very useful and readable appendixes. Nations in the Balance even covers language difficulties and Indian Independence issues, and includes lesser known details of United States all-black segregated units, and that China never really received much of the military aid sent, which mainly went to United States personnel and Unites States operations.

But Kolakowski also lays out in very human terms the desperation and courage (or stupidity) of Japanese commanders attempting to eke out a victory which we now know in hindsight was already strategically doomed. Kolakowski manages to portray a tragedy, albeit a fortunate one for the Allies, of the waste of Japanese lives and resources in pursuit of a pointless offensive. However, Kolakowski also does not spare instances of Allied command hubris and egos which may have led to a similar waste of Allied life and resources, but are forgiven in the light of victory.

Kolakowski’s descriptions of the Allied counter-offensive are laid out with enough specificity to satisfy grognards, with plentiful battle maps to follow the maneuvers. Kolakowski offers anecdotes of how Allied ingenuity confounded Japanese decryption of Allied communications even after Allied codes had been captured, how fortifications have their usefulness in leveraging the strength of an outnumbered defensive force, and how failing to coordinate and combine arms can be costly even as the Allies began to enjoy material supremacy.

Kolakowski offers much to flesh out the common frustration often shared by the troops on the ground, regardless of nationality. For instance, he recounts the brutal suffering endured by the ultimately broken U.S. 5307th Composite Unit – “Merrill's Marauders” –who were asked by Stilwell to offer superhuman services, too often, too many times.

Kolakowski also manages to show how alike we humans all ultimately are, effectively noting that "saving face" was a concept understood by British towards the Nagas people and not just as some stereotypical oriental Chinese affectation. He shows that Non-Commissioned Officers had great importance as is now, decades later, re-emphasized by the Russian lack of adequate NCO leadership wearing heavy on Putin’s performance in his war against Ukraine, and that competition for credit and glory was part of the Burmese Campaign just as the competition race through Sicily and to Rome was part of the European Theatre being fought on the other side of the globe.

Kolakowski’s lesser tidbits about Lord Mountbatten staying in command while recuperating with only one eye or Mountbatten having a fighter escort four times the entire amount of Stilwell's Northern Combat Area Command's support aircraft, provides welcome color to what could have been simply a recital of troop movements. Notable feats of bravery are described throughout, like Jemedar Abdul Hafiz posthumously winning a Victoria Cross, the first Muslim in the Second World War to do so. (Jemedar being a familiar term to Star Trek DS9 television show fans in reference to its fictional warrior group, otherwise equivalent to the rank of lieutenant in our more historical reality). Particularly through Kolakowski’s account of Chindit operations and the fighting at Myitkyina, Kohima and Imphal, the logistics nightmare in Burma, developments in helicopter rescues and airdropped supplies, including describing their limits, certain aspects of modern military operations could even be foretold.

Despite its flaws, Nations in the Balance is a fine tactical and operational summary of the late Burma Campaign.





Note: Nations in the Balance is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin    

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