Monday, May 6, 2013
The United States likes to think of itself and its actions as of singular importance to world history. Like its sometimes nemesis China, the United States saw itself as a veritable middle kingdom during the 20th century - winning wars, unilaterally arbitrating world affairs, and dispatching challengers to its hegemony be they friend (like Great Britain) or foe (like the Soviet Union). Nowhere is this exceptionalist narrative more in evidence than when examining American military involvement in Asia during World War II. American military success in the Pacific - at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima - are the building blocks for high school surveys of American history and much of the weight on the twentieth century history shelves at your local brick-and-mortar bookseller. Often forgotten are the many American failures in Asia during World War II in Burma and, on the diplomatic front, in China. Even less remembered are the Asian nations and people who fought not only in World War II, but in the preceding Second Sino-Japanese War and later in the Chinese Civil War.
In her important new book The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949, S.C.M. Paine reconceptualizes World War II in East Asia by putting the major Asian countries - Japan, China (Nationalist and Communist), and the Soviet Union - back in the center of the narrative and placing the war itself in a larger context of East Asian conflict dating back to the collapse of China's Qing Dynasty in 1912. Paine begins by looking at the internal dynamics of the three Asian powers. Japan is portrayed as an expanding power constrained by its limited national resources and galvanized by a powerful military emboldened by a series of victories over the Chinese in 1895 and the Russians in 1905. Unlike Japan, China after 1912 was in disarray. The collapse of the Qing Dynasty led to nearly a decade of civil war as different warlords attempted to expand their spheres of influence and, if possible, unite all of China behind them. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Guomindang or Nationalist Party, was finally able to unite much of the country in 1926 after the Northern Expedition. But as Paine expertly shows, Chiang's hold on power was always tenuous and led him to prioritize domestic enemies like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over foreign threats because the Japanese were "a disease of the skin" while the CCP was a "disease of the heart". Russia like China went through many changes between 1911 and 1949, having a communist revolution of her own in 1917. Unlike China however, Russia was able to unify and centralize quickly in time to repulse Japanese threats to their sovereignty at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939.
The rest of Paine's book is devoted to examining how these three powers struggled to dominate East Asia. She does this by viewing the many internal rebellions and local wars as a series of interrelated, nested conflicts for ideological and geopolitical supremacy. In particular, she highlights the short term operational success - battles won - by the Japanese in contrast to the long-term strategy of the Nationalists to "trade space for time." The Nationalists, for Paine, were not inept as has been portrayed by Barbara Tuchman and others, but instead knew they could not win a direct engagement with the Japanese in the late 1930s because of their disunity and under-equipped military. Chiang, having studied in Japan and knowing Japanese manpower and resource limitations, planned to wait out Japanese offensives and hope for foreign aid to drag the Japanese into a long and costly occupation. In Paine's estimation, this strategy was successful and, in more abstract terms, demonstrates the importance of long term strategy compared to operational victories.
Paine's emphasis on traditional aspects of military history - operations and strategy in particular - is also a significant shortcoming of The Wars for Asia. She laments in her acknowledgements that, "history departments across the United States virtually without exception have marginalized the study of war" despite its significance in avoiding future "foreign policy blunders in wars fought by others" (xi-xii). Yet, Paine's isolation of military operations and strategy from the realms of Asian cultures, societies, and ideas could act as a case study of why military history has become marginalized in academe. Furthermore, her study focuses overwhelmingly on military elites at the expense of any systematic examination of common Japanese, Chinese, and Russian soldiers.
The result of Paine's narrow focus on military operations and strategy is that her narrative fails to flout convention in the ways she intends. Yes, it is significant that she largely cuts the United States out of the story and it is important the she looks at the period between 1911 and 1949 as a period of continuous warfare instead of artificially segmented into separate conflicts. The actual storytelling however, because it is so concerned with specific battles and the grand strategies of leading men, is not dissimilar from what is found in textbooks on modern Asian history or in the Cambridge History of China.
One of the highlights of the book is its incredible archival research. Paine spent years learning Japanese, Chinese, and Russian and searching through Japanese, Taiwanese, and Russian archives to craft The Wars for Asia. Her emphasis on using native sources should act as a model for other military historians who study wars in East Asia. Unfortunately, her research has one glaring flaw: the absence of any archival research conducted in the People's Republic of China (PRC). While her book is not blatantly pro-Nationalist, the lack of engagement with PRC sources may explain why they are a secondary player in her narrative. For Paine, the CCP won the Chinese Civil War because of the destruction of the Japanese Ichigo Offensive and growing popular disenchantment among Chinese youth with Nationalist rule after decades of warfare (223-224). The CCP didn't so much win the Chinese Civil War as the Nationalists lost it. Perhaps looking through PRC archives would have painted a different story of an active CCP who won a series of military victories in North China because of superior strategy and troop morale instead of the inevitability of Nationalist failure.
Despite my criticisms of The Wars for Asia, I think it is an important book and a vast improvement over the military histories that preceded it. Paine, rightly, brings the focus of these wars back to the Asian nations that fought them. She also marshals significant archival evidence to support her shift away from the United States and to China, Japan, and Russia. Unfortunately, her larger mission to revitalize military history will continue to remain elusive until military historians begin to engage with literature from other history subfields. While it is undoubtedly true that in early 20th century East Asian "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," greater emphasis needs to be put on why military power was so important during this era and how (if?) a total focus on military strength was transcended in the second half of the 20th century. Doing so will involve closer collaboration between historians of Asian cultures, societies, and ideas and military historians like Paine.