Reporting the Retreat

Donald M. Seekins

Apart from the contemporary and seemingly unresolvable political crisis inside Burma (or Myanmar, as it is known officially), which can be traced back to the coup d’état of General Ne Win in March 1962 and intensified with the seizure of power by a younger generation of Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) generals in September 1988, probably the most written-about aspect of Burma’s history in western languages has been the country’s occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army in the first half of 1942 and its liberation (or re-occupation) by Allied Forces in 1945. Chief among these works are the comprehensive histories by Louis Allen (Burma: the Longest War, 1941-1945, St. Martins Press, 1985) and Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945, Harvard University Press, 2006). Both give the reader a vivid picture of the British Empire in Asia during its twilight years, combining themes of official incompetence and neglect of its Southeast Asian colonies with the heroism of British, British Indian and Burmese ethnic minority troops in facing a grimly determined Japanese foe. Among others, this reviewer has argued (in From ‘Co-Prosperity’ to ‘Quiet Dialogue’: Burma and Japan since 1940, NIAS Press, 2007) that the seeds of Burma’s deep-seated political problems were sowed during the chaotic 1942-1945 period, when the country became one of the Pacific War’s major battlefields.

Philip Woods’s Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma (Oxford University Press, 2017) has a much narrower focus, describing the reporting of mostly British, Australian, and American journalists during the time frame between the outbreak of war between Japan and Britain in December 1941 and the Japanese occupation of most of the country by the middle of 1942. This clearly-written book will be useful not only to those people interested in the early phases of the war in Burma but also those who wish to understand the challenges of journalists who still find themselves in the ‘fog of war’ during 21st century conflicts such as the American ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The author begins by discussing the idea that ‘journalism is the first draft of history’, at best imperfect and in need of revision, due to the difficulties reporters have in getting to and depicting crucial battles accurately, made worse by their prior ignorance of conditions inside the country including in the Burmese case racial tensions and anti-colonial movements. None of the war correspondents he described had even the slightest comprehension of the Burmese language (unfortunately, Woods does not discuss journalists working for the local English language newspapers, such as the Rangoon Times). In addition, the British government censored critical reports from both the battle front and the home front (including the chaotic situation inside Rangoon, the colonial capital) to prevent ‘defeatism’ at a time when the Japanese invasion was turning into a rout of Allied forces.

War Correspondents and Their Work

The war correspondents described by Woods include the left-wing correspondents Jack Belden and Wilfred Burchett; Claire Booth Luce, whose husband was Henry Luce, owner of Time and Life magazines; Eve Curie, a French national who was daughter of Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie and another rare female war correspondent; Leland Stowe, who wrote on the colossal corruption involved in running the Burma Road, a scandal the British authorities wished to downplay; and George Rodger, the only photojournalist in Burma, who worked for Life magazine. He also discusses the work of newsreel journalists, who were especially restricted by the nature of their products, which were something close to pure propaganda. During their relatively short stays, most of the journalists acquired impressions of British colonial Burma very similar to those of George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days (Harper & Brothers, 1934): the numerically insignificant European (especially British) population were oblivious of Burma’s people and their problems and were only interested in profiting from the colony’s rich trove of natural resources such as oil, teak, and rice. In addition, the small colonial army, composed mainly of Indian and ethnic minority soldiers, was totally unprepared to resist aggressive attack by an outside power.

Woods’s monograph holds no surprises for readers already familiar with Burma’s wartime history. As they surged into the country, accompanied by the nationalist Burma Independence Army, Japanese troops undertook tactics that proved equally successful in British Malaya: lightly equipped and moving swiftly over the country’s terrain, they repeatedly forced British soldiers to retreat by blocking off the road network, on which the British forces were dependent. One of the war correspondents’ most popular topics was the defense of Rangoon by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the American Volunteer Group (AVG), more commonly known as the Flying Tigers, who despite numerical inferiority to Japanese aircraft scored significant victories in the skies over Burma. Although British censorship obliged correspondents to underplay British reverses, the war in the air provided rare ‘good news’. Because the RAF and AVG pilots were often colorful characters, especially the latter, stories about their exploits provided plenty of human interest.

Through the eyes of the war correspondents he describes and quotes, Woods provides ample evidence of the collapse of Burma’s colonial society after the Japanese launched their ‘Christmas bombings’ on the Rangoon docks on 23 and 25 December 1941. These air raids killed around 1,000 civilians and sparked a mass exodus from the city of Indians, as many as 200,000 to 300,000 fleeing a city in which they had been the majority. Almost completely spontaneous and unorganized, the refugee exodus from Burma during the subsequent months totaled about 500,000, again mostly Indians, who had to endure terrible conditions entering India through the mountains and jungles of Assam and while in Burmese territory were frequently attacked by anti-Indian locals. Of the half a million, an estimated 80,000 died. Being censored by the colonial authorities, war correspondents could not report in details on the social breakdown, which also included widespread crime and looting, but in the books most of them wrote between 1942 and 1945, they were able to voice criticism of the inglorious end of British authority more frankly: for example, Jack Belden’s Retreat with Stilwell (Knopf, 1943). These books, which also include George Rodger’s Red Moon Rising  (Cresset Press, 1943) and Leland Stowe’s They Shall not Sleep (Knopf, 1944) provided vivid, more accurate and more considered views of the first six months of war in Burma than their (usually censored) stories from the front. Woods concludes that the war correspondents ‘were well in advance of politicians in seeing that the days of empire in Southeast Asia were numbered, and that the only way to win the support of local populations for the war effort was to recognize this and promise future self-government’ (p. 146).

The value of this book lies not in its presentation of new ideas about this crucial period in Burmese history but in providing a fuller and more interesting picture of what we already know; it also presents us with the problem of ‘fake news’, which in times of chaos and uncertainty seems to become especially severe. Like the blind men and the elephant, even those journalists who chose to challenge the British censorship regime were deprived of a comprehensive view that could approach objectivity, although they were able to correct this to some extent in their later works.