Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Bookshelf

Inspired by my fellow blogger Terry Teachout, I thought I would post a few remarks about some books I have been reading lately. Unlike Terry’s selections, these aren’t newly released—but they are for the most part new to me.

• Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (1956): A British officer who rose from the ranks, Slim is practically unknown in the United States, but he was one of the Great Captains of World War II and a far more successful general than his American counterpart in the China-Burma-India theater, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. In fact he defeated more Japanese troops than any other ground commander of the war. His memoirs are generally considered, along with Ulysses Grant’s, to be among the best penned by any general since Caesar.

Great though it is, Defeat Into Victory is not quite as scintillating as the accounts of lower-ranking soldiers who were closer to the action. For my money, the best evocation of the Burma campaign remains The Road Past Mandalay, by John Masters, who served in Slim’s 14th Army but never advanced past brigade commander. The runner-up prize goes to Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser, a novelist who never advanced past corporal.

That said, Slim’s account is infinitely better than the bombastic, unreflective, self-congratulatory, ghost-written memoirs we have come to expect from our own generals. Slim is not afraid to admit when he was scared under fire—he was not one of those commanders who ostentatiously exposed himself to bullets or insisted on rushing to the front of the advance. Nor is he afraid to admit mistakes. Writing about the British retreat from Burma in 1942, he has no excuses to offer. Instead he bluntly writes: “For myself, I had little to be proud of; I could not rate my generalship high. The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted.”

There are also flashes of political incorrectness that, however offensive to a modern sensibilities, add spice to the account—for instance when Slim writes, “The individual Japanese soldier remained, as I had always called him, the most formidable fighting insect in history.”

• Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys (1975): Having recently read Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Station, I went back and reread this earlier work. It has a lot in common with all of his cop books, which aren’t “mystery novels” in the conventional sense, insofar as there is no mystery to be solved. The plot always meanders, but interest never flags because Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, has a great talent for telling vivid anecdotes involving his fellow LAPD cops. These aren’t the plaster saints of Adam 12 and Dragnet; nor are they the monsters of L.A. Confidential. Wambaugh’s cops are deeply flawed human beings—often drunk and lecherous, incorrigibly sexist and hopelessly racist, seldom able to pass up freebies and discounts they more or less extort from local merchants—but they are also intent on doing good to the best of their limited ability. Like soldiers away from home too long, they feel alienated from civilian society but reserve their real scorn for their superior officers, who are inevitably depicted as back-stabbing office politicians.