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Review by KJF
Robert Lyman's book The Generals is a new account of the war in Asia told through the actions and performances of some of the senior commanders in the theatre. He looks at the generals from both sides of the conflict: British, Chinese, Australian, American and Japanese, contrasting their styles of command and debating their effectiveness. The commanders themselves are the thread that runs through the book, holding together a chronological account of the campaign against the Japanese.
The author has chosen a number of the most prominent generals to illustrate his theories as to what makes a good commander. He argues that the greatest military commanders in history have all been dynamic leaders with strong personalities. Of those generals he has chosen for the book, only some meet the essential standard. They have been selected to illustrate the progress of the campaign, not as examples of what is required to make a successful general. So there are some good and some not so good generals in his book. His selection is interesting as he readily admits; the omissions are quite surprising.
The ability of a general to motivate his men was sadly lacking in many who were in command when the Japanese struck. Indeed they were often replaced by commanders who were equally mediocre; most people would put Percival in that category. He was responsible for the defence of Malaya and Singapore and he managed to lose his whole command and upwards of 120,000 men. Surprisingly, the author goes easy on Percival, citing the fact that the troops under his command were not properly trained and his two subordinate commanders, Generals Heath and Bennett, were too strong willed and uncooperative.
In contrast, the successful capture of Malaya and Singapore by General Yamashita demonstrated exactly why the Japanese were so triumphant in the early stages of the war. Absolute ruthlessness from their commanders and a relentless drive for victory from their troops gave them an edge over British troops that took a long while to be acknowledged. Poor preparation and inadequate leadership by the British left them exposed to a new style of warfare for which they were not accustomed. It took some time before British commanders with the necessary ability arrived in the theatre. In the meantime more mediocrity prevailed.
Robert Lyman has selected six other commanders to illustrate leadership in Asia: Hutton, Irwin, Mountbatten, Stilwell, Mutaguchi and, best of all, Slim. His book demonstrates how they brought their leadership skills to contend with the extraordinary pressures placed upon them. Some of them were successful, some failed. His analysis takes account of both their military insight and their human shortcomings. These were the leaders that, in the case of the Allies, carried the war from defeat to victory.
Most impressive of all was the performance of Gen Bill Slim, Commander Fourteenth Army – probably the best British field commander in the whole of the war. He ruthlessly trained his army to his own principles and made them ready to fight the enemy on their own terms, dictating the shape and pace of the reconquest of Burma. His successes were extraordinary and his ability outstanding.
All of the subjects have been meticulously researched. The author's in-depth portrayal of each of the commanders is masterly; soundly argued and amply illustrated, with reference to each man's performance which tends to leave us in complete agreement with his analysis. The strategies and tactics introduced by these generals for countering the Japanese are dissected and appraised. The result is a book which can be seen both as a new history of the war in South-East Asia and a critical.
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