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Posted on Oct 12, 2012 in Books and Movies

The Burma Campaign – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-1945. Frank McLynn. Yale University Press. July 2011. 544 pages. Softcover $20.00

We have all read books that left us reflecting, "What if?" What if the author had focused the book more in this direction? What if the author had added this? What if the author had deleted this? After reading Frank McLynn’s The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-1945 these and several other questions quickly came to mind.

The most significant question I had was, "What if the author had changed his approach and focus of his book?’ In his preface, McLynn states his objective as, "My aim has been more modest; in an example of ‘history from above’ to tell the story of the campaign through the biography of four larger-than-life personalities: William Slim, Louis Mountbatten, Orde Wingate and Joseph Stilwell." I believe McLynn has set an ambitious goal and one that he unfortunately, falls short on.

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The primary reason he does not meet his objective is that it is simply too ambitious. In trying to combine the story of the Burma Campaign with essentially four mini-biographies, he has not done either real justice. I found his treatment of the Burma Campaign and his four subjects (for the most part) to be incomplete.

In regards to the Burma Campaign, McLynn does not get into the detail that the general reader interested in that campaign will require. There are aspects of the campaign that simply receive very nominal discussion. This is not surprising since this detail could not be included because of the way the author approached the volume. Personally, this was not a significant issue since I consider myself well-read on the Burma Campaign and could fill in the blanks. The general reader requiring all blanks filled should read some of the previous books written on the subject. Two that quickly come to mind are Louis Allen’s superb Burma: The Longest War 1941–1945 and Jon Latimer’s Burma: The Forgotten War.

In attempting to provide readers with an understanding of his four subjects, McLynn is hampered by their "larger-than-life personalities". Each of these men has had superb biographies written on him in the past. Because of their achievements—and in some cases, personal complexities—an individual biography is clearly the only forum for a reader to truly understand Slim, Mountbatten, Wingate, and Stilwell. Once again, the scope of the volume makes a true understanding of each man unfeasible for the reader.

With that said, McLynn is much more successful in some of his portrayals than in others. In particular, the author does a very credible job of depicting Stilwell and is generally balanced in his praise and criticism. McLynn, as many, is a huge fan of Slim and his admiration can be found throughout the volume. However, there are times when the author is a little too lavish in his praise. This is difficult for me to say since I, too, consider Slim’s performance in the Burma Campaign to be superb, perhaps the best of World War II.

Mountbatten and Wingate do not fair nearly as well in McLynn’s pages. In the case of each, the author is highly critical of not only their performance in the Burma Conference, but their entire careers. Certainly, both were very polarizing figures and may have possessed some traits others considered unfavorable. However, in my opinion he does shortchange the contributions each made in the Burma Campaign (particularly Wingate) and in their profession. Again, perhaps without competing demands, these could have addressed.

Disregarding my thoughts on his focus, there were several things the author could have added or changed in his volume which would have supported his goals. Each of these could have assisted readers in their understanding of the Campaign and the four primaries. These include the following:

1) McLynn does not title his chapters – he simply utilizes numbers. This makes it challenging for readers to put events in perspective.
2) There are only six maps, far too few for aiding an understanding of the Campaign. As always, a picture (or map) is worth a thousand words.
3) The note section: Instead of addressing each note in a single line they are placed together in paragraph form, divided by chapter, making them difficult to read for those seeking further clarification. Like many readers, I find that the notes section can be just as beneficial as the main text, if, or more so. Perhaps, this was a space-saving decision made by the publisher. (Editor’s note—such formatting decisions are almost always those of the publisher, not the author.)
4) The selection of photographs the author utilizes leaves much to be desired. Most knowledgeable readers of the Burma Campaign will have seen these numerous times in other volumes. Interestingly, the author only includes one photo of Mountbatten.
5) Although I consider McLynn a very talented writer (see below), his use of long paragraphs (some a page long) make for difficult reading. Personally, I prefer smaller paragraphs that allow some time to reflection on what I’ve just read.

Obviously, I have not been extremely positive for the vast majority of the review. However, there are aspects of McLynn’s volume that I found very appealing. Primary among these is the author’s writing style (discounting paragraph length). Although some may find it a bit informal for a military history book, I found it a refreshing change from other books I have read recently. McLynn is a skilled writer and is not short of opinions, which you may or may not share. I believe many readers will find his style engaging.

I consider the author’s other strength his treatment of Stilwell. McLynn devotes far more pages to Stilwell and his role in the Burma Campaign than most general books on the campaign do. Many authors tend to simply highlight the Vinegar Joe aspect of Stilwell. I believe McLynn provides a good understanding of his contributions (good and bad) during the Campaign.

I feel McLynn would have been far better served if he had focused his efforts on a biography of one of his subjects. A look at McLynn’s body of work displays numerous critically acclaimed biographies on historical figures. This is clearly the author’s strength and one he should capitalize on.

Taking that one step further, I feel a McLynn biography of Stilwell would be highly beneficial, and one I would be eager to read. I believe the author displayed a sound understanding of Stilwell, and there really hasn’t been a significant book based on him in many years—a void that McLynn could certainly fill.

In the final analysis, Frank McLynn is a skilled writer and a true professional. I just believe the technique he utilized left far too many gaps for readers to gain an understanding of the Burma Campaign and the four principle commanders he examines. McLynn’s volume is still of value for readers. They must just know beforehand what this book is, and just as importantly, what it isn’t.

Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General Web series "Tactics 101."

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