Having authored several important journal articles on the culture and structure of imperial soldiering in 1940s India, Tarak Barkawi, one of a number of historians currently producing provocative and incisive work on the Second World War in South Asia, has now provided a larger assessment of the British Indian Army in wartime. Soldiers of Empire looks to sociology, cultural anthropology and military history to examine first why a force made up largely of Indian soldiers (most notably William Slim’s famous 14th Army, fought for a colonial power, and then how it was that they eventually fought so well after 1943 in driving the Japanese out of Burma). In examining these questions, Barkawi also offers an interesting argument as to soldiers’ motivations generally in war, finding the impetus to fight, and to keep fighting, not in national or racial ideology, but in the universal, or what he terms the ‘cosmopolitan’, experience of military service and practice. Barkawi breaks his analysis into three parts. He looks at the theory and practice of colonial soldiering, at how and why a colonial army fought to defend an oppressive regime, and at some of the larger implications of these findings. In the first part, he emphasizes how the war disrupted colonial ideas about structuring a military around discrete groups of approved ‘martial’ peoples, like Punjabi Sikhs, Jats or Gurkhas. As he points out, such an alignment was never as natural as its architects imagined, and thus was ultimately adaptable when war forced the rapid expansion of the army and the incorporation of soldiers from groups previously deemed unfit. The so-called ‘chapatti company’ of the ninth Jat regiment mixed Hindus and Muslims, Punjabis and Rangars, and fought effectively and cohesively at Imphal, for example (pp. 52–4). The older idea that ethnic or religious unity would provide for unit cohesion and ‘fighting spirit’ no longer seemed justified. Why then did these soldiers fight, and how did they end up fighting so well? For Barkawi, the answers to these questions seem intertwined and point to new understanding of soldiers’ motivations. India in the 1940s saw a resurgence of nationalist mass action, catastrophic famine and the implosion of imperial prestige, all of which soldiers could not help but notice. Yet they fought on. Barkawi cites the economic benefits of service for rural Indians especially, as well as the conviction of Indian officers that defeating Japan would strengthen the case for Indian independence. When Indians abandoned the colonial army, as in the case of those who joined S. C. Bose’s Indian National Army, they did so because the Indian Army had deserted them. It was an act of rational calculation and self-preservation above all. Self-interest and future political gain are not enough though to explain why Indians fought in harsh conditions, after significant defeats, and within a rigorous army hierarchy, according to Barkawi. Nor did fighting for the ‘nation’ apply in the Indian case, given that this was a colonial army. In fact, Barkawi argues that military historians, working almost entirely in a Western or European context have overemphasized ‘nationalism, ideology and racism’ as motivations for soldiers (p. 10). He posits instead that war ‘exceeds politics’ (p. 119), and that the Indian experience shows that soldiers there, and by extension soldiers everywhere, fought for more prosaic reasons. Western-centred explanations of what makes men fight should not be read as universal explanations; nor perhaps ought they even apply unquestioned to Western experiences themselves (p. 3). Drawing on the theoretical work of both Foucault and Durkheim, Barkawi focuses on the imposition of battle drill and fighting discipline, and on the importance of these practices for instilling solidarity, motivation and a willingness to sacrifice among troops. Drill, whether in battlefield simulations or on the training ground square, was ritual, and, in the author’s paraphrase of Durkheim: ‘Rituals produce groups’ (p. 161). In these practices, as well as through the use of signs and symbols (badges, standards, traditions), soldiers gained powerful sense of identity and community, all of which motivated them to fight effectively. This section of the book is necessarily concerned with theory, but it might have focused more on the intersection of theory and experience. There are few references to soldiers embracing ritual or defending regimental identity, though it is evident that theatre commanders took such notions seriously: Orde Wingate’s naming of ‘Chindit’ brigades is one example, while British soldiers’ contempt for the Burma Star as the ‘Chowringee Star’ showed how seriously identity was grounded in symbols. Barkawi concludes by further reinforcing his argument about universal experiences and motivations for soldiers, focusing on how participants drew on racial or ideological rationales for their actions in the aftermath of combat, not before or even during it. He also compares Allied interpretations of Japanese actions, like suicidal charges, with similar acts of headlong attacks by, among others, the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the Arakan in 1943. The similarities between these events demonstrate the universal culture and imperatives of combat; it was only afterwards that these actions were differentiated as reflections of national character: Japanese irrational intransigence versus British courage. Soldiers of Empire deserves a wide audience for the argument it raises, but also for some of the issues it seems to elide. Though it claims coverage of British and Indian soldiers, it spends much more time on the latter, though the argument about soldiers’ motivations might apply to those from Britain itself. Indians might have been more likely to adopt ideas of defending their homeland than those who had just been shipped there. This ambivalence about or even antipathy towards empire among British other ranks was in fact a serious concern among British officials. Barkawi mentions African troops as another example of soldiers fighting for reasons beyond the national or racial. Given that Indian troops were in fact from a place where possible Japanese occupation seemed quite plausible, perhaps these East and West Africans might feature more prominently in an argument about universal motivations. This is overall a stimulating interdisciplinary work, combining theory with sociological and historical expertise, deftly written and provocative in the best sense. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 7, 2017
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