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Book Review for Jon Latimer's
Burma: The Forgotten War

Burma: The Forgotten War
Jon Latimer
John Murray
2004
Hbk £25.00
This is a magnificent book.  It is, extraordinarily, only the third full-length account of the war in Burma to have appeared.  The first, of course, was Field Marshal Slim’s magisterial and best-selling account – Defeat into Victory – first published in 1956.  The second was Louis Allen’s groundbreaking Burma, The Longest War, published in 1984.  Slim’s account was a view from the top down and Louis Allen allowed us a peek into the Japanese military mind for the first time, an approach taken up subsequently and very well by John Nunneley and Kazuo Tamayama.  Now, Jon Latimer has examined the warp and woof of the war from the perspective of those who fought it, using their records and reminiscences as his primary source material.  The result is a powerful and absorbing memoir of the war from its start in 1941 to its end in 1945. 

Latimer has been able to this so superbly because of the existence at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London of the Burma Campaign Memorial Library, a collection brought together over the past half decade at the instigation of Gordon Graham who, as a youthful Cameronian Company Commander, won his first MC at Kohima in 1944 and his second at the Irrawaddy Crossings in early 1945.  The vast extent of this material was not available to Louis Allen in 1984, but it is fair to say that it has transformed the historiography of the Burma Campaign. 

For the first time virtually everything ever published on the subject from around the globe is now safely stored in one location, and is an invaluable source for any serious historian.  Latimer has made full use of this, as he records in his foreword, and his book is all the more powerful because of it.  On every page one can hear the voices of those who experienced the campaign’s long miseries, and enter into this experience, as much as one can at this distance in time.  Latimer’s superb narrative style is absorbing and deft, and the heaviness of much military history has been successfully avoided. 

This is not just a book about the 14th Army, but an account of the war through a multitude of eyes, Burmese, Indian, British, American and Chinese.  The war in Burma was one of the most comprehensive ever fought in terms of experience, with everything from small sub-tactical encounters on jungle path, forest floor and dusty plain, in searing heat and monsoon rain, to the mass movement of armoured divisions, strategic bombing and the largest sustained airlift of military supplies to an army in the field at any time in history.  It contained everything from high political drama and sordid squabbling over the direction and management of the war (on all sides – British, American, Japanese and Chinese) to vicious rifle, grenade and bayonet encounters in the jungle gloom, the awful depredations of the prison camps and the long, bitter and exhausting struggle for mastery on the battlefield by troops a long way from home. 

Latimer has captured it all and in so doing has contributed significantly to our understanding of the complexity and scale of the war as a whole.  He has not neglected the careful marshalling of his sources in extensive endnotes, which adds to the value of the book.  His maps, likewise, always a difficult area for an author, are well constructed. This is a book to buy, read, enjoy and go back to time and again.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Review by Robert Lyman

21 November 2004


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