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The underappreciated front

Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 - Rana Mitter

The English-language bibliography of the Second World War is faced with an odd contradiction: while there is no shortage of books about the conflict, there are still not enough of them. This is because for all of the thousands of tomes weighing down the shelves of libraries and bookstores the majority of them are concentrated in a few key areas, namely the war in Europe (particularly in Western Europe) and in the Pacific. Because of this, English-language readers have an often distorted view of the conflict, one that ironically ignores its global nature.

 

In this respect there is no major front in the war that is more under-addressed than the war in China. To be fair there are good reasons for this, such as the language difficulties and the challenges of archival access for some of the major governments involved in it. The lack of attention is inexcusable nevertheless, as many historians have argued that the start of the war that consumed the world can be traced to China, with the outbreak of fighting between units of the Japanese and Nationalist Chinese armies near Beijing in 1937. As a result, people are left with the duality of a lack of understanding about the origins of the most widely written about war in human history, along with an an attending lack of awareness about the course of the fighting in that region and the impact on the postwar world.

 

It is for this reason why Rana Mitter's book is welcome. His study of the war waged in China begins to fill the gap in our understanding by providing a broad survey of events that fits them within the context of modern Chinese history. This allows him to fit the war both within the matrix of China's international relations and the dramatic political and military struggles within China that preceded the outbreak of the war with Japan. While he structures his narrative around the three major leaders of China during the war, his main focus is on Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China. This focus allows Mitter to challenge many Western (primarily American) conceptions of the war in eastern Asia, as he pushes back against the traditional narrative of a corrupt regime incompetently fighting the war by detailing the challenges Chiang faced and the strains of the war upon his his country, noting that by the time Japanese bombs fell on the American ships in Pearl Harbor China had already been at war against Japan for four years and had already lost the most valuable regions of their country to the enemy. Yet despite this Mitter describes the efforts by China to continue their effort, often in the face of indifference from the Western Allies and the outright hostility of their representatives in the country.

Mitter's book is a powerful corrective to our skewed misunderstanding of a key front in the global conflict, one in which hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops were committed throughout the fighting. Yet in many respects it is only a first effort of what is needed. The book reflects Mitter's specialization in Chinese history, and while he addresses the other participants his analysis of American and British strategy is disappointingly narrow considering the enormous amount of material available to him. His coverage of Japan is even more problematic, as his discussion of their political and military decision-making is far more opaque than it needs to be, which creates an imbalanced picture of a nuanced examination of the multi-combatant Chinese and Allied war effort against a monolithic "Japanese" foe.

 

To be fair these criticisms must be set against the scale of Mitter's achievement. He has produced a book that is required reading for anyone who wishes to claim a comprehensive understanding of the Second World War. Yet his book also demonstrates how much work is left to be done in researching and analyzing the war there, which will undoubtedly lead at some point to the epic, nuanced account of the fighting that the war in China truly deserves. Until then, however, we have his illuminating study of a front in the war that remains too underappreciated in our understanding of the conflict as a whole.