The Debatable Land #12: Whose war and whose victory?
The Second World War still casts shadows all across the world.
Apologies for last week’s interruption in service. But, here we are with the latest edition of my newsletter and subscribers will receive an additional edition at some as-yet-undetermined point to make up for last week’s missing edition. In the meantime, as always, if you enjoy the newsletter it would be very nice if you shared it with other people. Such things are more useful than you might imagine. Anyway…
Last month Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, announced that as part of commemorations celebrating the 75th anniversary of Indian independence a monumental statue of Subhas Chandra Bose will soon be erected at India Gate in Delhi. It will be erected on a plinth empty since a statue of George V was removed in 1968. According to Modi:
“It was unfortunate that after independence, efforts were made to erase the contribution of several great personalities, along with the culture and heritage of the country.
[…] Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose gave India the confidence to achieve an independent and prosperous country. With great pride, self-confidence and courage, he told the British that I will not take independence as alms, I will achieve it. He was the person who established the first independent government on Indian soil.”
This refers to the Azad Hind provisional government Bose was granted leave to establish in Singapore in 1943 and which later exercised modest jurisdiction over the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal. It is a reminder that the past is not history; it isn’t even over.
And also, of course, that even a global conflict such as the Second World War is also an intensely local experience. We are so thoroughly attuned to the pleasing moral simplicity of Britain’s own wartime experience it is easy to overlook the extent to which other people’s starting points were wildly different from our own.
Opportunity is opportunity even if it might not be an ideal choice and the question of how to pick or rank enemies necessarily required a triage process for many people in many parts of the world. Double-standards abounded to the extent they were impossible to avoid. Thus Britain fought a war for “democracy” in Europe while insisting its imperial possessions in the East should be exempted from the conclusions which flowed from that stance. The Americans, in particular, noted this even if they turned a conveniently blind eye to their own imperial pretensions.
In India, then, the war was both someone else’s fight and a strange kind of opportunity. Bose, a socialist and nationalist, was briefly imprisoned by the British for his generally seditious activities but, upon his release in 1941, fled to Nazi Germany via the Soviet Union. There he imagined Hitler might offer useful support for the Indian independence movement and founded the Indian Legion, largely formed from prisoners of war captured in North Africa. First attached to the Wehrmacht, it was later transferred to SS control.
But Germany, Bose soon realised, had neither much interest nor many means of helping India’s nationalists. In 1943 a German submarine took him to the Indian ocean where he was transferred to a Japanese boat. Thereafter, Bose assumed command of the Indian National Army - as with the legion, chiefly formed from prisoners captured during the Japanese advance through Malaya and Burma - which fought alongside - well, for, really - the imperial Japanese army. “The first drop of blood shed on Indian soil must be that of a soldier of the INA” Bose declared (characteristically), confident - or so he told the Japanese - that even a modest incursion into Assam would spark a fire which would rage across all India. The reality was rather different: of the 6,000 INA soldiers who fought at Imphal in 1944 - with Kohima, the decisive battle in the Burma campaign - 400 were killed in battle, 1,500 perished form disease, 800 surrendered and 700 either deserted or were captured. Liberation would have to wait and come from elsewhere.
Still, Modi’s determination to commemorate Bose is a further reminder that if the soldiers of General Bill Slim’s 14th Army complained of being forgotten in Britain they have been still more thoroughly wiped from history in India. Nationalists, though, must always simplify history for otherwise it may prove too crooked to be useful.
For I suppose it might be thought inconvenient that so many Indians served - albeit for a variety of reasons - in the colours of their erstwhile imperial masters. Slim’s victory was really an Indian victory: of the 600,000 land forces under SEAC (South East Asia Command) in 1945, 500,000 were Indian and just 60,000 British (there were also almost 40,000 troops from East and West Africa as well as a smattering of British Chinese soldiers.) Hence, I suspect, Modi’s evident preference for the clarity of Bose’s opposition to British rule and his discomfort with the equivocal reality of the Indians who actually did the overwhelming majority of the Indian fighting during the war.
It is always tempting to consider my enemy’s enemy my own enemy. Gandhi never truly understood the reality of the Axis powers. In 1940 he suggested the Nazis be fought “without arms”. Two years later, following the humiliations of Singapore and Burma, he judged that the Allies could not win the war. The ensuing “Quit India” campaign prompted the harshest crackdown since the Mutiny a century before, further undermining - to dispassionate observers anyway - British legitimacy on the sub-continent.
By then, however, sensible - or perhaps, sensitive - British observers knew the game was up anyway. A war for liberty could not help but count imperial possessions amongst its casualties. The terms and conditions under which India might achieve independence had long been a matter of dispute; the war ensured this was only detail for the destination became obvious. By its end, Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the Indian army from 1941 onwards, advised that “No Indian officer must be regarded as suspect and disloyal merely because he is what is called a nationalist”. Indeed, every Indian officer “worth his salt” was a nationalist.
So if many Indians joined the army for material guarantees - food, pay - others appreciated that the army was a vehicle towards a new kind of India too. Old British attitudes about so-called “martial races” - Sikhs, Pathans and so on - were dismantled as the need for manpower compelled the enlistment of peoples from all across India. By the war’s end half the 8,000 officers in the Indian Army were Indian. This included a number of lieutenant colonels and three brigadiers. 22 Victoria and George Crosses were won by Indians.
Some Indian leaders certainly appreciated the opportunity afforded by the war. Jinnah - later Pakistan’s first leader - reached for his Nelson: “Islam expects every Mussalman to do his duty by his people and by his nation”. Jinnah’s vision of the future was necessarily very different from Gandhi’s but he was hardly the only nationalist to appreciate that, whatever the realities of the Raj, the Japanese threat was of a different complexion. For a good number of Indians under arms, the war was part of building a new and future kind of India. (That meant Indians were happy to fight the Japanese - as they did with great distinction - but less prepared to enforce public order at home.)
Winston Churchill’s views on India remained wholly - and to modern ears, revoltingly - unreconstructed. Having developed a distaste for Indians while serving as a subaltern on the Northwest Frontier in the 1890s, he never developed. Leo Amery, India Secretary, observed that Churchill was “a strange combination of great and small qualities… He is really not quite normal on the subject of India”. The prime minister bitterly opposed any proposal to grant Indian officers disciplinary powers over British soldiers, railing against “the humiliation of being ordered about by a brown man”. As with his indifference - to put it more kindly than might be fair - to the Bengal Famine in 1943 (there was a shortage of shipping to bring in additional food supplies; much more could and should have been done sooner), Churchill’s Indian blindspot was as great as Gandhi’s soft-headed suggestion Britain allow the Nazis to win the war.
The Burma campaign never interested Churchill, who saw it as a distraction from the real business of defeating Germany. To the extent it mattered, it did so because of American commitments to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese nationalists. But Churchill also appreciated that India was a touchy subject, given Roosevelt’s hostility to european imperialism. (Slim’s great victories in 1944-45 scarcely warrant a mention in Churchill’s memoirs and it is hard to avoid the thought this absence must have been influenced by the fact these were triumphs won by an overwhelmingly brown army).
Even midway through the war others knew better. A 1943 pamphlet entitled “British Way and Purpose” and used in classes by the Royal Army Educational Corps, stressed that:
We no longer regard the Colonial Empire as a ‘possession’, but as a trust or responsibility. ‘Imperialism’ in the less reputable sense of that term is dead: there is obviously no room for it in the British Commonwealth of equal nations., and it has been superseded by the principle of trusteeship for Colonial peoples… The conception of trusteeship is already passing into the more active one of partnership… Self-government is better than good government.
Not everyone agreed with this and its practical application was in any case at best uneven but the significance lies in such heresies receiving official endorsement at all.
All of which is to say that, yes, of course it is complicated. Men fought in their millions for many different reasons and with many different ideas for their futures. From Dresden and the Tokyo firestorms to the Bengal Famine (not a military crime but a collateral one nonetheless) Allied hands were not as clean as we subsequently prefer to think but this was a world of dirty hands and even figures as otherwise saintly as Gandhi were not left untouched by the realities of world war.
For Britain, though, it would be no bad thing to remember more of this history more honestly. I have long thought there an unstoppable case for a series of Museums of Empire - London, Glasgow, Belfast, Bristol and Liverpool - that would tell the story of Britain Abroad in all its blood and grey. Not to condemn and not to defend either, but merely to note that this is how it was, when it was, and where it was. There is no need to be afraid of a past for which those of us alive now were not responsible. It was what it was.
Still, there are always opportunities to make up for past oversights. Although a memorial in London commemorating the Indian Army’s mighty contribution to Japan’s defeat in Burma was approved long ago, it was never built. It would be a useful, if minor, gesture to correct that lacuna.
India’s part in the war - which also included the manufacturing of vast amounts of clothing and material for other theatres - should also be recalled whenever anyone talks of Britain “standing alone”. Largely true, in part, in Europe (though even that omits the contributions of Czech and Polish pilots); demonstrable nonsense everywhere else. The Japanese were defeated in Burma by Indians. In the judgement of the historian Robert Lyman*, the Indian Army’s achievements, the army which defeated Japanese attempts to invade India in 1944 and destroyed the Japanese in Burma in 1945:
…demonstrated not merely India’s military prowess, but its political and civic maturity, a counter to the (British) lie that India was incapable of self-government, and the (Indian) lie that the Indian Army was mere tool of the Raj. In a very real sense, Britain’s failure to defend its empire in 1942 was assuaged by India’s ability to win it back, not for Britain, but for India, in 1945.
I think that reasonable even if it allows Britain to bathe in a kind of reflected altruism of a sort more easily seen - or constructed - after the event than was the case at the time. There is a tendency, sometimes, to compensate for what modernity considers the sins of Empire by congratulating Britain on the (still, uneven) means and ease by which the Empire was let go. Nevertheless, there is something to it anyway. History is odd and rocky and meandering and if British politicians - and the British people - would benefit from knowing their own history a little better, they are hardly the only people of whom that could be said. For while a history of too-benign omission may be aggravating, it is not so dangerous as a false history of the kind Narendra Modi appears determined to construct.
*I commend his War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain, 1941-45 to anyone with an interest in this subject.
The Bearable Lightness of Being
Something to make you think:
If all 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history were to be condensed into a single day and played out, more than three million years of footage would go by every second. We would see ecosystems rapidly rise and fall as the species that constitute their living parts appear and become extinct. We would see continents drift, climatic conditions change in a blink, and sudden, dramatic events overturn long-lived communities with devastating consequences. The mass extinction event that extinguished pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and all non-bird dinosaurs would occur 21 seconds before the end. Written human history would begin in the last two thousandths of a second.
That’s from Otherlands: A World in the Making by Thomas Halliday which I heartily recommend.
There is something awesome - in the sense of daunting - about the mind-boggling depth of deep time. And time future is just as incomprehensible: the earth may be approaching the half-way point of its existence. That is, it may only have another five billion years to go before the sun’s destruction irrevocably destroys much of our solar system too.
But there is consolation here too. Our lives, our civilisation, even our species, are of the utmost insignificance when considered in these terms. If we register at all, it is only briefly. In a truly real sense, nothing matters for all this, too, will pass.
From which it might also be concluded that there is no pressing need to give in to hysteria. Climate change, for instance, is a real problem which should be tackled for its own sake but without, perhaps, succumbing to the increasingly popular view failing to do so will mean - literally! - the end of the planet as a habitable environment. Left unchecked - though we are already doing plenty, if still not quite enough, to check it - the world will become a much less pleasant place for humans and its current flora and fauna but it will not be threatened in any true historical sense.
The message of the Oscar-nominated movie “Don’t Look Up” - in which a comet on a collision course with earth is a heavy-handed metaphor for the impending threat posed by climate change - is not actually what it thinks it is. We have time - not as much as we may need, admittedly, given the current rate of progress but some time nonetheless - to address climate change. We might, however, be more keenly aware of the planet-changing, life-extinguishing, possibilities of, say, a comet or large asteroid crashing into earth. That is a real extinction-level threat of a kind the planet has endured before.
All we are saying is Get Over Yourself
Meanwhile, establishing Britain’s modern position in the global pecking order - at least when it comes to power politics - ought not to be a very difficult business. This is a country at the bottom end of the top division - if we may put it in such terms - but at the upper end of the European league. That means pretensions to outsized influence are foolish but it is equally odd to pretend this is a country shorn of all clout.
As the crisis in Ukraine rumbles on it has not been difficult to find people who are, fundamentally, unable to disentangle their dislike of Boris Johnson and Brexit from the realities of the situation confronting the west right now. Thus, look and laugh at Liz Truss as the foreign secretary is given a dressing down by her ghastly Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Thus, make highly dubious but knowing and oh-so-clever claims that Britain’s activity in the east is yet another “dead cat” (are there any living ones left?) designed to distract attention from the prime minister’s wholly-deserved, self-inflicted, domestic woes. Thus, throw hands into the air and express the view that it’s all absurd anyway since there is little this country can do. Enough of all the pretending we count or could influence anything. Better, much better, to finally accept - at long bleedin’ last - this is a washed-up, ghastly, little country with inflated views of its own significance that should have been buried decades ago. Who the hell do we think we are?
Well, blah, blah, blah. Those who bleat on about Britain’s inflated sense of itself may from time to time stumble upon a point. But it is often a myopic view nonetheless. A quick look at France suffices to demonstrate there is nothing exceptional about so-called British exceptionalism. Have the #FBPE crowd ever seen Macron/Sarkozy/Hollande/Chirac/Mitterand? Perhaps not.
And in any case the government has - prudently - made no extravagant claims for British influence in this crisis. What it can do, however, is play a part in rallying opinion in other capitals, reassuring friends and allies that this country takes their security seriously, and doing what can be done to present as united front as may be constructed. That is not nothing; it is, in fact, the kind of diplomatic effort you might wish the government to pursue. It it not, whatever far-left goons claim, a demand for war in Europe. On the contrary, it is an attempt to avoid war.
Then again, even if you have a low opinion of this government (I do) and even if you think its foreign policy too influenced by some vague post-imperial delusions (I think it more complicated than that), you find yourself struck on these rocks: at something more than a gestural level, foreign policy has been one of this government’s stronger areas.
That's not just a matter of Ukraine. It’s also about Hong Kong. As a party to an agreement being broken by China, Britain has an interest in - and perhaps even a responsibility - to Hong Kong. The decision to allow hundreds of thousands - and possibly even millions - of Hongkongers to come to Britain should they wish to (subject, yes, to detail, fees, etc) is motivated by any number of factors but it is, I think, a shining moment for an otherwise dubious ministry.
Have Britain’s diplomatic efforts in the European arena been hampered by leaving the EU? Perhaps. But, you know, eventually you have to get over that and get with reality as it is now, not how you might prefer it to be.
As for Ukraine, it still seems to me that Putin is, in poker terms, pot-committed to acting for the loss of face should he withdraw threatens to be worse (for him, not for Russia) than the alternative of seizing history which is, in any case, a fundamentally attractive proposition for him. And that is before you consider whether he really wants to attack Ukraine and I assume he does, not least because he has attacked Ukraine before.
Behold, a chart which tells you most of what you need to know about the underlying reality of Scotland’s argument over its future.
This is taken from a pleasingly clear piece by David Phillips, published by Economics Observatory. Note how Scotland’s fiscal balance was broadly the same as the UK’s between 2007-08 and 2011-12. Note too how it has, relatively speaking, sharply deteriorated since then. The economic argument for independence is harder to sustain than it was unless, as is not actually the case, those making it are prepared to acknowledge the pain - worthwhile or not - independence would require as a short to medium term reality.
Back in the sun-splashed days of 2014, of course, the SNP argued that independence offered Scotland a richer future than maintaining the constitutional status quo. The GERS - Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland - numbers more or less “proved” as much. Back then, these were “gold standard” figures, the closest approximation we could have to where an independent Scotland would start from. They were “gold standard” numbers because, thanks in part to oil revenues, they showed Scotland and the UK more or less in synch.
Now the numbers tells a very different story and so the meaning of the numbers must be changed. If they are the best available, they are only a miserably rough estimate of where we might stand. They tell us nothing about how or where an independent Scotland would go. They may safely be discounted as an irrelevance. The bigger picture is more complicated and nuanced and, really, who can tell anyway?
This is the nationalist view, anyway, and one heard with increasing frequency. GERS is rubbish. The Scottish government’s own official statistics - independently monitored and approved - cannot be trusted. Everything will be fine and independence creates five million winners and no losers.
This is a lie and the numbers are not fake and they impose obvious consequences that cannot be avoided forever. The alternative is a kind of “post-truth” politics desperately predicated upon the proposition that was is obviously real must actually be suspect.
But, there we are: if you ever wondered why figures that were once used to show how independence would be easy now tell us nothing at all the chart here offers all the explanation you need. Something worth remembering and, when necessary, pointing out too.
Seems like something which might, one day, be considered a significant breakthrough? “A 24-year-old nuclear-fusion record has crumbled. Scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford, UK, announced on 9 February that they had generated the highest-ever sustained energy from fusing together atoms, more than doubling their own record from experiments performed in 1997.” [Nature]
Duncan Robinson brings some straight-talk: “Mr Johnson remains in office because Tory mps think he has a unique ability to win over places that never voted Conservative before 2019. In fact, Mr Johnson’s personal ratings in these “red wall” seats were lower than Mrs May’s in 2017. Dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir’s far-left predecessor, rather than love of Mr Johnson handed the Conservatives victory. Mr Johnson stays in power despite wretched ratings thanks to the endurance of that myth. He owes his job to the will of Westminster, not the will of the people.” [Economist]
“My Readers though, have not been hired as literary people. They are there to help create a book that would play better on Twitter, not one that is better written. For example, they like my liberal conclusions to chapters so they recommend I put them as introductions. I should eliminate journeys of thought across chapters, ambiguity from paragraphs, and nuance from sentences. Love, they assure me, is never expressed with shadows.” Kate Clanchy is forced to have her prize-winning memoir reassessed by “Sensitivity Readers”. What follows is an intimation of a culture suffocating itself. [Unherd]
Ed Conway with a long but fascinating journey through Britain’s efforts to become an electric battery world leader. [Sky News]
In Ye Olden Days when The Anglo-Scots Frontier was at its brightest, “Jethart Justice” referred to the practice of hanging a man and then asking him what he was doing there. Fun times. I am surprised, however, to discover Angela Rayner suggesting this should be Labour (and police) policy too. [Guardian]
John Elledge on the joy of Big Jet TV [New Statesman]
A “Vibe Shift” is coming. Are you ready? (I’m not.) [The Cut]
Orson Welles - complete with huge stogie - on Parkinson in 1974. A cliché, doubtless, to say they don’t make television like this anymore but, well, they don’t.
That’s all for this week, folks. As I say, there will be a bonus edition of The Debatable Land winging its way to you soon enough, the better to make up for last week’s tardiness. As always, those of you who share this with other peeps are righteous souls and those who upgrade their subscription are assured their place in heaven (whatever that might be).
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