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military history

Horrors of war


In 1998, Antony Beevor published Stalingrad, which created waves in publishing by becoming a bestseller and propelling military history back to fashion. These things happened because Beevor let the voices of civilians and ordinary soldiers, through their diaries and letters, speak with painful intensity about the horror of war and the insignificance of individual lives.

Now, Beevor is back with an overarching military history of WWII. His aim is clear: to connect pieces of the vast jigsaw of a war that was fought from Arctic wastes to the African desert, across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and in the swamp and jungles of Asia. This, he achieves, in glorious detail.

The reason why WWII has spawned such a vast body of research and writing is this: in terms of the magnitude of the conflict, nothing like it had happened before or since. Over 60 million people died in the war, over two-thirds of them civilians. It witnessed unsurpassed acts of barbarity and as Beevor shows, many instances of courage, sacrifice and nobility. At its heart were issues which its main actors considered of civilisational importance and tensions which were imagined to be primordial. So, Japanese war propaganda justified the military's mission as freeing Asian nations from the tyranny of western imperialists. In reality, the Japanese reserved their best behaviour for their western opponents and behaved barbarously with the Chinese, Thais and Burmese. After the fall of Hong Kong, while British women and children were let off relatively lightly, 10, 000 Chinese women were raped and taken away by soldiers to serve as 'comfort women'.

Though refreshingly free of faddish theorising, this book has some important new insights into the war. For example, Beevor locates the beginning of the war not in Poland but a few months earlier, in a corner of the Russia-Mongolia border called Khalkhin Gol. From here, the Japanese were trying to advance into Russia. Stalin sent Grigorii Zhukov to nip this in the bud. Zhukov did this most admirably and changed Japanese war strategy: henceforth they would advance south into Asia and the Pacific, instead of opening a front with Russia.

Though Beevor explores British and American war efforts in detail, at the heart of this big, doorstop-size book is the titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin. Both led authoritarian, deeply militarised societies and the misery each inflicted on the others' people is often too painful to read about.

At some point during the 872-day long siege of Leningrad, the Germans decided to let the inhabitants of the city starve to death. For many Russians, food supplies dropped to as little as 200 calories a day, a tenth of what a person needs to survive. Civilians took the brunt of this, because apart from the Party brass, soldiers got the first priority for rations. Cannibalism became commonplace, with small children being the first victims of neighbours and relatives.

In the bitterness of the Russian winter, as the Germans began their retreat from Moscow, they would rob villagers and old people of their shoes and warm clothes. Beevor comments that it would have been humane to shoot these people at the same time, to save them from an agonising death in the cold.

The only major battle in India, between British and Indian soldiers and the Japanese in Kohima, is described in some detail. Fought nearly hand to hand for around 45 days, it was carnage on both sides. One of the reasons the Japanese fought with such senseless desperation was that their supply lines had thinned. They needed to get to the stock of rice in Kohima.

This is a great book, detailing across a vast canvas, strategy, conflict and the pity of war. It would probably have been an even greater book if Beevor had devoted some space to the industrial, technical and financial apparatus that helped decide the winners and losers.

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