I agree with the assessment of many of the 5 stare reviews except for one part of this book.
The early parts of this book leading up to China's entry into the Second Sino Japanese War are spot on. I really admire Mr. Mitter for linking the rise of warlordism with the devolution of authority to local commanders during the Taiping Rebellion. Seeing that early on, I was really enjoying the book. I enjoyed it even more when he talked about Chiang Kai Shek's decision to make a stand at Shanghai and force Japan to expand the war.
The early parts of the war are also very well described, detailing the retreat to Wuhan then Chongqing, the few early victories by the Chinese which saved morale and about how outclassed the Chinese army was in terms of training, material and leadership. It even details the failed 1939 offensive by the Chinese which is little known nowadays.
The problem is that, once Stilwell is introduced, Mitter disregards objectivity and starts to denigrate Stilwell's ideas while giving an uncritical eye to his opponents. (People like Chiang Kai Shek and Chennault are criticized but never in a situation where their views differed from Stilwell's)
I noticed the trend early. There's a character assassination by omission when Mitter writes about Stilwell being ordered to China. Mitter writes, "Stilwell had no previous direct experience of Generalship, but he had a powerful friend in George C. Marshall."
I can't help feeling that this is designed to make Stilwell seem incompetent in the eyes of the reader. It's also disingenuous entirely. Stilwell was a veteran of WW1, had served many tours in China, was promoted to brigadier general in 1939, had done fantastically well as a corps commander in exercises in 1941 and was supposed to lead the Operation Torch Landings before being sent to China. Mitter seems to be saying that Stilwell had no previous direct combat experience as a general, but then again neither did Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur or most other US generals at the time. The last US war was 22 years previous and they had all been junior officers then.
But fair enough, compared to Chiang Kai Shek and a lot of Chinese generals, most Americans were much more inexperienced.
Mitter then lays the decision to defend Burma and fail at Stilwell's feet and lauds Chiang Kai Shek going around Stilwell to order a division to retreat from Tounguo. The problem is that this circumventing of the chain of command by Chiang Kai Shek is portrayed as a lone heroic gesture to save troops from a subordinate's own stupidity. But Mitter ignores that this was a consistent pattern by Chiang Kai Shek that undermined initiative in his armies across the board throughout the war. Instead, Stilwell's complaint about being ignored in the chain is treated as unjustifiable bellyaching by a subordinate to commander who had just saved him. I was disappointed that this what was a common pattern by Chiang Kai Shek was portrayed as an extraordinary measure used at great reluctance Essentially, Mitter is really not willing to have Stilwell and Chiang be wrong at the same time.
I don't actually object to Mitter characterizing the decision for a forward defense of Burma to be Stilwell's folly. I also agree with the charge that he left his troops and his commander and ran to India on foot when he should have flown out so he could do his job. That's completely fair.
In his evaluation of the Burma campaign, Mitter puts an unmistakable tone of blame in this passage "Throughout the war, Stilwell would retain control over Lend Lease assigned to China, diverting much of it to projects which he favored, and exacerbating tensions that would corrode the alliance with the nationalists."
What were these projects? We're told about one of them dozens of pages later when it's attached to Stilwell's successor and written in such a way to make it sound like nothing had been accomplished. The use of the word "diverted" implies that there was an intended use that wasn't being done and that it exacerbated tensions. We as readers should be told and let us evaluate the policy disagreements but we aren't.
The fact that the Stilwell managed and trained X force and Y force would be miles ahead in terms of competence, equipment, and esprit de corps than the rest of China's armies is barely mentioned later as being only due to the American supplies and "drilling." The administrative reforms in command, payment, supply and training that Stilwell put in are not discussed. (For example, Mitter later points out the damaging practice of giving the commanding officers the payroll for their soldiers as a lump sum and the way this was abused as a matter of course. The fact that this practice was successfully banned in the divisions under Stilwell's control is not mentioned.)
Mitter never gives us any official policy differences between Chiang and Stilwell besides in the broadest strategic sense (Invade Burma or not) and their personal antipathy for one another. The reader is never introduced to the plan to shrink the Chinese army to smaller but better equipped divisions or why Chiang might find this objectionable or impractical. There were valid arguments on both sides of that discussion but Mitter doesn't want to explore them.
Another unwarranted shot on Stillwell happens when Mitter makes the accusation that the allies did not understand how impoverished and combat incapable the Chinese had become by mid 1942.
"The armies were diseased, poorly motivated, and hungry, and, without significant grain supplies coming from British India, grain requisitioning was essential. Otherwise, the large Nationalist standing army could not have existed at all. General Stilwell complained that China was doing little fighting against Japan in China, but this complaint is misleading for several reasons."
The author with this passage make Stilwell look like a WW2 Marie Antoinette, saying to the starving masses of the soldiers, "Let them attack the Japanese," clueless to how badly the army had deteriorated. While ignorance about the plight of the Nationalist armies was indeed held by many Americans and Mitter makes that point loudly as he should, Stilwell was not not one of them. He knew how badly supplied and fed the armies were and was constantly fighting Chiang over wanting to restructure the army. But Mitter avoids that whole debate and places the sentence about Stilwell in a location designed to make him look bad.
It's just petty.
Things that are obviously idiotic said by Stilwell's rivals are not given critical evaluation. Here is an egregious example,
"Wendell Wilkie asked to meet with Chennault, who wrote down for the visitor what he claimed he needed for victory in China and then the Pacific: 105 fighters and 42 bombers, which would enable him to win the war from the air. The letter was quickly dismissed by Marshall back in Washington, but he suggested Stilwell that he should try and mend his relationship with his American rival."
This is in 1943. The Battle of Britain, where 2000+ German aircraft had not been able to defeat Britain had already happened. Mitter even spent a great deal of time describing the massive bombing of Chinese cities by the Japanese from 1937 onwards. Japan had far more than 147 planes and they hadn't been able to defeat China for 6 years and this is including having massive ground superiority. But Mitter treats the air war from China as being a credible strategy for defeating Japan that Stilwell should not have been hostile to.
He mentions the tensions between Stilwell and Chennault but never talks about how the supplies for the air campaign used up precious hump tonnage that could have been diverted to ground forces, i.e. the central policy disagreement between Chennault and Stilwell. Furthermore, he makes no mention of Stilwell's fear that if an air campaign from China becomes effective while the ground forces don't the Japanese will be able to destroy the airfields with impunity. Which is exactly the Japanese rationale for launching I-chi-go after 3 years of relatively static frontlines.
The reconquest of Burma in early 1944 is talked about but no mention of why X and Y force performed well in the assault besides this sentence "The troops in India were well drilled and also benefited from information provided by Chinese divisions stationed in India." (The double mention of India is in the original.) It wouldn't do for the "Stilwell, wrong all the time" thesis if the Chinese troops are successful because of his reforms. Instead it's portrayed as a diversion of valuable resources from fighting I Chi Go. This is where the author assumes that the reader doesn't know Chinese geography. Mitter writes about the beginning of the Japanese assault, "At the same time, some of the best Chinese armies that remained, including the Yunnan based Y force were thousands of kilometers away in Burma."
Mitter is using the phrasing to get the reader to ask why the forces were so far away in Burma when they could have been as close as Yunnan. Except the assault started in Henan, which is 1,700 km away from Burma. "Wow, Mitter, if only those troops could have been in Yunnan, they'd be able to stop those Japanese. He's right, Yunnan is so much closer to Henan only 1,400 km away practically right there. It would be like writing, "While New York was being invaded, the Texas based 4th division was thousands of kilometers away in Mexico." Except the United states was country with a developed rail and road network.
In all of the book, diary excerpts are used to show how often Stilwell thought he was right or believed that Chiang was incompetent. Mitter also shows diary excerpts about how shocked Chiang was by this disrespect.
The problem is that Mitter is trying to make the reader disapprove of Stilwell's assessment of Chiang, but he is undone by the rest of the book. Read it through, Mitter doesn't detail any great feats in generalship against Japan by Chiang himself. He points out battles won by subordinates who Chiang distrusted and tries to hamper like the defense of Changsha and Hengyang by Xue Yue. Stilwell's refusal to send supplies to Hengyang is also brought up and it's indeed a shameful episode for him, but in the same 3 pages Mitter details how Chiang refused to send further support for a long time as well.
The epilogue wraps up to quickly and avoids describing Chiang Kai Shek when the Americans are not around as much as possible. An exploration of the Civil War may be a good time to see if Chiang Kai Shek was a good commander. But Mitter phrases it like this, "Yet the Civil War went badly for the Nationalists, in larger part because of Chiang Kai Shek's judgements. During the war against Japan, Chiang had played an appallingly bad hand rather much better than might have been expected. During the Civil War, his judgement seems to have deserted him."
Mitter is trying to imply that Chiang Kai Shek was a good commander on an operational level all throughout the War with Japan and that the complete botch of the Civil War was somehow a break in the pattern. But he forgets that he hasn't shown any great feats of generalship on Chiang's part so how can he say that the Civil War breaks the pattern Mitter lays the loss on the basic decision to extend into the Northeast, not on Chiang Kai Shek sending the 8 Stilwell trained divisions there, minus their commanders who had fought brilliantly in Burma and knew how to command troops on an offensive. Even with this, Mitter says that Marshall also supported it as a way to make sure this decision doesn't make Chiang look wrong by himself.
Earlier in the book, there is seeming shock at Stilwell's description of Chiang as corrupt, dictatorial and incompetent. But in the epilogue, there is no discussion of Chiang's life on Taiwan post 1949. No mention of him leading a one party dictatorship, no mention of the white terror, no mention of the endemic corruption that persisted. No mention that he imprisoned Sun Li Ren, the general who lead the Burma campaign in 1955. Taiwan was much better than the mainland but that was a pretty low bar in the 50's and 60's and 70's.
He gushes about the ROC's reaction to the Beveridge report and universal healthcare and says "look at what might have been." Except we know what would have been since Taiwan didn't get universal healthcare until 1995. (which is still better than the PRC right now) We know a lot about what the ROC would have looked like under Chiang Kai Shek because it did exist in Taiwan for 27 years after the war. Chiang Kai Shek didn't democratize beyond local elections, land reform was carried out, infrastructure was improved but Chiang remained a vain and controlling dictator believing pie in the sky fantasies about retaking the mainland.
I left this book feeling disappointed, the basic premise that the Allies abused China, discounted it, and left it out of later histories is very very true. But the need to discredit Stilwell at every opportunity, undermines that mission. The author tries to say that Stilwell was too mean to Chiang Kai Shek, which is true. Churchill hated Stalin but still new of the importance of keeping his feelings to himself when there's a war on. Something Stilwell didn't. But at the same time Mitter is sort of sweeping under the rug the failures of the regime and complaining about how mean Stilwell was to think these things and not whether what he was thinking was accurate.
I recommend it, but only if you've read another book about the period.