[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Forgotten Armies': Their Lousiest Hour

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'Forgotten Armies': Their Lousiest Hour
New York Times Book Review, 5.


FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945.
By Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper.
Illustrated. 555 pp. The Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press. $29.95.

    SEVERAL hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941,
    Japanese troops stormed the beaches of southeastern Thailand and
    northern Malaya. Their goal was Singapore, some 400 miles south, among
    the world's richest and most cosmopolitan cities, and, along with
    Gibraltar, the most heavily defended piece of land in the British
    Empire. Just over two months later that supposedly impregnable
    fortress was in Japanese hands. A garrison of more than 85,000 troops
    had surrendered to a Japanese assault force numbering about 30,000.
    Singapore's capture, Winston Churchill said, was ''the worst disaster
    and largest capitulation in British history.'' By April the Japanese
    were bombing Calcutta, and India was preparing to be invaded.
    Britain's ''great crescent,'' which had stretched from India's border
    with Burma down the Malay peninsula, was lost.

    In ''Forgotten Armies'' Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, two
    Cambridge historians, explore these events and their intricate and
    often terrible repercussions from the perspectives of both the British
    and the Asian peoples of the region. A work at once scholarly and
    panoramic, it is as precise in dissecting, say, the logistical
    problems the Japanese Army confronted during the 1944 campaign in
    northern Burma (''the worst defeat in Japan's military history'') as
    it is arresting in examining such sweeping events as the 1942 trek of
    some 600,000 Indian, Burmese and Anglo-Indian refugees from Burma
    through the high passes of Assam into India, fleeing the advancing

    Hundreds of monographs have examined aspects of this story, but Bayly
    and Harper's is the only history that matches the scope and nuance of
    novels like J. G. Farrell's ''Singapore Grip,'' Paul Scott's ''Raj
    Quartet,'' Anthony Burgess's ''Enemy in the Blanket,'' Orwell's
    ''Burmese Days'' and Amitov Ghosh's ''Glass Palace.'' Their 70-page
    prologue is a triumph of scene setting. The great crescent between
    Calcutta and Singapore was, Bayly and Harper show, a multinational and
    multiethnic stew. Indians, Chinese, Malays and Burmese toiled in the
    factories and oil fields of Burma and the rubber plantations and tin
    mines of Malaya; Chinese merchant princes ruled the trading houses of
    Penang and Malacca; Japanese owned shops in virtually every small town
    on the Malay peninsula, controlled Malaya's iron mines and dominated
    Singapore's fishing fleet.

    At the apex of this world, of course, the British ruled. ''Forgotten
    Armies'' artfully evokes their prewar idyll: the string of posh
    hotels; the mountaintop golf courses carved out of the jungle; the
    torpor of the hill stations (exacerbated by chronic gin-swilling),
    where expats speaking an ''outmoded English slang'' saw to it that
    ''the ova of trout were carted up on ice'' to stock the streams; and,
    most memorably, what Lady Diana Cooper characterized as the
    ''Sino-Monte-Carlo'' atmosphere of Singapore -- a strikingly clean and
    modern city of snobbish clubs, air-conditioned cinemas and a glut of
    playing fields, populated by Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Parsis and White
    Russians, as well as Indians, Malays, Burmese, Chinese, Japanese and
    their British overlords.

    The ignominious British and Australian rout down the length of the
    Malay peninsula (the retreating soldiers sardonically adopted the
    theme from the Hope and Crosby movie ''The Road to Singapore'' as
    their marching song) and Singapore's subsequent fall have already been
    described, memorably, in Farrell's novel and in a host of military
    histories, most notably Alan Warren's ''Singapore 1942,'' but Bayly
    and Harper's account is both vivid and authoritative. One of their
    great contributions lies in their stinging appraisal of the debacle --
    all but inevitable given Britain's competing strategic priorities, but
    made worse in every conceivable way by the fecklessness, dithering,
    incompetence, jealousies and cowardice of commanders on the spot. A
    second is their chronicle of the nearly complete moral collapse of
    British colonial society and civil administration throughout the great
    crescent. That collapse, they convincingly show, began just eight days
    after the Japanese invasion, with the shameful European evacuation of
    Penang, in which Britons abandoned the Asians they ruled to an utterly
    vicious conqueror. British imperialism certainly had its high-minded
    and responsible aspects, but at the time and place ''Forgotten
    Armies'' recounts it revealed itself to be selfish, unlovely and, in
    the parlance of the time, unmanly.

    This British failure of nerve enormously strengthened the region's
    national independence movements during and after the war. The
    Japanese, of course, tried to exploit anti-imperialist sentiment in
    the name of pan-Asian solidarity, but Bayly and Harper, though plainly
    unsympathetic to Britain's imperialism, make clear that Japan's was
    incomparably worse. The Japanese systematically executed 70,000 ethnic
    Chinese in Singapore and southern Malaya. They sexually enslaved well
    over 50,000 of the great crescent's women, and raped tens of thousands
    more; 14,000 Allied prisoners of war died as slave laborers on the
    Thailand-Burma railway (an ordeal made famous in ''The Bridge on the
    River Kwai''), along with possibly 20 times as many Indians, Burmese,
    Chinese and Malays, who were starved and worked to death. (Bayly and
    Harper should be praised for making plain a grim fact of war that
    nearly always goes unsaid: ''The scale of animal fatality was
    colossal.'') The British of course temporarily took back their
    Southeast Asian empire, but only with the help of their erstwhile
    subjects (Asians and Africans made up 70 percent of the soldiers in
    William Slim's victorious 14th Army). In the terrible choices war gave
    the inhabitants of the great crescent, the craven hypocrisy of the
    British was infinitely preferable to the medieval sadism of the

    Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and national editor of The
    Atlantic Monthly.

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