The other WWII

23 May

I have been reading yet another WWII memoir. This one is Fighting through to Kohima: A memoir of war in India and Burma by Michael Lowry. It is a great reminder that WWII was not all about direct confrontations between the British, United States, Russians, Germans and Japanese. WWII as rendered by Hollywood often boils down to brave GIs, dastardly German prison guards, wily U-Boat commanders, beastly Japanese, stiff upper lip Brits and a cannon-fodder Red Army. The highly localised nature of this global war is often overlooked.

There are some good ‘home front’ movies, that do something to redress the massive gender imbalance of representations of WWII, but again these tend to concentrate on the perspectives of the principal Atlanticist players: the UK, France, US, and Germany.

Lowry’s memoir is pretty standard fare of WWII memoirs go. It is largely a-historical and unreflective – a narrative of what happened when he was a young man. But his account of his time in North West India – the border country of present day Afghanistan and Pakistan is startling (to me at any rate) for bringing to the fore a forgotten front. The British fought against a continuous Afghan insurgency in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Most of the casualties were ethnic Indian soldiers of the British Army so received little attention in the UK – this was especially the case since the UK was facing its own existential threat from 1940.

There were some fears that various Afghan tribes would ally themselves with the Germans, but the real motivation behind Afghan tribal militancy was unrelated to WWII. Tribal groups were pushing back against Britain’s unfinished state-making process in greater India. They were jockeying for position (as allies or foes of the British and their local proxies) and seeking to maximise rents.

The parallels with today – and the on-going pacification of Afghanistan – are plain. The text echoes the current anti-Taliban counterinsurgency. The British government had ‘political agents’ in the field. In today’s parlance these are stabilisation officers. There was a mis-match of capabilities – the tribes relied on captured and home-made weaponry – the British and their proxies had artillery and an air force. Not unlike the situation today in which the international coalition have drones, spy-planes and all sorts of hi-tech weaponry at their disposal. The weather matters and has a direct impact on the movement of troops and the timing of offensives. The depictions of how local people live are securitised: ‘Most villages and houses in these tribal areas were strongly built with walls some two feet thick … invariably a village would have a watch tower’. In the modern era were have seen a similar securitisation of Afghan housing – with the Taliban having ‘compounds’ – rather than houses. There were collective punishments and house demolitions. While this has not been a much reported feature of the post-2001 wars in Afghanistan, it is clear that entire villages have been destroyed by the US-led coalition.

Lowry’s book is a good reminder that WWII contained multiple insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. It was not all set-piece battles between the principal actors. Modern day Ukraine, Indonesia, Iran, Burma and many other places saw apparently local disputes become part of a much wider conflict. These tend to have been written out of the dominant histories of WWII.

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