In Forgotten Armies, Bayly and Harper embark on a five year odyssey of British Asia during the hell-fires of the Second World War. The authors encounter nearly the full spectrum of humanity: fools, cowards, leaders, and luminaries, but very few heroes; the tensions of British Asia and the Japanese conquest sharpen even the most virtuous of spirits into blades too quick to cut. Racism and class distinctions, prior to the war, make for sordid lives bent towards economic necessity. With the Japanese invasion of 1941, the economic basis for social order disintegrates, yet the terrible distinctions remain. The British imperial power fails to protect its subjects, especially the socially and economically disadvantaged minorities. British Asia collapses in a rush of blood and disillusionment. The fall of Singapore, in particular, stands as a historic embarrassment. In a failed defensive effort with little effort and less planning, a garrison of 85,000 men surrenders to a Japanese assault force of 30,000. Many thousands die in the aftermath. The Japanese conquest feeds off of anti-British sentiment throughout the region, and turns 40,000 captured Indian troops into a detachment of the Japanese army. The Japanese shock troops, rather than liberating British colonies, induce wave after wave of ethnic violence, and glory in the rape of women and the humiliation of men. The British never manage to call the bluff of the overstretched Japanese forces, but eastern monsoons accidentally collude with the Battle of Midway to halt the Japanese expansion. The British Empire crawls back, but never returns to its pre-war position of dominance.
The book earns its title. One can read a history of the Second World War (as I did just last week) and not hear more than a paragraph about anything that Bayly and Harper uncover. The authors render the political context of the fighting with authority and candor. They maintain a neutral stance towards most agendas and parties, though they exhibit sympathy for nationalist feelings, if not nationalist leaders. The authors write beautifully, and their sense of humanity urges them to include details that others might miss, such as 1942's surreal conjunction of mass starvation in Burma, the kerosene burning of the corpses, and the unusual beauty and quantity of Assam butterflies before the monsoon rains.