Best Defense

Remembering War (X): While nearly half of the brigade was dying…

What is the difference between remembering war and writing histories about it?


Editor’s Introduction: After Tarak Barkawi delivered a few lectures to captains and first sergeants from 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry, one first sergeant said to me, “It is about f***ing time someone taught us this stuff.” I had attended Ranger School with that first sergeant when he was a private and I was a second lieutenant. A few years later I served with him again in 2nd Ranger Battalion. By the time he sat through Tarak’s lectures, he had done a lot of leading and a lot of killing. So when he made that comment, I was satisfied. Tarak had expanded a professional warrior’s view of war. Tarak’s insights and criticisms, like those below comparing memory with history, are always consequential.

— Paul Edgar

By Tarak Barkawi
Best Defense guest columnist

What is the difference between remembering war and writing histories about it?

In 1984, Louis Allen published the first edition of Burma: The Longest War 1941-45, a campaign history of the Japanese invasion and British re-conquest. Allen had served as a Japanese-speaking intelligence officer in Burma. He made use of Japanese sources and historians, as well as his contacts among former Japanese officers, some of whom he had helped debrief after the war.

He wrote the history of war from both sides.

One episode in that history was the stand of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade at Sangshak in March, 1944. Caught unaware and forward in the path of a major Japanese offensive, the brigade held out for a week, pummeled by two Japanese infantry regiments. Much of the fighting occurred on an 800 x 400 yard plateau, the Indian and Gurkha paratroopers clinging to a perimeter under Japanese observation and fire. They could not even dig in properly, hitting solid rock.

Of Lithuanian Jewish and Irish Catholic parentage, Allen did his work from the French department at the University of Durham, where he left his papers. The papers of military historians often contain extensive correspondence from outraged veterans, angry at how their battles were described and their campaigns judged.

The veterans remember things differently. They want a different story told.

So it was with the Battle of Sangshak. A young, war-promoted brigadier commanded 50th Brigade. An efficient and impressive officer, his rapid rise came at the cost of time in combat commands. He began falling apart early on in the battle, and spent the last forty-eight hours of the fight curled up in his trench.

At one point, a few of the senior officers tried to get the medical officer to declare the brigadier unfit for command. He refused on grounds of the harm it would do to the brigadier’s career.

When the brigade broke into small parties to make its way back through rough country to British Indian lines, the brigade major got the brigadier out. The brigadier was promptly sent back to England with battle exhaustion. Among other things, he was a casualty of the corps commander’s desire to displace blame. Corps had known about the oncoming Japanese, but failed to inform the brigade left in the way. The brigadier recovered and went on to serve with distinction in the European theatre for the rest of the war.

A few of 50th Brigade’s officers knew about the breakdown, and sought to cover it up afterwards. Other officers had no idea about their commander’s state of mind. They were out on the perimeter during the battle, alternately defending their lines and leading increasingly desperate counterattacks to plug gaps. Around them, nearly half of the brigade was dying.

They chose to remember their commander as he was during the formation and training of the brigade, as their leader.

When they read Allen’s account of the battle, they turned their fire on the historian. In lengthy invective, they peppered Allen with letters and refutations. The brigadier could not have broken down during the battle, he visited us on the lines in calm and confident demeanor, an inspiration to all. He was spirited out of theatre afterwards, they opined, so he would not testify against the corps commander.

One former officer, who went on to a career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, threatened to sick agents on Allen and his informers. Another counted up the Japanese sources in Allen’s meticulously researched work and accused him of being “pro Jap” [sic]. “Whose side are you on?” he asked. Others contested points of operational fact, from events then forty years past, or provided elaborate justifications for apparently dubious decisions. They attacked the motives of anyone who suggested otherwise.

The brigadier wrote too, accusing Allen of portraying him as “an incompetent, cowardly, hysteric,” and of offering him up in his old age “as an object of scorn to my profession and the general public and of shame to my son.” But Allen and the brigadier went on to have a lengthy, increasingly personal correspondence in which the brigadier candidly discussed his breakdown during the battle.

Allen received other confirmations that he had got it right, among them the brigade major speaking from the past. Not long after the battle and his escape, he sat drinking on a dark veranda in Delhi. He “poured fourth without bitterness but in anguish,” telling the story to a new friend, who would later write Allen after reading his book.

In thinking about the tensions between the history and the memory of war, it is useful to have the stories of others far removed from us, a paratroop brigade in an exotic colonial army, rather than a regiment of the 101st or the 82nd Airborne. We have fewer investments, and can see more clearly.

The brigadier caught well one difference, that between the public and putatively definitive character of history, and more private spheres where memory circulates. “Those of us who are not sufficiently talented to leave any enduring creative works behind us can only leave behind, first, respect and affection in the memory of one’s family and friends and second one’s public reputation in one’s profession.” Allen’s history threatened to destroy both; high stakes indeed.

Accusations of Japanese bias help identify another contradiction between history and memory. It is often useful in remembering war to blame one’s enemies for the experience. All the more so in a war fought with merciless, racialized antagonism. In the intensity and cruelty of its engagements, Burma was no different than any other campaign of the Asia-Pacific Wars.

Memory is for getting on with life, for living in the world. Hard enough for all of us; harder still for combat veterans. History is about getting the story right, or trying to, for all time.

It would probably shock 50th Brigade’s officers to know why their Japanese opponents held them in great respect: the brigade had fought and died like Japanese.

In one preliminary action, a company of the 50th Brigade found itself hopelessly cut-off. They held the Japanese for a day and a night, then the survivors threw themselves into a downhill suicide charge, banzai-style. In a final flourish, the last surviving officer rose from his position and blew his brains out with his pistol. “Our men fell silent,” reports the Japanese narrative of the action, “deeply impressed by such a brave act.”

Later in the battle, out on the perimeter, the Indian paratroopers buried with his sword a fierce and courageous Japanese officer who had died in an attack. His brother officers took some solace whey then found his grave after the battle. 50th Brigade’s POWs would benefit from such acts, treated well and released in their underwear around Kohima when the Japanese offensive had been broken.

The Japanese veterans found it in their hearts to remember well those who they thought were like them.

Some veterans on either side may learn to remember well even enemies who seemed irredeemably alien. They may come to appreciate their personal implication in war’s hardest reality of all: it takes two sides to fight a battle, to ratchet up its violence, to bring it to a merciless intensity.

In the decades after such fighting, some Allied and Japanese veterans engaged in reconciliation activities, corresponding, meeting and sharing their stories. It is not completely fantastical to imagine something similar with our jihadi and insurgent opponents of today. After all, think how many U.S. veterans have been back to Vietnam.

In any case, let us be thankful for historians who seek the truth rather than respect our memories.

Tarak Barkawi is Reader in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has written on colonial armies, ‘small wars’ and imperial warfare, the Cold War in the Third World, and on counterinsurgency and the War on Terror. 

Photo credit: No. 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit/British Army/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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