Nations in the Balance
The India-Burma Campaigns, December 1943–August 1944
Christopher L. Kolakowski
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2022, 240 pages
Book Review published on: November 18, 2022
For many readers, World War II’s China-Burma-India (CBI) theater may be the least well known, especially when compared to Europe, the Mediterranean/North Africa, and Pacific areas of operation. Given the Allies’ grand strategy of “Germany first,” in many ways the CBI was an economy of force theater; resources and considerations here were almost always subordinated to priorities in theaters more proximate to the overarching goal of defeating Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and mainland Europe. A new book by Christopher Kolakowski provides depth and nuance to this perspective and shows that knowledge of what happened in the CBI theater is critical to an understanding of postwar Asia, and that the CBI was rife with complexity at all levels of war—strategic, operational, and tactical. Nations in the Balance: The India-Burma Campaigns, December 1943–August 1944, with its focus on the initial Allied campaigns to wrest Burma from its Japanese occupiers, provides a concise yet comprehensive review of this somewhat marginalized theater that will reward its readers with a new depth of understanding of the CBI’s relevance and significance to the Allied conduct of World War II.
Nations in the Balance is a relatively concise work of 240 pages consisting of nine chapters. While impossible to cover all its details in a short review, perhaps it is best to make a few overarching observations regarding the book. From the strategic viewpoint, Kolakowski effectively sets the context in his first chapter, which shares the same name as the book’s title. He describes the multiple complexities present in the theater. For example, the British faced a strong nationalistic challenge from factions within India that were somewhat ambivalent to the threat posed by the Japanese army poised along its border with Burma. At the same time, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China—another member of the alliance—confronted an insurgency led by Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. This volatile mix contributed to competing interests among the allies; as an example, the United States prioritized a strong relationship with China and its continuing support in the war against Japan, while the British were concerned with liberating lost territory in Burma, Malaya, and Singapore. These differences clearly impacted the conduct of war by the theater and operational level commanders in the CBI. Additionally, for the Allies, the CBI region was only one of multiple theaters, and certainly not the most important. Hence, the allied heads of state as well as their combined chiefs of staff (CCS) had to balance shifting priorities among the Mediterranean, European, and Pacific theaters, which meant that the CBI leadership had to operate on shoestring budgets, with very limited resources, and rely heavily on multinational forces, particularly from China and India. These factors in their totality made for a difficult theater compounded by complex command relationships, a culturally diverse fighting force, and consequences that would determine the fate of the region in the postwar environment. Kolakowski clearly communicates these challenges both initially and throughout the book.
Next, at the operational level of war, the author very effectively synthesizes the initial campaigns designed to meet the limited objectives the allied high command determined based on competing priorities in multiple theaters. While overall responsibility for the CBI theater—designated Southeast Asia Command—lay with the British and specifically Lord Louis Mountbatten, designing campaigns and conducting operations fell primarily to British Fourteenth Army Commander Lt. Gen. William J. Slim and American Lt. Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, simultaneously commander of U.S. forces in Burma and commander of the Northern Combat Area Command, responsible for combined operations in northern Burma with a force consisting largely of Chinese national troops. Nations in the Balance pits Slim and Stilwell against their Japanese counterparts—primarily the 15th Army led by Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi and elements of the 33rd Army under Lt. Gen. Honda Masaki—both part of the Japanese Burma Area Army. Most of the action in Nations in the Balance centers on a nine-month period of decisive combat, which the author argues is the tipping point in the overall war for Burma. Kolakowski masterfully portrays the major strokes and counterstrokes between these protagonists, including Slim’s advances into the Arakan region in Southern Burma and along the central front in the Assam region of India, Stilwell’s bold penetration to seize the key enemy airfield at Myitkyina in northern Burma, and Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate’s long-range airborne operations to support Stilwell. Of course, the Japanese did not let these moves go unimpeded and had grand designs of their own. For example, Mutaguchi’s forces made a diversionary attack into the Arakan, while mounting a major offensive—U-Go—with its ambitious objectives of quickly defeating British resistance and driving all the way to Delhi, India’s capital. Similarly, the Japanese quickly reacted to the incursions by Stilwell and Wingate, putting up a stiff and determined resistance. The author is not only effective in describing these operations but also equally adept at describing the tactical actions by the subordinate corps and divisions on both sides. Making use of firsthand narratives and observations from Allied as well as Japanese combatants, Kolakowski depicts the horrors of war that is gritty and visceral.
Perhaps Nations in the Balance’s greatest contribution is to broaden and deepen one’s perspective of the CBI theater, particularly if it an American one. For example, U.S. readers may be puzzled when the author states, “Today, Britain remembers Imphal and Kohima jointly as its greatest land battle of all time.”1 Thus, these major engagements fought in north-central India by Slim’s Fourteenth Army and its Fourth Corps—a force composed largely of Indian troops—remain a source of historical pride for the armies of both nations. Imphal-Kohima also signaled the destruction of Mutaguchi’s 15th Army, arguably the adversary center of gravity at the operational level of war. Despite the obvious importance of the battle of Imphal-Kohima, Viscount Slim actually considered the Arakan battle that preceded it as “one of the historic successes of British arms” as well as “the turning-point of the Burma campaign.”2 For the Americans, the primary ground contribution in the CBI, also covered by the author, was the dramatic seizure of the aforementioned airfield at Myitkyina in northeastern Burma by the small but effective U.S. contingent knows as “Merrill’s Marauders,” technically the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). The author devotes a chapter titled “A Brilliant Feat of Arms” to this event and argues that the fall of the city of Myitkyina marked the end of the decisive period in the CBI—hence the August 1944 end date for the book. While most U.S. readers will be familiar with Merrill’s Marauders, Imphal and Kohima likely do not resonate in the same way. This difference in perspective reflects the importance to the national narrative of the consequences of the battles in question, which is also key to understanding the significance of the CBI theater in the modern context.
While the author never minimizes the importance of the CBI, perhaps out of respect for the allied contributions to the war in Burma, other historical accounts note that the theater’s importance in the grand scheme of things may have been overcome by other events. For example, an Army history of Central Burma states, “But, like the Aleutians, the Asian mainland became a road to nowhere, and the truly decisive battles of the war against Japan were fought elsewhere.”3 Similarly, a West Point history of World War II notes, “The Pacific thrust was definitely the main effort against Japan; Burma and China ranked behind all other theaters.”4 Kolakowski makes no attempt to minimize the importance of the CBI in his epilogue, instead focusing on the importance of the theater to both World War II and its immediate aftermath. Thus, Kolakowski is superb in keeping these historical memories alive.
Finally, Kolakowski adds some additional features that enhance the book’s narrative, including extensive notes, an order of battle for both adversaries, and a list of the major characters appearing in the text, along with their postwar fates. Perhaps the book’s only shortcoming is its length; excluding the sections mentioned above, it numbers only 174 pages. However, despite this, Nations in the Balance, with its clear and concise narrative, serves equally well as a synopsis of the China-Burma-India theater or as an introduction to its issues for additional study and research. The author deftly covers the key considerations of the theater that is immediately accessible to readers at all levels, whether military professionals, graduate, or undergraduate students. Kolakowski reminds us of the high stakes at risk for both Allies and Axis powers in Burma, as well as the heroism and willpower of all the combatants concerned. The book is highly recommended to students of World War II, Southeast Asia, and to those who simply want to broaden their understanding of this lesser-known theater of war.
- Christopher L. Kolakowski, Nations in the Balance: The India-Burma Campaigns, December 1943–August 1944 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022), 174.
- William Slim, Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942–1945 (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 246.
- George L. MacGarrigle, Central Burma, The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.), 22.
- John H. Bradley, “China-Burma-India: The War for East Asia,” in The Second World War: Asia and the Pacific, ed. Thomas E. Griess (Wayne, NJ: Avery, 1984), 219.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas